Data from above: Supporting the next generation of satellite broadband

Given our reliance on high-speed internet connectivity for everything from share dealing to listening to music, it’s surprising that it isn’t yet a true utility service. Much has been written about how users expect broadband to ‘be there’ like they do with electricity when they turn on a light, or water when they turn on a tap. Yet, it hasn’t quite happened. 

4G cellular data services have definitely raised the game in certain markets like the US, UK and parts of mainland Europe. But it’s not global, and it’s not even country-wide. It’s certainly not the 99.999999% uptime of mains electricity in a developed country. However, that’s about to change. 

Due to start launch activities in 2018, OneWeb is one of several projects intended to deliver global, municipal broadband access from above via satellite, rather than over cables or from land-based transmitters. 

Bypassing established telcos 

Buoyed by the projects of Facebook and Google, which have used drones and balloons to deliver connectivity into locations from above, satellite is set to do the same, on a truly global scale. 

OneWeb’s proposal is a network of 648 small satellites circling the Earth, using the Ka (20/30 GHz) and Ku (11/14 GHz) frequency bands. By 2027 it will provide two-way broadband connectivity to and from the ground with global coverage. Small, low-cost user terminals and chipsets will interface with the satellite network, broadcasting cellular and Wi-Fi data services to the surrounding areas, as well as satellite broadband chipsets being integrated directly into some devices. It is not lost on the world that OneWeb’s principle backer Softbank also owns pioneering mobile chipset designer ARM. This semiconductor knowledge will be essential, not only for OneWeb, but for any other satellite broadband service to function and build a user based back on Earth. 

Advances in smaller, cheaper low-orbit satellites capable of delivering high-speed, two-way data services have made this possible. By positioning in low-orbit rather than geostationary, Low-power processors and wireless transceivers for the devices back on the ground have seen similar technology gains. Low-cost reusable rocket technology has lowered the cost of launching the satellites, as has the fact that a non-geostationary orbit requires less fuel to get each one up there. This is something that has not been lost on the UK Government, which is reading the Space Industry Bill to make the UK a major market for launching satellites, reusable rockets and other commercial space traffic, as well as establishing the ground uplink stations that will feed data into these aerial networks and link them to the internet, data centres and other resources.  

It potentially allows OneWeb to quickly and cost-effectively build a truly global network. One that sidesteps the last-mile delivery network of the incumbent telcos in each market and transcends borders. 

But will it really bypass existing providers? 

Of course not. This new network, as with any other satellite internet service, will be reliant on high-bandwidth interconnects with incumbent telcos and over-the-top (OTT) services. 

This is in part because of bandwidth. While OneWeb is undoubtedly a solution for delivering service into large expanses, as well as inaccessible or expensive to cable areas, it can’t compete like-for-like on bandwidth. Each satellite will provide aggregate downlink capacity of 17 to 23 gigabits per second. Perfectly useable, but a fraction of what can be achieved with modern fibre. With fibre interconnects hitting 400 gigabits per second and domestic fibre broadband already well over 100 gigabits, satellite represents a highly flexible, but modest bandwidth solution. It is complementary, rather than a replacement for fixed infrastructure. 

Why satellite? 

Put simply, satellite technology offers the potential for lower capital expenditure (CapEx). Cable TV operators and landline telephone companies have spent billions laying cables to the kerb, digging up pavements and roads in a costly and time-consuming way. For a smaller-scale project such as connecting data centres, physically laying cables and fibre from point to point is viable. When you go nationwide, it is less so, especially if large swathes of the land mass are unpopulated or geographically challenging as they are in the US, UK, Australia, Africa and so on. 

In North America, satellite technology transformed the way many receive radio. Sirius XM, once two competing companies, finally merged to form one viable nationwide operator, with true nationwide coverage. Something that would not be viable with land-based transmitters or cable alone. In the UK, satellite has transformed the consumption of television. Satellite broadcaster Sky has enjoyed 100% effective UK coverage from day one, far exceeding the UK’s primary cable operator, and at a far lower cost. It has successfully supplanted cable as the primary delivery mechanism for television, as well as consumer and SMB broadband. Using satellite to deliver data where conventional land-based broadband and cellular can’t reach is a logical next step. But, central to such a plan is ensuring that the satellite network doesn’t become a closed network, and is a fully-functional, two-way branch of the internet. 

While it is possible to beam from the satellite directly to a user, or to deploy land-based repeaters to build a rival wireless network to the incumbents, it’s not a 100% viable solution. It is still going to be necessary to connect land base stations to key infrastructure such as data centres, internet exchanges and other key communications points. Not to mention the role of major satellite uplinks that will feed data in and out of the global network at major embarkation points such as Goonhilly.   

That means creating many more points that plumb into national and international infrastructure such as undersea fibre data cables, major data centres such as those of the world’s leading cloud providers, as well as to national telcos. Fibre interconnect technologies will be critical in linking the next generation of uplink stations to major networks – providing a high-speed, low-latency hand-off point between the world’s physical infrastructure and the new era of infrastructure above our heads. 

Meeting demand 

For incumbent telcos, global satellite networks offer an opportunity. A way to extend coverage into areas where it is simply not cost effective to do so terrestrially. Moreover, the wholesale opportunities to provide interconnect and uplink bandwidth will ensure that major nationwide network operators will not be locked out by the arrival of satellite broadband, but rather that they will be taken along for the ride. It also means that core networks and other infrastructure plans will need to be augmented to deal with this new strand of connectivity. More points of interconnect, more interlinking of data centres and more geographic spread of resources to facilitate this. It all means more investment in high-speed fibre. 

It’s not just about having a direct link from, for example, a cloud-based office platform, to the network. It’s also about ensuring that the entire user ecosystem is linked to that broadband network. Just like how existing telco networks interconnect with each other, so too will a global satellite broadband network. And that interconnect will take place on the ground, not in the air. 

Mervyn Kelly, EMEA Marketing Director, Ciena 

Image Credit: ChristophMeinersmann / Pexels