Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, which quickly rose to prominence as a cost effective solution for satellite internet providers over the past couple of years, may not be the most efficient solution for the field. Talking at the 2022 Technology & Leadership Summit, organised by the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom), Rajeev Suri, chief executive of British satellite communications firm Inmarsat, said that relying solely on LEO satellites to deliver connectivity would require massive investments and also cause major environmental concerns.
“A market estimate says that by the end of 2030, to support a constellation of over 12,000 satellites, Starlink will need to have launched 23,000 satellites given the 5-year lifespan. That is more than double the entire number of satellites launched by the entire world till date. This is a massive number,” Suri said.
LEO satellites are deployed at orbits of 2,000km or less from the Earth’s surface, and are typically smaller in size than most other types of satellites involved in offering satellite connectivity. This makes LEO satellites cheaper to build as well as deploy in orbit, and the same also offers much lower latency in terms of connectivity in comparison to geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellites.
The latter are significantly larger and more complicated in size, and are therefore more expensive to build. They are also deployed in geosynchronous orbits at 35,786km above Earth, which makes them more expensive to be put in orbit. Simultaneously, the higher height of the satellites increases latencies as well. Latency is the time taken for data to travel from the source to the end point, and what we usually discern as internet speed.
However, GEO satellites do not require multiple units to be deployed to offer connectivity, and can offer comparable bandwidth. GEOs also have a longer lifespan, capable of operating for around 15 years, as against a 5-year lifespan of LEO satellites.
Suri added that the issue of space junk, and the reaction of aluminium with solar radiation due to LEOs in Earth’s higher atmosphere are also key concerns. While the latter is yet to be studied extensively, the question of space debris has been raised by many. To this, Suri said, “The end result could be akin to Kessler’s Syndrome, in which space pollution becomes so high that collisions cause an unending cascade of follow-on collisions, which produces more debris. That would create a snowball effect in space with potentially disastrous consequences.”
Reliance Jio, which recently announced its entry in the satellite internet space in partnership with European satellite operator SES, will use GEO and MEO satellites for its services. However, most other operators that have announced services are operating on LEO satellites, including Bharti Airtel-OneWeb, SpaceX’s Starlink, Tata-backed Nelco and Telesat, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.
Suri believes that the correct approach for a sustainable satellite connectivity service would be to take a hybrid approach. “Hybrid networks using GEO, LEO and terrestrial 5G could be a simpler and more efficient way to meet customer needs. For instance, when in an aircraft, you don’t need online gaming, but might want high-speed connectivity but not low latency. In maritime operations, if there is a lot of network congestion and you don’t have enough bandwidth or capacity through GEO satellites, you can use 5G hotspots for the same. LEOs would suit other areas, too,” he added.
He also added that he expects to see a lot of consolidation in the global private space sector, and funding on the rise. He cited a report by investment research firm Space Capital to state that venture capital funding in the global space sector grew by over 90 percent in 2021 to reach $17.1 billion. As innovations continue and new companies enter the sector, many might consolidate into a single entity.
“Currently, there are about 50 companies in the satellite internet space, and I would bet that there would be less than half the number in a decade from now,” he said.