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2 September 2019

Optus’ nanosatellite deal highlights risks for LPWAN market

Australian telco Optus has signed up Myriota to provide it with remote and regional coverage, using Myriota’s nanosatellites. The pair say this is the first such deal between a telco and a nanosat provider, and this is the kind of deal that was envisioned by the recent Satellite IoT forecast, produced by Wireless Watch’s sister service, Rethink IoT.

For LPWAN providers, these nanosatellites could be valuable allies or fierce rivals. For the largest telcos or global enterprises, partnering with a provider like Myriota is an easy way to bring coverage to large swathes of a country that would be prohibitively expensive to reach using terrestrial networks. Expansive countries with low population densities are ideal candidates, and to this end, it is no surprise that Australia was the home of the first such deal.

But for smaller LPWAN firms, particularly those in the Unlicensed-LPWAN sector, the arrival of these nanosatellites should be very concerning. Instead of the capex burden of deploying base stations on the ground, and organizing the backhaul from these sites, a nanosat operator can use the historically cheap launch capabilities of the space industry to launch historically cheap satellites – and leverage the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to bring IoT-focused connectivity to field devices.

The proposition for the U-LPWAN approach has always been a combination of low-cost and better performance than Licensed-LPWAN technologies like NB-IoT. The licensed spectrum options have improved in their power usage recently, but remain noticeably more expensive than their unlicensed rivals – namely LoRaWAN and Wi-SUN. However, with the arrival of the nanosatellite brigade, they could be challenged on both fronts.

It does seem that U-LPWAN retains its end-device price advantage, but on the deployment front, a handful of satellites could cover what would take dozens to hundreds of base stations on the ground. Battery life in U-LPWAN is likely to be better than nanosat too, but if the likes of Optus are serving customers whose chief concern is coverage, rather than cost, then that’s a moot point.

The announcement makes mention of months to years of battery life – not 10 years as some applications need – as well as 20KB to 1MB of data requirements. Evidently, these would be far lower in the power-draw requirement and data throughput than the sorts of devices that are hooked up to Optus’ current fleet of five geostationary satellites – which power its communications networks.

“Working with innovative start-ups like Myriota allows Optus Business to help our customers capture the business improvements of next generation technologies,” said Optus Business managing director Chris Mitchell. Notably, Optus’ owner, Singtel, is an investor in Myriota, by way of the Singtel Innov8 investment project.

So then, any large scale wide area project in Australia is now likely fair game for nanosatellites. For dense campus-type deployments, the costs of using a LoRaWAN make a lot of sense, as a privately owned network isn’t going to incur the fees paid to the network operator, but again, there are chances that WiFi and Bluetooth options from firms offering WiFi networking services become staunch rivals.

However, an advantage that the LPWAN crowd should consistently have over nanosatellites is in-building coverage, particularly for underground assets. So far as we can tell, there isn’t an answer from the nanosat community for this, but there are of course workarounds that would cut both LPWAN and nanosat out of the loop.

The nanosatellite approach has legs in any country that has a large geographical footprint, as well as any that has low population density that makes cellular network buildout calculations complicated. Australia is perhaps the best example, but Russia, many of the CIS states, China, and much of MENA and continental Africa are excellent candidates. Latin America might be the most homogenous market to target.

The nanosatellite offerings are expected to enter the marketplace within three years, and on their arrival, they need to come in guns blazes – kicking in doors where LPWAN approaches have made inroads. However, this still gives the LPWAN community three years to dig trenches, snatch the still-plentiful low hanging fruit, and generally poison the well via marketing. Of course, ‘the LPWAN community’ is rather split into factions, and so putting on a united front might be a bit of a stretch.

Myriota CEO and co-founder Alex Grant said: “Remote connectivity has long been the missing piece of the puzzle for IoT across industries like logistics and farming, and we are thrilled to partner with Optus Business to provide a comprehensive connectivity offering. By combining Optus’ national networks with our nanosatellite capability, we are able to offer a truly holistic IoT solution and help solve connectivity issues being faced in regional Australia.”