The New Satellite Broadband Rush

By Doug Mohney March 10, 2015

At least three different companies are planning to build large-scale satellite networks to provide high-speed broadband anywhere in the world.  Leosat, OneWeb, and SpaceX have all put stakes in the ground on network that will compete with existing satellite providers and perhaps even with traditional terrestrial offerings.

Low-orbiting satellite networks reduce latency as compared to geosynchronous communications satellites "fixed" in one position in the sky. Being fixed is good because you don't have to worry about having to move an antenna to track the satellite, but relaying a signal to and from geosynchronous orbit adds a trip of over 44,000 miles and about a half a second of time. Being in lower orbit cuts the relay time, but it means the satellite will only be in position for some number of minutes before it moves out of range. To provide continuous communications coverage, you need a large constellation, such as Iridium uses today with 66 satellites circling the earth.

Leosat, currently in the process of moving to Arlington Virginia, is targeting business and government market opportunities.  The company has been developing its network architecture since 2013 and has been working with a number of partners to develop, "cost-effective, extremely high-speed, low-latency, highly secure data network service offerings," according to a recent press release, to address the unmet needs of business and government markets.

Just-announced Leosat CEO Vern Fotheringham told Via Satellite that Leosat is looking to put up anywhere from 80 to 120 small satellites, delivering 1.2 Gbps of synchronous connections worldwide. The first launches are expected to start in 2019 or 2020, using  Ka-band.  The estimated cost of the network is around $2.5 billion to $3 billion. 

Ka-band and LEO communications are something Fotheringham is quite familiar with, having previously been the CEO of Kymeta. In some respects, Kymeta makes Leosat and other systems possible. Kymeta uses metamaterials to build thin and flat Ku and Ka-band antennas to electronically acquire and lock onto a satellite broadcast beam without any moving parts.  For companies building a constellation of fast-moving, low-earth orbit satellites, such an antenna is necessary to avoid the expenses of having to build moving antennas to "track" satellites in order to ensure an uninterrupted connection.

OneWeb plans to put up 648 to 700 satellites and use Ku-band to provide large-scale broadband to the world, including access to potentially billions of currently unserved customers.  Unlike Leosat's business-to-business play, OneWeb is going to work with existing service providers to provide service down to the consumer level, with local small-cell terminals providing local connectivity via Wi-Fi, LTE, 3G and/or 2G radios.  OneWeb says it will be able to extend cellular coverage in rural areas—attractive for carriers that don't want to build new cell towers and put fiber in remote locations.

Financially backing OneWeb are Virgin Group and Qualcomm. Terms of the initial investment were undisclosed, but it will take anywhere from $1.5 billion to $2 billion to launch the service.  There are concerns that OneWeb's use of Ku-band could interfere with existing geosynchronous Ku-band services, since OneWeb's satellites fly below them, so we'll have to see how the system works in the real world.

SpaceX has announced the most ambitious plans. It secured $1 billion from Google and Fidelity Investments to start up a satellite division.  It plans to launch over 4,000 satellites to provide high-speed global coverage. CEO and founder Elon Musk has suggested that the constellation can provide not only end-user services, but high-speed network connections that would replace the use of fiber, providing better performance than terrestrial networks through the use of fewer network hops, straight-line connections rather than following the full length of fiber routes, and faster optical performance in vacuum than fiber.

The biggest question surrounding SpaceX's "4K" constellation is what kind of radio spectrum the company has secured for operations. Without the ability for moving data up and down, the fastest network in the sky doesn't do much good.

All three companies should be putting more information on the table later this month at Satellite 2015 in Washington DC.  There's no clear winner out of the three companies at this time simply because none of them have started to launch satellites or offer service to customers.




Edited by Dominick Sorrentino

Contributing Editor

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