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OECD Pegs Satellite as a Solution for Poor Rural Broadband Connectivity

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017 (9:28 am) - Score 806

A new report from the OECD has highlighted how a number of new developments could help to make Satellite broadband a more viable connectivity solution for bringing high speed internet access to remote rural parts of the UK and various other countries around the world. But it’s by no means perfect.

Most people should already know that Satellites are essentially small autonomous space stations, which are launched into orbit around the Earth by a rocket and used to relay information around the world via wireless signals. The height (orbit) of such spacecraft affords them exceptional coverage, often reaching over entire countries or even continents, which make them handy for covering isolated locations.

Customers in the United Kingdom typically pay from around £30 per month for a 20-30Mbps capable service, although the one-off setup costs (hardware and installation) can reach into the eye watering territory of £500-£600; various subsidy schemes have been setup by local councils and the Governments to help cover this part of the cost. Check out our Satellite ISP List.

In theory all of this should mean that Satellite as an ideal solution for improving broadband connectivity. Indeed even the Government and BT’s own proposal for a 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO) suggests that around 0.3% of premises (the most remote rural areas) would have to be catered for via a Satellite solution (here), not least because the cost of running a more traditional terrestrial network would be too high.

However the technology is not without some fairly significant faults. Satellite networks tend to be quite congested and upgrading capacity (i.e. launching new spacecraft) can take years, which often results in poor speeds (particularly at peak times). Slow latency times can also cause delays (c.600 milliseconds vs 5-40ms for fixed line solutions) when using the internet and this also makes fast paced multiplayer games impossible.

On top of that most Satellite packages suffer from measly usage allowances (many c.£25-£30 rental packages come with only 10GB or 30-40GB on a subsidy scheme) and if you want more then that often means paying through the nose. Ofcom recently reported that the average 30Mbps home broadband subscriber gobbles 231GB per month (up from 169GB last year) but 200GB on Satellite might set you back £200-£400 per month!

The Future

Suffice to say that often people who adopt a Satellite connection do so through a position of some reluctance, knowing that it’s their only choice and while recognising that the use of Satellite means sacrificing some aspects of how they might otherwise desire to use the internet (enjoy lots of HD and 4K video streaming or online video games? Yeah, you’d best just forget about all that).

However a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which represents 35 member countries from across the globe (including the UK), has highlighted several forthcoming improvements that could make Satellite connectivity into a much more viable solution for rural connectivity (read the report).

Key Satellite Broadband Improvements

1. New and Cheaper Launch Technologies

Launching a new spacecraft is far from cheap and some traditional Satellites have often been almost as big as a double decker bus. For example, Eutelsat’s 90Gbps capable KA-SAT spacecraft cost about 350 million (£308m) to build and had a launch mass of 6,150 kilograms. In the past it might have cost as much as £70m to £200m for a single launch but all that is changing.

The introduction of reusable rocket technology (SpaceX) and growing competition has effectively halved or more than halved such costs. Traditional geosynchronous orbit (GSO / GEO) Satellites are also becoming lighter as they adopt new technologies, such as electric propulsion systems rather than chemical propulsion.

2. Smaller LEO and MEO Satellites

A new generation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth orbit (MEO) Satellites are being built that are significantly smaller and lighter, which require less power and can deliver faster latency times. For example, SpaceX hopes to launch 7,500 LEOs and they claim that this could provide latency times of as low as 25-35ms (milliseconds) and “fibre like” end-user speeds of up to 1Gbps by 2024 (here).

Similarly companies like O3b Networks have launched small constellations of MEO Satellites, which can’t match the latency times of LEO but are cheaper to loft into space and delivery some reasonably superfast connectivity into isolated areas.

3. Geostationary High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) Systems

Naturally no list would be complete without mentioning the next generation of more traditional GEO Satellites, which are still significantly launch but will also be able to handle much more capacity and should bring about a new generation of ultrafast broadband packages for consumers with larger data allowances (100Mbps per user would be viable).

