A Successful Comeback: The Role of Satellite Internet in Regional Connectivity


A Successful Comeback: The Role of Satellite Internet in Regional Connectivity

The panel on “The Role of Satellite Internet in Regional Connectivity” held within the framework of LACNIC 41 was moderated by LACNIC CTO Carlos Martínez Cagnazzo and included the participation of Elaine Izquierdo (Panama), Head of Satellite Engineering at UFINET; Alejandro Guerra Najar (Colombia), VP of Sales LATAM & Caribbean Eutelsat OneWeb; and Carlos Eduardo Chhab (Argentina), Director of International Affairs of the Association of Professionals and Entities in New Technologies (APRENT). The panel examined how, amidst the growth and advancement of Internet connectivity, satellite Internet is once again emerging as a key player with its rapid expansion and accessibility.

Martínez began by explaining that, following a surge in the late 90s, satellites were abandoned as a vehicle for Internet connectivity in favor of submarine cables as, at the time, submarine cables offered advantages such as low latency and a lower price per megabit.

“For a few years now, we have been talking about satellites once again. Just as we talk about submarine cables, we want to further explore how we build the Internet and other reasons behind this return to satellites,” he highlighted.

Discussing the evolution of the satellite industry over the past decade, Chabb began by explaining the geostationary orbit, also known as Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit or GEO orbit. The GEO orbit is located 35,786 kilometers from the Earth’s surface and has an orbital period of 24 hours. It is the location for all satellites providing internet, television, telephony, and other data services to various regions of the planet. The next to appear was the Medium Earth Orbit or MEO. This orbit ranges from 2,000 to 36,000 kilometers in altitude and has an average orbital period of 12 hours. It serves as the location for observation, defense, and positioning satellites, as well as for GPS satellite networks and other applications.

This was followed by the Low Earth Orbit or LEO, a broad band ranging from 160 and 2,000 kilometers in altitude. Objects in this orbit move at high speeds relative to the Earth’s surface, completing a full orbit in just a few minutes or a few hours. The International Space Station along with most of the meteorological observation satellites and many communications satellites are located in the Low Earth Orbit. The interesting thing,” he noted, “is that at lower altitudes, satellites achieve greater efficiency: more megabits per megahertz.”

Chabb then talked about the most commonly used satellite frequencies. The C band, he explained, provides extensive coverage and is immune to rain, but requires larger and more expensive antennas. The Ku band is ideal for video transmissions with compact antennas and has greater capacity but is susceptible to rain. Finally, the Ka band is ideal for Internet connectivity because of its high capacity and very small antennas, and also because it allows very narrow beams and greater frequency reuse, yet it is affected by rain.

Guerra Najar highlighted the main technological advances of satellites, such as the shift from chemical to all electric propulsion systems. “This extends their life in the geostationary arc. In recent years, multi-orbit evolution has also advanced. While LEOs played a role in Earth observation and other applications, we now have large operational constellations with more on the horizon with significant connectivity capabilities.”

Another important aspect of satellite interconnection is the progress in optical technology. “We no longer need to rely on Earth-based gateways to communicate; instead, in space there is terabit-capacity communication and that is part of our growth as an industry,” he reflected.

Guerra Najar also noted the evolution of business models, “from clear channel communications to the current ability to reuse frequency and a significant increase in competitiveness in terms of cost per megabit, particularly with the Ka band.”

In turn, Izquierdo pointed out the changes in recent years in Earth stations that accept satellite capacity.“This has improved economic efficiency and allowed this technology to be more accessible and widespread in difficult-to-access areas, largely due to the change in satellite standards (from DVB-S to DVB-S2 to DVB-S2X) which allows up to three times the satellite capacity with the same bandwidth.”

She also observed that the new bands that came into operation have improved.“Fifteen years ago, using Ku band in regions such as Panama which are covered by dense forests and subject to heavy rainfall was unthinkable. However, technology has advanced and signal loss due to climate issues has improved.”

