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28 November 2019

Thousands of NGSO satellites cleared by ITU for mobile broadband

Just a week after Faultline criticized operators for sidelining their commitments to connecting the other 50% of the world’s population in favor of gigabit launch parties, the ITU has swung a new scheme into action. Realistically, this responsibility was always going to fall to the satellite sector, clearing the way for cablecos to continue pioneering the path to gigabit speeds and beyond in developed regions.

It’s certainly about time the satellite industry received a bit of good news after last week’s crushing C-Band public auction decision from the FCC. Yet the task of recouping the $billions from C-Band spectrum from the business of delivering low-cost broadband services to developing regions will be a slog.

Spectrum regulators at the World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19) have reached a new regulatory agreement regarding the launch of “hundreds to thousands” of satellites into non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO). This is in a similar vein to so-called mega-constellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink project designed to create a global broadband network – aiming for a satellite fleet 12,000-strong.

The difference is that Starlink will likely target selling bandwidth to copper-bound providers yet to expand to fiber, while enhanced mobile broadband has been singled out as a primary scenario at WRC-19, identifying additional mmWave frequency bands for International Mobile Communications, specifically 5G.

Another key outcome from WRC-19, is the identification of additional frequency bands for High Altitude Platform Systems (HAPS) to facilitate telecommunications within a wide coverage area below for affordable broadband access in rural and remote areas. HAPS are basically radios on aerial platforms hovering in the stratosphere.

The decision pertains to NGSO satellites operating in fixed-satellite service (FSS) and mobile-satellite service bands. NGSO is an umbrella for both LEO (low earth orbit) and MEO (medium earth orbit) satellite constellations which are closer to Earth than GEO satellites. The latter is responsible for delivering the majority of the world’s broadcasting and communications services.

LEO satellites are located in an orbital position of between 700 km to 1,500 km above Earth, while MEO satellites are further out at 10,000 km, compared to NGSO satellites which are way up orbiting at 36,000 km. Other than orbital position and size, the main difference is that GEO satellites remain stationary, while NGSO satellites fluctuate – moving in relation to the Earth’s surface.

There are three types of NGSO satellites – Little LEO, Big LEO and MEO. Little LEO satellites provide mainly mobile data services, while Big LEO satellites serve mainly mobile telephony services. MEO satellites also provide mobile telephony but have been proposed as being part of new global mobile satellite systems (MSS).

Little LEO satellites have been the first LEO systems to market, but it is the larger cousin Big LEO MSS which have the disruptive potential thanks to the ability to deliver broadband, voice, data and more in near real-time. There is also rapid growth in small satellites defined as weighing less than 500kg (including nanosatellites under 10kg now used widely in the IoT) for a variety of surveillance and monitoring applications.

The ITU identifies four main Big LEO players – Globalstar, ICO, Iridium and Odyssey. Each of these has a number of operators and vendor suppliers supporting their efforts, but ICO has an army of support.

NGSO satellites are more commonly associated with powering global satellite navigation systems and GPS, as well as for backhaul in the sky for growing cellular and WiFi traffic.

The latest regulatory revisions also covered WiFi networks, to accommodate both indoor and outdoor usage and the growth in demand for wireless services like WiFi, while limiting interference into existing satellite services.

Looking to the future, one of the visions for 2023 covers high-altitude IMT base stations (HIBS), involving the possible use of some frequency bands as ground-based IMT base stations on HAPS for extended mobile broadband connectivity to underserved communities and remote areas.

Elsewhere, something like Google’s project Loon sees strong potential in the growing trend to deploy low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, which are cheaper and closer to the ground than traditional ‘birds’, but have control challenges because, like Loon, they move around. Loon’s head of engineering, Salvatore Candido, said earlier this year, “Because of that motion, the network challenges present in Loon’s internet balloon system will also be present for future NGSO communications satellites. The Loon SDN offers a promising solution to power these systems and create hybrid connectivity efforts to bring the reach of the internet even further.”

Specifically, the additional bands for IMT identified are in the 24.25 GHz to 27.5 GHz, 37 GHz to 43.5 GHz, 45.5 GHz to 47 GHz, 47.2 GHz to 48.2 GHz, and 66 GHz to 71 GHz bands, facilitating development of 5G mobile networks.