A successful 2015 in the satellite communications (satcomms) world heralded hopes for further growth in areas where terrestrial networks – heavily reliant on cable and second-generation mobile – have been unable to keep pace with the population’s appetite.
Last year marked the completion of our constellation of three Global Xpress satellites, delivering the world’s first high-speed mobile broadband network from a single operator to span the globe. We also saw some new entrants to the world of satellite communications as Mark Zuckerberg raced against the likes of Elon Musk and Google to deliver internet access across the developing world. So what will the year 2016 hold in store for the satellite industry?
A marriage of fibre optic networks, 4G and satellite
Last year’s achievements in the satcomms industry do not undervalue the reach of terrestrial networks or limit their potential for future expansion. Rather than satellite communications racing ahead of the pack or directly competing, going forwards we’re more likely to begin to see a complementary delivery of communications, with satellites supporting terrestrial networks and vice versa. According to recent research by the IEEE , in areas already densely populated with successfully deployed terrestrial networks, satellites are set now to provide, more than ever, the much-needed synergy to satisfy a growing demand for broadcast and internet on the move. The demanding and time-poor user, although voracious for multimedia, will still prefer a single point of access to telecommunications, an area where powerful consumer mobile brands have already established their foothold. This means there needs to be a hybrid solution to provide and enhance connectivity, rather than compete against established terrestrial networks. Imagine a user with the option to switch to satellite connectivity when terrestrial internet access is weak in certain areas.
We see the need for this essential symbiotic relationship in delivering in-flight connectivity for densely populated areas , for example, which not only necessitates the delivery of an efficient satellite-powered inflight broadband service to provide online internet access to airborne passengers, but also ground-based infrastructure to enhance the bandwidth, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of providing this connectivity.
Of course, at times, satcomms will cordially bypass terrestrial networks altogether in order to permeate inaccessible areas; including the world’s oceans, skies and emerging economies where terrestrial infrastructure is in its infancy or non-existent. The need for both terrestrial and satellite connective is going to be an inevitability for emerging economies in the future, for example in China. President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China, on his recent visit to the UK, highlighted his vision of re-opening old trade routes, known as ‘One Belt, One Road’, which refers both to the revival of the Silk Road Economic belt, linking China to Europe through Central Asia and Russia, as well the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which will connect the country through and sea routes. The nature and scale of this project will depend upon the delivery of satellite communications through the One Belt, One Road routes.
Powering connectivity where there is none
While 3G and 4G made headways in more developed regions in recent years, the rural emerging markets remain largely underserved. In Africa, for example, only 1% have access to 4G with numbers forecast to grow to 6% by 2020. Even then, satellite appears to be the most viable option for internet access in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, for example, estimated in 2012 that 341 million people lived beyond the 50km range of a ‘terrestrial fibre optic network’.
Areas such as South Sudan had virtually no fibre optic network until 2015 when the World Bank agreed to fund a $43 million project connecting Kenya to the infant country. This is indicative of the development roles satellites will play in delivering connectivity to rural enterprises and public services. Along similar lines, Inmarsat is supporting maternal and child health as one of the key focal points for Nigeria’s healthcare sector, with initiatives such as Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action providing expectant women with vital health-related information and updates during the various stages of their pregnancies. Here, satellite communication has played a vital role in supporting the government by bypassing the communication barriers that prevailed due to poor infrastructure, and a shortage of utilities. Inmarsat has helped deliver health services to fifty isolated communities by utilising its BGAN Link fixed location mobile satellite capabilities.
The Digital Frontiers initiative, involving Inmarsat and several other partners in Africa, will also provide internet broadband access to local communities, fostering entrepreneurial spirit in far-flung villages, encouraging tech-savvy citizens and developers to cultivate solutions from within.
It’s not just healthcare where satellite-driven telecommunications is making a difference. M2M (Machine to Machine), the ability of machines to communicate with one another through satcomms, has improved efficiency, safety and security for multiple industries, notably oil and gas, mining and utilities.
The opportunity of changing regulation
The regulatory challenges in emerging economies, a steeper path to scale, provides potential for agile entrepreneurs and small businesses – for which reliable connectivity is critical to success – to work, hand-in-glove, with their governments and trade bodies to bring about greater acceptance of satellite solutions and forming clear policy on working with global satellite communications companies. The satellite communications policy in India, an example of a dynamic emerging market, was framed in 1997. Experts and thought leaders in the communications industry in India also hint at the need for a more liberal policy, improving access of foreign operators to the rural users in the need for connectivity , like in areas such as Jammu and Kashmir and the Nicobar Islands.
Moreover, with greater access to connectivity entire markets of start-ups and developers can be opened up, allowing them to work on applications driven by satellite communications. Saankhya Labs, for example, is using satellite technology, developing a chip that “ uses television White Space -- or spare spectrum bandwidth-- to beam Internet to scores of households”. Imagine what could be achieved with greater access to satellite communications technologies.
The BRIC economies, and African countries all come with their own set of challenges unique to their current level of terrestrial infrastructure and terrain. Equally, developed economies which are trying to solve connectivity limitations in densely populated areas face challenges in integrating satcomms with terrestrial infrastructure, although we are beginning to see the start. The robustness and repeatability of satellite communications as well as the ease of deployment and the growing need for connectivity across the globe means we’re likely to see a greater push towards satcomms in 2016; both in emerging and developed economies. I’m looking forward to both being a part of these developments and watching them unfold.
Michele Franci is the Chief Technology Officer of Inmarsat.