Broadband internet services from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite

By BICMA

Satellite Technologies and broadband

Satellite and terrestrial networks have been major transmission tools for worldwide broadband connectivity and for the growth of broadband technology. The satellite network has the advantage of mass geographical coverage over other networks, therefore, the satellite network has huge potential for global broadband connectivity and its growth.

The option to have a type of satellite system  and satellite orbit  for various communication services depends on the requirement of geographical coverage, type of services, availability of orbit resource, cost of satellite network and designed life span of satellite systems. The three broad types of satellite systems are Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites. A GEO satellite orbits the Earth at a height of about 36,000 km above the earth’s surface and MEO satellite orbits the earth at an altitude ranging from 2,000-35,786 km above the earth’s surface.  A  LEO satellite is traversing the Earth’s surface at an altitude, ranging from 160–2,000 km.

Satellite connectivity is predominantly used for backhaul connectivity for remote cellular base stations and as a last-mile connection for individual subscribers and enterprises. Although conventional satellite communication has the advantage of global coverage, limited capacity and high cost (especially the operation cost) has hindered the development and deployment of satellite communication for broadband services.

 Capacity enhancement of satellite broadband services

The latest generation of GEO satellites, known as high-throughput satellites (HTSs), have significantly increased capacity (at least 10 times the throughput) than previous generations of GEO satellites, while the high latency (which is a function of distance and the speed of light) remains the same. One of the high-throughput satellites (HTSs) in the Asia pacific region is Kacific. Their satellite has wide reaching coverage which extends over 25 countries in Asia Pacific (including Bhutan). Kacific1 uses Ka-band technology and spectrum. Kacific1 satellites has 56 high throughput spot beams which is capable of delivering up to 60 Gbps of broadband capacity and it has latency of 550 to 600 ms.

On the other hand, LEO constellations require a network of satellites to provide internet service because each LEO satellite is traversing the Earth’s surface at an altitude, ranging from 160–2,000 Kilometers. Their closer distance to the Earth’s surface enables them to provide high-speed with low-latency internet service.

Innovation and development in LEO satellite

The low earth orbiting satellites were mostly used for earth observation, spy, remote sensing and other military and scientific missions but now LEO satellites have been focusing on commercial deployments especially for global broadband internet connectivity. Most commercial LEO satellites use Ku band (11/14 GHz) and Ka band (20/30 GHz) for satellite communications.

LEO constellations are expected to provide identical coverage for the service area under the constellation’s footprint and they could potentially offer a uniform pricing model anywhere in the world. LEO constellation satellites have a combined advantage of high-capacity and shorter-term (and, therefore, more competitive) contracts which could rapidly decrease satellite bandwidth costs globally.

Deployment and development of LEO satellite for broadband services

Four main companies are taking the spotlight in terms of next-generation LEO constellation deployment for broadband communications. These four are Starlink by SpaceX, OneWeb, Lightspeed by Telesat, and Project Kuiper by Amazon. These companies are at various stages in development, testing, and deployment.

The difference in deployment, constellation among four LEO constellation giants is:

  • Starlink is by far the most advanced in its satellite deployments. As of March 8, 2022, SpaceX has delivered 2,234 Starlink satellites to orbit on Falcon 9 rockets.
  • Amazon is yet to launch any satellites as part of its planned 3,236 system-strong Project Kuiper constellation. However, as a condition of its FCC authorization, Amazon is required to deploy at least 1,600 satellites by 2026.
  • The OneWeb confirms successful launch and contact with all 36 satellites, bringing the total in-orbit constellation to 394 satellites (as of December27, 2021).  One Web plans to launch and operate 1,000 satellites by August 2026, plus an additional 926 by August 2029.
  • Telesat’s constellation is composed of 298 LEO satellites and may scale to 512 LEO satellites.

Starlink satellite deployment in our region (Asia Pacific)

Starlink’s current public beta trial is serving customers in the northern US and Canada. Commercial operations have already begun in Australia and New Zealand, focused on establishing earth stations. Coverage across Asia and the Pacific may not occur until mid- to late-2021 and into 2022.

One of the recent LEO constellations is SpaceX’s Starlink service, which is the most advanced LEO constellation in terms of deployment of a number of satellites. Currently SpaceX charges $499 for the Starlink hardware and $99 a month for broadband service, plus shipping and handling and taxes.

Challenges of LEO satellites

  1. Interference with astronomical observation has been cited as a concern with regard to LEO satellites;
  2. Increase in man-made space objects (space debris), however, many of the LEO constellations  are designed to burn up completely once they are put into deorbit at the end of their life span;
  3.  Taxation and revenue collection from foreign satellite service providers;
  4.  Monitoring of  data protection ,consumer protection, quality of service  of foreign satellite service;
  5. Impact on the domestic market of our telecom and internet service providers.

Opportunities in leveraging LEO satellites in Bhutan

  1. Internet  broadband  connectivity through LEO satellites can address the issues of growing digital divide in the country;
  2. Affordable internet through Community Wi-Fi deployments using LEO satellites;
  3. Redundancy of government network and disaster communication network;
  4. Redundancy of backhaul networks for cellular and internet services.

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