For example, ViaSat-2 doubles its previous satellite capacity to 300Gbps (Gigabits per second), increase its coverage area sevenfold and should provide user speeds of 25-100Mbps and there’s even the prospect of “unlimited” data packages. A number of companies are also working on Satellites with 1Tbps (Terabits per second) of capacity.

The Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) think-tank has separately noted this report and said that Satellite will “undoubtedly” have a role to play in the new USO for broadband. “Whereas once satellite might have been written off as an option, the new innovations and developments gathering apace in the sector means that its potential is instead now firmly one to watch,” said the BSG.

OECD Report Conclusion

While the affordability and therefore the widespread viability of emerging LEO and MEO systems will depend on the customer uptake to decrease the costs of a global constellation, their improvements in performance over their legacy GEO counterparts allow them to compete with terrestrial options.

Satellite also has the potential to play a critical role as a middle-mile solution in conjunction with terrestrial options as well as backhaul for terrestrial networks. Governmental policy in a number of countries has acknowledged the role that satellite could play to connect rural and remote areas and many have incorporated subsidies for satellite service in their national broadband plans.

Strides have also been made to reduce the regulatory burden on satellite broadband providers and to adopt a technology-neutral approach to policy. The OECD is also examining the role of satellite within the larger context of other options currently being used by countries to provide connectivity to underserved areas in an upcoming report on expanding connectivity in rural and remote areas.

Despite the promised improvements, we’d continue to urge caution, at least until the new services have actually become available in the UK and been able to prove that they can deliver on their promises. We certainly wouldn’t bank on LEOs either, particularly as they have some significant hurdles to overcome, not least with respect to regulation, technical feasibility and concerns over rising levels of “space junk“.

The Satellite industry is littered with lofty promises of performance improvements that often don’t turn out to be anything like as impressive in the real-world as they were when first presented on paper some years earlier. In the meantime we’re still going to be stuck with the existing and somewhat lacklustre generation of Satellites, which won’t be universally welcomed by those in rural areas (example).

Ultimately we agree that Satellite will sadly have to play a role but it should ideally be restricted to tackling the most truly isolated of properties (e.g. that one person in a community who built their house miles from anybody else or up the side of a mountain), where the cost of connecting them would be extortionate for any other method.

Leave a Comment
6 Responses
  1. Avatar NGA for all says:

    Satellite is astonishing for what is a c84,000 km bent pipe service through variable environmental conditions and finite transponder capacity. It will have a roll in the .5% to 1%, but some of the current FTTP delivered under BDUK is likely to even challenge this. If the multi-source funding options (state (central,local, last of EU), operator, customer) are conducted under the state aid umbrella and there is existing infrastructure to overlay then the news is good.

  2. Avatar Martin says:

    even remote houses and farms in mid wales, where i live have power lines to their properties. if only the utilities would talk to each other. the fibre ducts could be strung on the existing poles. it seems crazy not to use a system already in place. while I’m on the subject of crazy. why are we still digging 3 foot trenches to put fibre and copper in. fibre ducts only need a 50 mm slot or less in the tarmac. google it. pure madness.

    1. Avatar Optimist says:

      Quite right, Martin. Other countries have very slick installation methods. Take a look at videos by GM Plast on YouTube.

  3. Avatar Dan says:

    I agree with you. Satellite should be the last option. I have 1mb/s from BT but 40mb/s from an LTE carrier in the highlands.

    Surely we should be looking to the likes of EE/O2/Vodafone/Three to close that gap rather than Satellites?

    1. Avatar Gadget says:

      Good luck in getting any mobile operator (or even satellite for that matter) to supply the proposed 100Gb/m download allowance (as mentioned in today’s USO news)

  4. Avatar Davek says:

    What’s the point of having faster and faster and even faster than that! satellite speed if you have a useless usage data allowance!
    Is that so you can use it all up in a couple of days and then pay for extra.
    The installation cost is insignificant to the cost of the data allowance!

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