Ashley Neale, Development Manager, Space and Satellite, Vocus
There’s a famous quote by science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C Clarke that says:
“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.”
The technology behind low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites considered science fiction only a few years ago, is now becoming a real-world solution that is changing the world of communications for the better.
Although geostationary (GEO) satellite data services have been available for many years, their utility in mission-critical networks has been limited by their relatively slow speeds, high cost, and the high latency created by their position more than 36,000 kilometres above the Earth. Modern fleets of LEO satellites, however, have changed all that by flying smaller satellites at an altitude of around 500 to 2000 kilometres — close enough to Earth that they can deliver fast, high-powered data communications services with very low latency.
There have been three developments that have been pivotal to the commercialisation of LEO satellites:
All of these have been the key to viability and bringing LEO satellites to the mainstream market.
Another technological breakthrough offered by LEO satellites is low-latency – that is, the time it takes for data to travel from the ground to the satellite and back again. Since LEO satellites orbit less than 2,000kms above the earth compared to 35,000km for GEO satellites, the time taken to send and receive data is dramatically reduced. The huge increase in the use of cloud services has made latency a critical factor, forcing users into custom configurations to work over high-latency links. Put simply, LEO satellites make any application work, anywhere.
The low latency required for cloud apps is dependent on the deployment of extensive ground infrastructure with high-capacity fibre backhaul, so processing and storage can occur as close to the edge of the network as possible. Satellites connect back to earth via ground stations, and these ground stations are connected via high-capacity fibre networks.
Vocus’ extensive fibre network is a key asset in which we are investing $1 billion to expand and upgrade over the next five years. Our national network of over 25,000 km of fibre also includes infrastructure to support edge facilities. These controlled environment vaults (CEVs) are dotted every 100km along our fibre network and are used to retransmit our fibre signals. These CEVs are ideally suited to support satellite ground stations all over the country.
“LEO satellite services have created something that didn’t exist in the satellite industry before - low-cost services and high performance,” says Ashley Neale, Development Manager, Space and Satellite, Vocus
LEO ground stations are a bit like mobile base stations – the more you have on your network, the more service coverage you have. Today, Vocus has deployed 16 ground stations for our LEO satellite partners – more than any other operator in Australia – and this is expected to increase as demand grows.
We’re just beginning to see how ground station technology will develop as LEO satellite networks are deployed.
Quasar’s technology has the potential to allow each ground station to communicate with hundreds of different satellites, from different operators, efficiently allowing fewer ground stations to be built to service the 60,000+ LEO satellites expected to be in orbit by the end of the decade.
This could allow new LEO satellite constellations to launch far more quickly and cost-effectively as they wouldn’t require deployments of duplicate ground infrastructure. Rather, several operators could connect to Quasar’s ground station-as-a-service, instead focusing their energy on launching their space infrastructure. And the market is not only for satellite operators – users such as government, defence, and telcos themselves could avoid requirements to build their own ground stations and instead utilise a commercial Quasar service.
Most of the attention on LEO satellites has so far centred around the consumer benefits. But home broadband in regional areas without fixed line is just the beginning. The applications for government and enterprise users will change the way networks are delivered.
Think about defence applications for a moment. We’ve seen how in Ukraine, when Russian forces targeted fixed line and mobile networks, Starlink was able to rapidly activate services to keep the Ukraine’s armed forces connected. Starlink was switched-on in Ukraine in February, and already 10,000 terminals are in active daily use. These small dishes can get online in a matter of minutes are highly portable, allowing the armed forces to move locations and stay connected. They’re being used to control drones, to allow for communications between military units, and to keep hospitals online when all other methods of connectivity have been destroyed.
We’ve also seen how LEO satellite connectivity can be rapidly deployed in natural disasters. When Tonga was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami earlier this year, its only submarine cable was damaged – leaving the country reliant on slow, low-capacity satellite connectivity until the cable could be repaired. Despite not having any ground station infrastructure established to cover Tonga, Starlink rapidly established a ground station in Fiji, which was able to provide LEO coverage to Tonga. And all of this happened within a matter of weeks.
It’s not hard to imagine how Australia could utilise this technology to maintain connectivity during bushfires, floods and other natural disasters that take mobile and fixed-line networks offline. Beyond defence and natural disasters, LEO satelites will enable a complete re-think of broadband service delivery to regional and remote Australia.
As Starlink’s cheeky marketing slogan says, satellite has typically been viewed as ‘better than nothing’. But the arrival of LEO satellites completely changes this.
It’s not just ‘better than nothing’. LEO satelites will enable entirely new ways of communicating to every part of the planet. And Vocus is leading the way, in enabling access to this new technology, making this a reality for any organisation.