Over the past few years, satellite communication (satcom) has emerged as a preferred solution for delivering high bandwidth internet connectivity. Satcom can play a pivotal role in connecting India’s remote and unconnected regions as it offers various benefit compared to terrestrial technologies. Further, the satcom space has been witnessing the adoption of various technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), SmallSats, low-earth orbit (LEO), medium-earth orbit (MEO) in-flight and maritime connectivity (IFMC), etc. This will pave the way to enhance digital connectivity and provide high capacity cellular and Wi-Fi backhaul to all locations within the country. In addition, satcom will be a fundamental enabler in the proliferation of 5G services worldwide. The two technologies, if properly implemented, will form a perfect ecosystem.
Key emerging technology trends
The satcom space is at the cusp of a technology transformation, which is led by new and emerging satellite technologies. Stakeholders in the satcom space have increased their focus on technologies such as SmallSats, use of LEO and MEO, and new use cases for AI and CubeSats.
- SmallSats: SmallSats are gaining ground, owing to their capabilities such as low cost of construction and economic launching, which is faster than traditional geosynchronous orbit satellites. These SmallSats are satellites that weigh below 500 kg and have several subcategories. SmallSat constellations launched into LEO have the potential to be a game changer. In fact, SpaceWorks expects between 513 and 745 SmallSat launches in 2023. However, there are limits to SmallSat capabilities, both in terms of the capacity for supporting bandwidth and the transmission power.
- LEO and MEO: Satellites in LEO constellations offer the necessary low latency and aim at revolutionising personal connectivity. These satellites are driven by technology innovations combined with the growth of less expensive launches. In May 2021, Bharti Airtel-owned OneWeb confirmed the next successful launch of 36 LEO satellites by Arianespace from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia. This latest launch brings OneWeb’s total in-orbit constellation to 218 satellites. These will form a part of OneWeb’s 648 LEO satellite fleet that will deliver high speed, low latency global connectivity. There is now only one launch to go, until the company has the satellites required to enable its connectivity solution to reach all regions north of 50 degrees latitude by June 2021. This launch brings OneWeb a step closer to completing its “Five to 50” ambition and to starting commercial service by the end of the year. Further, signals from MEO satellites take just 0.15 seconds to travel down to a gateway on the earth and back up again, whereas for satellites flying in the geostationary equatorial orbit, they take nearly half a second.
- Ground-based mobile antennas: Ground-based mobile antennas are crucial to the next generation of satcom constellations. One of the key technology developments in the area of satcom mega-constellations is phased array antennas. Additionally, low-cost high performance antennas for mobile applications continue to be progressing through the development and testing cycle.
- IoT: With the growing ubiquity of internet of things (IoT), the satcom space is also evolving to enable IoT-based applications through satellite connectivity. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, IoT-based applications through satellite connectivity provide enterprises with new opportunities to increase operational efficiency, reduce costs and simultaneously secure goods, personnel and assets. The value chain of the entire space industry is going through a change in terms of technologies and services, so as to cater to the increasing demand for IoT services.
In-flight and maritime connectivity
IFMC is gaining prominence as a new-age use case of satcom. While the global uptake of IFMC services is strong, India is only beginning to enter the scene. In August 2020, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation announced the draft regulations for the use of in-flight Wi-Fi on portable electronic devices (PEDs) by passengers. According to the draft, internet services will be provided in flight mode and will be available 10,000 feet above sea level, after departure or before arrival. Further, the pilot in-command will have the authority to turn internet services off during any phase of the flight. In addition, the crew needs to be trained on PEDs to help passengers. To this end, airlines have been asked to educate their cabin crew on procedures and responsibilities concerning the use of PEDs. Moreover, the draft rules state that aircraft operators have to identify safety hazards and manage the risks associated with the use of on-board Wi-Fi.
The private sector has been taking proactive measures to launch IFMC services in India. In February 2020, Nelco announced the introduction of in-flight Wi-Fi services, in partnership with Panasonic Avionics. The satellite operator has also tied up with the air passenger carrier Vistara to offer these services, starting March 2020. Prior to this, in September 2019, the company had launched maritime communication services in India.
Operators and airlines will have to collectively come up with innovative go-to-market strategies for the price-sensitive Indian market. To this end, the challenges faced by licensees based on the existing licensing and regulatory framework need to be addressed. This will ensure that such services are facilitated in the Indian waters and airspace at par with global best practices.
The satcom space is expected to play an imperative role in 5G and beyond wireless network systems. As such, the advancement and proliferation in the services offered by 5G technology are dependent upon the ubiquity of satellite communications. A strong satcom ecosystem will facilitate international roaming to cater to the needs of mobile users. Besides, the enormity of the required backhaul services will help teleports worldwide. Meanwhile, LEO satellites will be vital in extending cellular 5G networks to air, sea and other remote areas not covered by small cell networks. Further, satellite networks can be used as a single centralised backhaul for edge processing, traffic unloading and resource sharing.
Further, IoT sensors and machine-to-machine connections at remote worksites can capitalise on the wide coverage areas offered by 5G satellites. Thus, integrating satellites with 5G infrastructure will improve the quality of experience of high capacity applications, and satcom and 5G will together form the perfect ecosystem. For instance, in May 2020, Indian space technology company Vestaspace Technology announced plans to launch more than 35 high speed 5G satellite constellations across India. Further, in April 2021, the Satcom Industry Association (SIA), India, asked the Department of Telecommunications to separate the frequencies in the 28 GHz band for satcom operations. The 28 GHz band includes bandwidth in the 27.5 GHz to 29.5 GHz range.
Going forward, in India, there is a need to focus on a new partnership-based model that promotes collaboration between ISRO, incumbent private satcom players and new-age entrepreneurs to exploit the full potential in the satcom space. Recently, the Telecom Engineering Centre changed the rules regarding the usage of spectrum bands, antenna sizes and speeds for satellite firms. This will accelerate the use of satellite technologies to deliver broadband seamlessly in India. The new rules will allow satellite firms to deploy smaller antennas, enabling them to bring down the cost while enhancing their efficiency. This growth is poised to increase substantially in the coming years, owing to new business avenues such as IFMC.