Is satellite communication the answer to digital inclusion in the developing world?

What is the problem?

In today’s era of globalisation and ever increasing interconnectedness, the demand for affordable connectivity is growing around the world. The ability to have access to an affordable means of communication is essential for economic and social development across the globe.   

Today we take for granted the free access to information almost anywhere and at any time. Thanks to mobile connectivity we are able to communicate with people across the world at the tap of our fingertips. 

However, this is not the case elsewhere. There are many regions across the world with little or no connectivity. In fact, according to recent data, 51 per cent of the world’s population remain offline and unable to take advantage of the enormous economic and social benefits the Internet can offer. This leaves more than 3.5 billion people without digital access, particularly in emerging markets, which are currently underserviced by current providers.

These massive black spots with no coverage create digital exclusion and represent a significant obstacle to economic and social development.

Most people are familiar with the terms ‘financial inclusion’ or ‘social inclusion’ but digital inclusion is something that has a bearing on both of these. Without adequate digital infrastructure, people do not have the opportunities to become digitally included, meaning they are left behind.

Currently, poor connectivity in developing countries is a barrier to education, business growth and economic prosperity. Even where cellular services exist in remote locations, it does not exist in a reliable format. This uncertainty provides a real challenge, meaning that even in times of crisis and natural disasters, there is not an adequate layer of connectivity to enable essential communication. 

Why is this a problem?

Data from market research firm Strategy Analytics showed that as much as 77 per cent of mobile data traffic comes from emerging markets. In order to make the most of this opportunity in emerging markets and reach out to the digitally excluded population, telecom providers need to bring down connectivity costs in remote locations and deliver affordable connectivity services to everyone. Due to limited mobile coverage in these areas, this is a problem that has been difficult to solve.

The main obstacles to delivering universal connectivity has thus far been cost. 

Satellite-based connectivity is not new, however large scale, major connectivity services are based on GEO (geosynchronous) satellites. These are not necessarily designed to bring communication to ordinary people, but instead are geared towards larger enterprises and delivered at a high cost. A satellite constellation-based connectivity service that can deliver its capability to mobile/cellular devices, is yet to be realised in the consumer segment for connectivity services. 

In contrast to GEO satellites, Low Earth Orbit (LEO)-based satellite constellations require a wide network of ground stations to continuously manage network traffic and monitor satellites to be able to provide connectivity. This increases the cost of establishing such ground station networks and raises the price of connectivity services delivered. As a result, the cost of connectivity services is again too high for existing telecoms operators and service providers to allow them to deliver affordable mainstream consumer connectivity in remote locations, which in turn means affordable connectivity is not delivered to consumers.

What is the solution?

Despite all these challenges, there is a way to overcome the cost barriers and this approach lies in investing in narrow-band connectivity services provided by nano-satellites. We are working on building a network of ~200 nano-satellites to deliver narrow-band connectivity services to telecom operators and service providers. Building a constellation of nano-satellites which covers the equatorial region will provide telecom operators and service providers with low-cost coverage in remote locations and allow them to expand their existing networks. 

Utilising small-satellites enables us to lower the cost for building the satellites and that, in turn, allows for the financial feasibility of affordable connectivity services to remote locations in a reliable manner. Another key factor in bringing down service costs is the management of the satellites in space. Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and process automation can help satellite companies create autonomous optimal network management systems, which can maintain satellites in orbit at a minimal cost and with minimum physical resources. 

The technology and business model allows for the creation of a very low CAPEX space infrastructure, based on nanosatellites which are cheaper to produce and launch. It is based on a model of very low operational costs because the nanosatellites will be managed by an autonomous network management software programme.

This means that service providers will be able to offer more affordable services to people in remote locations, providing them with the voice and text services that they need. The introduction of these kinds of new satellites is of mutual benefit to those developing the technology, those launching the satellites, the telecom providers, and most of all, the people on the ground whose lives will be positively impacted by gaining access to these services. 

Our vision 

We envision a world where digital inclusion is universal and affordable connectivity is considered a basic human right. We have the technology to make this a reality and we seek meaningful partnerships with others in the space and telecoms industries. The technology uncovered with the development of nano-satellites presents a vast opportunity to people and businesses around the world and its success depends upon building meaningful partnerships with organisations that are also committed to delivering the vision of affordable connectivity, to Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime.

Meir Moalem, CEO and Founder of Sky and Space Global
Image Credit: Spirent