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The competition to provide broadband from low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites is slowly but steadily growing. The futuristic prospect of wirelessly accessing high-speed, low-latency internet connectivity has become an appealing proposition for both enterprises and consumers.

Moreover, in a world where one-third of the population does not have internet access, non-terrestrial communications, such as satellite communications, are becoming integral to promoting inclusivity in an increasingly connected world. The non-requirement of local ground infrastructure like DSL, fiber or 5G wireless makes satellite internet the perfect option for rural and underserved areas.

In August last year, the Digital Cooperation Organization (DCO), the intergovernmental organization established to enable digital prosperity for all, took in Omantel as the first official observer organization from Oman. As a leading telecommunications provider in Oman, Omantel will provide unique insight and experience in innovation, startups and telecoms technology to the DCO to support the DCO’s mission to create digital prosperity for all.

Satellite connectivity is the perfect tool for organizations such as the DCO, which focuses on digital economy initiatives supporting youth, startup entrepreneurs and women. This purview includes 11 member states with a combined GDP of over US$2 trillion and a population of nearly 600 million. With 70% of future economic growth set to be digital, DCO member states provide an especially valuable market opportunity to investors and entrepreneurs alike.

Enabling New Applications

Wireless coverage is expected to expand from 2D “population coverage” on the ground surface to 3D “global and space coverage.” Integrating non-terrestrial and terrestrial communications systems will achieve this 3D coverage of the Earth. It will not only provide communications with broadband and wide-range IoT services around the world but also provide new functions such as precision-enhanced positioning and navigation as well as observation of the Earth in real-time.

As a case in point, OQ Technology, the leading 5G IoT satellite operator, is collaborating with the European Space Agency and the Luxembourg government to launch an in-orbit pathfinder mission (MACSAT) with the aim of strengthening its space and ground infrastructure and thus expanding its satellite coverage. The mission will bolster their 5G IoT capabilities that can address pressing needs like greenhouse gas monitoring, supply chain sustainability for governments and other sectors, including transportation, agritech, utilities, smart cities, mining, telemedicine, maritime and energy/O&G services and so on.

Moreover, SATCOMs have become key enablers of emergency first responder operations to implement disaster relief plans, even amidst widespread outages. As technology advances, businesses and government organizations are increasingly looking to satellites as a proactive disaster relief measure that can mobilize faster and more efficient response plans.

Innovative services such as inflight connectivity and maritime navigation are the primary growing market segments for satellite internet. Furthermore, LEO constellations have the potential to enable long-range communication with low latency. Integrating this with flourishing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) assisted non-terrestrial networks is expected to become a disruptive solution beyond 5G systems, provisioning large-scale, three-dimensional connectivity.

The latest satellite connectivity trend that has gripped the smartphone sector is exemplified by Apple and Huawei launching products that boast ubiquitous connectivity on the go.

Viability of Satellite Internet Business

Satellite internet has been around for over 25 years; however, its adoption has been limited for a variety of reasons, including its relatively high costs and poor performance compared with terrestrial options. Although the initial projects did meet with several setbacks, satellite operators have endeavored to stay relevant in today’s market.

For example, Elon Musk's SpaceX Starlink operates over 40% of all active satellites in Earth’s orbit. In recent reports, Starlink’s broadband-by-satellite service now has more than 2 million “active customers” in over 60 countries — double the number from just nine months ago. Taking a cue from its May financial statement, Starlink is poised to beat the market forecast of 2.2 million subscribers by the end of 2023, up from “about” 1.5 million, which it said it held then. Starlink aims to roll out 12,000 satellites as part of the LEO network around the world, with a particular focus on remote areas that terrestrial internet infrastructure struggles to reach.

Competitors such as OneWeb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Telesat are launching operations in new markets to benefit from the leveraging of LEO technologies. These constellations vary significantly, and the commercial realities around service delivery and user terminals are also markedly different. Judging by the key metrics of these operators, the best business models for target consumers can unlock the technology’s potential.

In Conclusion

The rapidly growing demand for high-speed and superior-quality connection services — itself a gateway to innovative technologies that enhance the user experience — is not going to slow anytime soon. With increased data rate capacity delivered at smaller sizes, satellite systems are poised to offer and transmit increasingly advanced services to more locations. With the development of new High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) and Non-Geostationary-Satellite Orbit (NGSO) systems, such as the Medium-Earth-Orbit (MEO) system, O3b, and the many proposed LEO and very low Earth orbit (VLEO) systems, the cost of satellite internet is projected to drop significantly. This reduction will further increase the access capabilities and reduce the time delay of satellite connections. Such developments, along with accompanying improvements in spectrum allocation policies by standardization bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), are proof that the satellite internet landscape is rapidly evolving.

Leading operators such as Telesat and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are moving ahead with plans for NGSO broadband. Amazon has recently invested a jaw-dropping $120 million in a satellite internet facility to deploy its over 32,000 satellites to provide broadband services to underserved locations. Indeed, satellite internet services will offer a truly unique service differentiator, enabling greater digital opportunities for a wide range of business operations.

Finally, in 6G scenarios, where unmanned flying devices are expected to densely populate aerial space, fully integrated 6G heterogeneous networks, ground, aerial and satellite networks will need to coexist to realize space-air-ground integrated communication networks for such scenarios. All this makes for an exciting and rapidly approaching reality. The real question remains: is the ICT sector ready to take it.

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