Notably, not all satellite communication constellation companies have their own launch capabilities. While Amazon’s Kuiper constellations are still being designed, the company gained U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval last year (2020) to operate a constellation of approximately 3,200 internet satellites in LEO by July 30, 2029 (Amazon must launch 50% of its constellation by July 30, 2026 to maintain its authorization). To inject those satellites into orbit, Amazon recently selected United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V rockets for at least nine of its launches.
Advancements are not just limited to the launch space, however. Current and legacy advances in electric propulsion systems and microelectronics, such as the development and availability of cost-effective active electronic phased arrays, field programmable gate arrays, and application specific circuits (a type of semiconductor chip or integrated circuit), have accelerated the design and deployment cycles as well as the capabilities of satellites.
Why are pLEOs an Advancement?
A swarming constellation of pLEOs would provide uninterrupted, real-time, ubiquitous coverage of a region. This in and of itself is a significant shift in how we think about satellite communications. Unlike legacy systems where it was costly and complicated to move data around the earth using GSOs for the “last mile” while still relying heavily on terrestrial fiber, pLEO creates the opportunity to move data around the earth without using terrestrial fiber.
The advancement pLEOs represent is also a story of the business models satellite companies can now pursue. Companies can now approach satellite systems as a service to be sold on to customers rather than a bespoke, sustained business investment that a customer needs to make. For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS) now offers a “fully managed service that lets you control satellite communications, process data, and scale your operations without having to worry about building or managing your own ground station infrastructure.” In other words, AWS has built a business model around “Ground Station as a Service” that you purchase and then seamlessly integrate into your business operations rather than ground stations as a bespoke investment that you need to invest in and acquire specific equipment to access, tailor to your specific use-case, and then maintain those assets over time. Flexible payloads, such as those developed by Airbus, are another example: offering operators the capability to reprogram satellites’ missions (e.g. reconfigure its frequencies, coverages and/or power allocation) after the spacecraft is in orbit. In short, satellite systems of the past were mission specific and high resource investments. The satellite systems of today, which are currently disrupting that market, strive to be plug-and-play across a wide diversity of telecommunications needs.
What’s the End Result?
With swarms of LEOs and satellites as a service on the horizon, 5G networks have a viable alternative to fiber for real-time data backhaul. This provides utility for expanding coverage in areas where laying fiber is not economically viable (remote) or feasible (a ship or an airplane). It also provides redundancies and alternatives to backhaul in more urban areas where fiber has already been laid and has the potential to increase connectivity to accommodate an ever-increasing number of connected devices and data traffic (the unique demand an explosion in IoT devices will bring). In short, with the evolution of satellite systems and the requirements of the future 5G proponents promise, 5G will need to rely on an integrated telecommunications system with both terrestrial and space-based components working in tandem.
What Purpose Could Satellites Serve in 5G Networks?
In order to deliver on the full promise of 5G networks (near ubiquitous, instantaneous coverage for a massive number of connected devices), satellites will need to play a far more central role within telecommunications networks going forward with both terrestrial and space-based components working in tandem for a wider diversity of functions. Given the evolution of the satellite industry, both in terms of business models and technology, that greater role is now, for the first time, possible.
Notably, the specific and diverse roles satellites will play in the future is still an open question and the answer depends as much on industry and business decisions as it does on technological and economic feasibility. However, in 5G networks, satellites could serve three potential functions: providing additional backhaul, creating redundancies, and providing remote and rural areas with greater connectivity. In each of these cases, there is a diversity of business models that could potentially emerge from direct to device connections to connections between the end-user and the core network.