Satellite Providers Connect the Unconnected

How satellites are unlocking value-added communication services on Earth

Alex Vaxmonsky

A new space race is emerging among tech companies seeking to provide low-cost, high-speed internet and networking services to emerging markets and business customers. The goal is global connectivity.

Thousands of new satellites are planned for launch in the near future and each one will send massive amounts of data back to Earth. High performance terrestrial networks will be needed to move the data quickly to its intended targets. More on that in a bit. But first, let’s examine the satellite communications landscape from a higher altitude.

The new space race

About half of the world’s population still does not have access to the internet or simply can’t afford it, especially those who live in remote and underserved geographies. Satellite companies are scrambling to solve this digital divide. By the end of this year, there will be more than 700 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, up from roughly 200 at the end of 2019.[i] In the next five years, LEO satellites will extend broadband coverage to millions of new customers in developed and undeveloped countries. Greater coverage will likely lead to economic growth and brighter prospects for people everywhere. 

There’s a long list of satellite broadband players who aim to take the lead in this market, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS),[ii] SpaceX, OneWeb, and Telesat. For example, SpaceX has launched more than 480 of a planned 12,000 satellites and is seeking permission to launch 30,000 more. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has requested permission to launch 3,236 satellites to support the companies Earth-to-space communications expansion.[iii] These companies’ ambition has been driven by technological developments in smaller satellites and reusable rockets, which have significantly reduced costs and aroused investor interest.

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The latency advantage

So why the investment of billions of dollars in a communications technology that is over 60 years old? The answer is reduced latency and the ability for satellite communications to service mission critical applications and leverage new communications technologies such as 5G.

LEO satellite systems have made great technological strides since Sputnik was launched in 1957. They are much smaller now and orbit much closer to our planet (between 310 to 745 miles away) dramatically reducing the lag or latency associated with receiving and transmitting data from traditional geostationary communication satellites positioned at approximately 22,000 miles away in space.iii The Starlink satellite system from SpaceX, for example, is aiming for latency of 20 milliseconds initially, with plans to eventually cut that time in half.iii That’s possible because signals can travel more rapidly through the vacuum of space than through fiber-optic cables, giving LEO satellites the potential to rival or possibly exceed the fastest ground-based networks.

Because one LEO satellite can’t cover as large a radius as the larger, higher-flying geostationary satellites, today’s LEOs are launched in clusters known as constellations that communicate with each other as a network. LEO satellites must travel at about 17,000 mph, completing a full circuit of the planet in 90 to 120 minutes. That means each individual satellite is only in direct contact with a ground transmitter for a brief period of time and why LEO systems involve so many satellites. OneWeb says its receivers are able to achieve a consistent signal because a new satellite will always fly into range and pre-emptively replace the signal of the satellite flying beyond the horizon. This process occurs about once every two minutes.

By the end of this year, there will be more than 700 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, up from roughly 200 at the end of 2019.

Why satellites are integral to 5G?

5G wireless technology will dramatically change how satellites become more integrated into mainstream communications. 5G will enable satellite service providers to offer a much wider range of access services in support of mobile/wireless communication. For example, mobile and fiber operators will be able to leverage satellite connectivity to expand their coverage areas and offload critical terrestrial network functions such as multicasting, backhauling and mobility access.

How LEO satellites benefit everyone

Every industry relies on satellite technology and people everywhere benefit from it in their daily lives, whether they know it or not. For example, satellites provide navigation services when you are driving, taking an Uber ride, or waiting for your food delivery person to arrive with a meal. Commercial trucking operations rely on satellites to transport food, manufacturing and medical supplies, and they monitor shipping routes across the world’s seas and oceans. Satellites provide timing services for millions of cellular phones and remote electronic financial services, and they provide business continuity communications for systems like self-serve gas stations and point of sale credit/debit card authorizations and inventory management.

Companies use satellite imagery to predict annual farm yields such as wheat, corn and soy—and produce estimations that are useful for farmers and commodities traders alike, as well as track climate change. Satellites transmit massive amounts of data collected from sensors placed on billions of physical devices, and most important, they play a critical role in our national security. As we continue to deal with COVID-19, satellites are helping doctors in remote hospitals send and receive vital medical information and consult with specialists. And this list goes on.

The Starlink satellite system from SpaceX is aiming for latency of 20 milliseconds initially, with plans to eventually cut that time in half.

Source: EMEA Satellite Operators Association

Making the connection between space and Earth

The satellites are the stars of the show as they rely on high-performance, interconnected, network infrastructure on Earth to quickly aggregate the data they collect and transmit into use. Coverage is achieved using ground-based interconnection points.

An earth or ground station serving a LEO satellite can only communicate with it during brief windows of time— when the satellite is above the station’s horizon plane. This means that for much of the day, that station has no contact with the satellite. Satellite startups typically build proprietary facilities or rent time at existing ground stations via long-term contracts—for a specific frequency and a specific antenna. The entire process is complicated and expensive.

Platform Equinix addresses these challenges with its global interconnection platform that houses and interconnects satellite ground stations, as well as the range of terrestrial and subsea cable networks that come into play all over the world. By having everything on the same interconnection platform, Equinix supports the essential secure, many-to-many, real-time connectivity that LEO systems require. Over 110 satellite companies from around the world make up the satellite ecosystem on Platform Equinix.

Platform Equinix has the strongest network ecosystem of any global provider, with more than 1,900 networks, including subsea cable network providers. We recently announced the Equinix 5G and Edge Proof of Concept Center (POCC) in our Dallas (DA11) Equinix International Business Exchange™ (IBX®) data center. It will provide a 5G and edge “sandbox” environment enabling Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), cloud platforms, technology vendors and enterprises to directly connect with the largest edge data center platform to test, demonstrate and accelerate complex 5G and edge deployment and interoperability scenarios.

In concert with this dense network ecosystem, satellite companies can discover and reach any of Equinix’s more than 9,700 customers around the world on demand through virtual and/or physical private interconnection on Platform Equinix.

Equinix is where customers can eliminate the challenges of connecting space to Earth and gain access to data and information faster, no matter where they want to establish communications.

To learn more about the network service provider ecosystem on Platform Equinix, check out the Network Service Provider Blueprint.

[i] Deloitte Insights

[ii] AWS Unveils New Space Business Segment

[iii] The Washington Post, “Why Low-Earth Orbit Satellites Are the New Space Race,“ July 10, 2020.

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Over 110 satellite companies from around the world make up the satellite ecosystem on Platform Equinix.

Alex Vaxmonsky
Alex Vaxmonsky Director, business development for global service providers