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The global connectivity landscape is changing. One factor that is anticipated to heavily impact this is low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite technology, and only time can tell how successful this budding venture will turn out.

Companies such as SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat, Northrop Grumman, Airbus and Amazon are among the most commonly mentioned when the LEO satellite topic is discussed. According to forecasts, the total number of LEO satellites may reach, or even exceed, 25,000 over the next decade.

Historically dominated by geosynchronous (GEO) satellite technology, the satcom market is now expected to shift towards LEO satellite technology, which is approximately 50 times closer to Earth and promises to offer low latency and high throughput coverage.

In the Middle East alone, the LEO satellite market is estimated to be valued at approximately $110 million by 2030, yet the overall economic value that this technology can unlock is viewed as generating greater figures than this.

Indeed, LEO satellites can play a vital role in complementing the 5G rollout by connecting remote areas and eventually bridging the digital divide while also providing connectivity that boosts IoT use cases across multiple sectors.

As such, LEO satellite technology adoption is gradually converging into the telecom space, and mobile network operators (MNOs) are being disrupted again by more competition as well as opportunities for beneficial collaboration.

As the LEO-based industry matures over the next few years, we will witness how this will shape the future of a new form of Internet access that can compete with fiber and other terrestrial assets. With the global demand for connectivity only getting higher, the business case for LEO broadband, alongside cellular connectivity, becomes stronger.

The low latency and quality service that LEO satellites promise could be a favorable avenue to satisfy customer demands, pushing telcos and satellite operators to work together rather than compete with each other.

In this emerging race, satellite operators should maximize the extensive internet protocol (IP) networks that telcos already have, not to mention their wide range of existing and potential customer relationships worldwide. Combining ground and space assets will stand to benefit sustainably in the industry of connecting people, businesses, governments and society at large.

Why LEO Connectivity Matters

Emerging smart city development projects will benefit significantly from the adoption of LEO technology. More so, LEO satellites can accelerate the 5G rollout and ensure that business sectors and the local community benefit from improved connectivity and higher speeds, especially in hard-to-reach areas. 

An example of this is SpaceX’s launch of the said-to-be-first satellite in low Earth orbit to operate on the 5G cellular standard, expanding the possibilities of connected devices.

We are at a pivotal time where connecting the unconnected and achieving universal and meaningful connectivity is a core ambition. The large-scale deployment of LEO satellite systems for Internet access is now possible, but it needs to be sustainable in addition to being affordable and reliable for the people who need it most.

Despite being a compelling solution for bridging the digital divide and pushing for IoT adoption, among other use cases, in reality, establishing a LEO constellation involves substantial upfront investment, specialized technical capabilities and the ability to navigate a complex regulatory landscape.

Thus, investing in LEO broadband is a long-term venture with many uncertainties and risks, not to mention being expensive in both resources and time. But when executed strategically, it can provide continuous and expansive broadband service across borders.

Collaboration Between Telcos and Satellite Providers

With new LEO satellite operators entering the market, there is an opportunity for telcos to expand their existing services while helping these companies build a stronger foundation for satellite connectivity. Telcos may opt to build teleports, which can allow them to sell more connections and fiber backhaul, opening up the potential for being a long-term partner within domestic and international markets.

The advent of LEO systems is giving rise to new connectivity models and infrastructure in the sky, making the new wave of satellite providers and telcos congruent with each other. Telcos on the ground can provide fiber, IP, backhaul and a host of other services, helping satellite operators get access without the need to build a new hosting facility.

The next two to five years will be crucial for the partnerships between telcos and satellite operators to establish efficient, adaptive and flexible transmission pathways to businesses and consumers while leveraging LEO satellite’s network capacity to meet rising data demands.

Without a doubt, all eyes will be on whether the deals between these operators will translate into earnings and subscriber growth for both sides and how their relationship will evolve moving forward.

LEO satellites orbit the globe at a speed of approximately 27,000 kilometers per hour. Because a large number of satellites must communicate with each other at ground stations, these LEO satellite provider ground stations must be connected via fiber through the nearest internet exchange point (IXP).

Several ongoing cooperations between satellite and mobile operators include Verizon/Amazon and T-Mobile/SpaceX, both of which are testing telecom integration with LEO satellites to create more robust 5G wireless services as well as emergency offerings for iPhone and Android users. Customers in Europe, Latin America, Africa and other locations across the world are also being reached by OneWeb’s unique network and LEO technology through partnerships with Veon, Orange and Airtel Africa, among others.

In addition, Telefónica and Telesat worked together for Brazil’s first 5G backhaul demonstration over the LEO satellite. Meanwhile, Starlink’s extension to Nigeria and Mozambique, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya and Tanzania later this year, can provide internet services from its LEO satellites.

Reports from Nigeria say that Starlink services will be used to fill over 100 coverage gaps from the country’s mobile operators that leave some 25 million people in the nation unconnected.

Telcos’ integration of satellites into the 5G network ecosystem is in line with the 3GPP’s Release 17 specifications, which encourage linking non-terrestrial networks (NTN) directly into the 5G standard.

Partnering with more than one telco, AST SpaceMobile has agreements with MNOs globally, including Vodafone Group, Rakuten Mobile, AT&T, Bell Canada, MTN Group, Etisalat and Indosat Ooredoo Hutchison, with its most recent LEO feat being the first successful space-based call through unmodified smartphones.

What is yet to unfold fully is just how quickly these low-Earth orbit satellite opportunities can expand and gain broad acceptance from businesses, regulators and countries worldwide. Surely, we are bound to see more telcos and satellite operators harmonize and take advantage of this power within the lower atmosphere in the coming years.

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