Understanding LEO communications and how they can benefit your business
Economies and trade have become increasingly dependent on internet connectivity, making robust access a key strategic and security priority. There’s no doubt about it: the necessity for high-speed, low latency internet is absolute.
Although the vast majority of global bandwidth travels via fibre optic cable, some businesses operate in hard-to-connect spots. Industries including aviation, maritime shipping, energy, agriculture, and even tourism frequently struggle to attain network connectivity. This is largely due to the high cost or impossibility of laying fibre to remote locations and moving objects such as ships and aeroplanes.
Satellite communications can often alleviate these challenges. Currently, the satellite internet industry is experiencing its biggest transformation in years, as companies start broadcasting internet signals from satellites located in what is known as low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Communications satellites delivering internet services have traditionally been in high-Earth orbit (HEO), also known as geostationary orbit, which is 23,000 miles (37,015 km) above sea level. This is in stark contrast to LEO satellite constellations which orbit the Earth at a significantly lower height of 111–1,242 miles (180–2,000 km).
The stellar benefits of LEO
So, why is closer better? Internet signals from communications satellites in HEO cover a significant distance, and this journey creates delays, latency, and slow data speeds for customers. One major advantage of LEO systems is that the satellites' proximity to the Earth enables them to communicate with minimal time delay. Particularly for services that are delay sensitive, such as voice communication, these constellations are ideal.
The shorter distance to Earth also means that communication links suffer less path loss, and a reliable link can be established with less power and/or reduced antenna size. In addition, LEO satellites have higher bandwidth than HEO satellites, which enables faster download and upload speeds.
While LEO satellites aren’t new, practicalities have limited their use for ISPs thus far, as it takes thousands of satellites in LEO to cover an area for internet service. However, recent advancements in rocket technology alongside an increase in private rocket launch providers has made access to this technology easier than ever.
LEO issues you need to know
Internet communication satellites are traditionally launched into HEO because it means they will travel at the same speed as the Earth rotates. The satellites essentially hover over the earth in the same place. Plus, high-Earth orbit is so far away that a few geostationary satellites is all it takes to blanket an entire continent with internet service. The closer satellites are to Earth, the smaller the area each satellite can cover, and the faster they need to travel to stay in orbit. Satellites in LEO make a trip around the Earth every 90 minutes, so it’s impossible to keep them hovering above one specific area.
Cost is also a key consideration. The ground control equipment needed to maintain a LEO constellation is more extensive than that required for a HEO system, since ground sites must be located at several points over the Earth to ensure adequate control. These premiums are, of course, passed on to the customer.
And then there’s the issue of space – quite literally. There are a finite number of optimal orbits available for LEO satellite constellations, which gives early market entrants a technical and strategic advantage. This limits the number of viable constellations that can be put into orbit, which in turn will inevitably constrain the number of providers in the market.
Moreover, there are a finite number of desirable radio frequencies in the spectrum for ground to satellite communications – specifically at lower-frequency – and access to these is also being hotly contested by providers.
Finally, let’s not forget about space debris... The volume of galactic garbage is ever growing, creating an increasing number of orbital collision hazards. As such, finding a cost-effective way to remove space debris is an increasingly urgent priority.
Will LEO satellite internet take your business to new heights?
Sending internet satellites into LEO has started a new space race. The industry is highly competitive, with companies developing and launching their constellations of LEO satellites for various applications such as broadband, internet, remote sensing, and satellite communication. And in addition to the handful of major players, numerous smaller companies are entering the market with more targeted or niche services that relate to specific technologies or applications.
The growth of IoT as an enterprise necessity has already driven many companies to explore launching their own LEO constellations, which could wind up addressing underdeveloped requirements at the network edge. For example, a business with rural locations may want to track shipment trucks as they deliver products between sites.
As providers develop cost-effective ways to connect satellites to ground users, the business case for adopting LEO connectivity as part of a network infrastructure will strengthen.
So sharp is the rise in adoption that The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has launched its new Space Bureau this year to help tackle the evolving need for new rules, better coordination, and oversight.
The popularity of LEO satellites has also sparked awareness of the digital divide and where we need to improve internet access. And one of the best things about LEO is that it increases competition in the satellite internet space, which is always good news for consumers.
For those looking to deploy LEO internet services to meet specific use cases, our expert team are ready to help you navigate the journey to reliable connectivity. Get in touch with us today to discuss your requirements, or explore your options with our postcode checker.