Izquierdo added that nowadays “you can connect to a LEO satellite terminal and access the Internet thanks to 50 satellites passing above your location” and highlighted the ease of installation of these terminals compared to geostationary satellites.

Guerra Najar further noted that the efficiency of LEO satellites’ efficiency has improved because their architecture has become slightly more complex, requiring a larger Earth component for signal synchronization from a terminal unit as the satellite travels from south to north and from north to south. “While the constellation orbits closer to Earth, we will have multiple gateways or repeater points, which means that throughout the day, the terminal unit will establish contact with multiple satellites —potentially 50 up to satellites— to ensure connectivity”

As for latency, he explained that they are trying to approximate the data transmission experience of fiber optics or submarine cables. “Today, the OneWeb constellation allows for a capacity of approximately one terabit per second, which may increase to 10 or 100 terabits in the future. What’s important is that we went from dozens of satellites to thousands of satellites,” he commented.

Chabb mentioned Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite constellation network (which is still in its deployment stage), noting that it is positioned at an altitude of approximately 350 km and has a latency of approximately 50 milliseconds with more than 3,200 Ka-band satellites for high-speed Internet connectivity. “They say that there will be three types of terminals: a 100 megabit/sec terminal, slightly larger than a Kindle; a second, larger option with speeds of 300-400 megabit/sec; and a professional one-terabit antenna”

The satellites of the Starlink (Space X) constellation operate in the Ku band. According to Chabb, “It is expected that, once the deployment is complete, there will be 12,000 satellites orbiting at an altitude of 550 km. We are talking about a latency of several tens of milliseconds, with the potential to decrease even further in lower orbits. Given the very reasonable costs, this faces practically no competition in rural or mountainous areas where other deployment options are not possible.”

The region’s geography, characterized by numerous mountainous or difficult-to-access areas, islands, vast deserts, and dense jungles, often makes over-land deployments extremely difficult.

As for its relevance for Latin America, Izquierdo commented that due to the region’s geography, it’s possible to deploy multipoint systems that require a low investment (less than USD 2,000) compared, for example, to the installation of a tower in a rural location or a mountainous area, or the implementation of a fiber service spanning several kilometers. “This is also a dependable service, as the signal is transmitted from a central location in the stratosphere, making it unlikely for service disruptions or outages to occur, even in the event of environmental catastrophes,” she added. Telemedicine services, distance education, cellular connection to very remote areas, or hotspots to expand Internet access in rural areas are among the most sought-after services in the region for this technology.

Finally, Guerra Najar mentioned that close to 30% of his company’s revenue comes from in-flight connectivity for airplanes and ships. “This market presents operators with a significant opportunity, as there is no other way to connect ships and airplanes in motion.” He also noted their focus on social inclusion programs where the government and operators work together in countries such as Panama, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, where thousands of satellite stations have been deployed to try to bridge the digital divide.

As for the future of the industry, according to Chabb, not only will the deployment of new constellations continue, but low orbit satellites will have to be replaced, as they have a shorter lifespan. “I also predict lower levels of latency and increased frequency reuse. I have firsthand knowledge that there is room for three and a half additional satellite constellations. We will have more satellites, or at least more megabits per second.”

He also noted an increasingly frequent use of IoT with small, low-cost, low-speed terminals and also electric propulsion and improved optical communications, more efficient solar panels, and new frequency bands that are much higher and will offer speeds approaching those of optical communications.

Guerra Najar predicts an industry with more consolidated players and the entrance of companies that previously did not invest in the space market (Amazon and Space X). “This is a positive sign because it suggests that, as an industry, we will evolve more quickly.” Likewise, he noted that video and IP are converging “towards the same path” and stressed that “there is synergy between satellite operators and other operators.” He also pointed out that the challenge they have as an industry is to improve the business model. “Various layers of value will emerge, and there is a business opportunity in the next 10 years for those of us who are willing to add value to connectivity.”

In closing, Izquierdo also anticipated greater integration of LEO satellites with terrestrial networks, which will translate into greater flexibility in the development of applications for various markets and industries.

Watch the panel here

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