Analyst: LEOs to boost satellite broadband
April 16, 2021
The demand for broadband connectivity over both fixed and mobile broadband networks is increasing dramatically. However, despite network expansions and upgrades, only half of households worldwide currently have access to fixed broadband services. With the rollout of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations, satellite broadband services will improve broadband penetration significantly. Global tech market advisory firm ABI Research forecasts that the satellite broadband market will reach 3.5 million subscribers in 2021, grow at a CAGR 8 per cent to reach 5.2 million users in 2026, and generate $4.1 billion service revenue.
“LEO satellites will play an important role in satellite broadband services in the years to come,” says Khin Sandi Lynn, Industry Analyst at ABI Research. “High Throughput Satellite (HTS) LEO systems can support multi-Gbps speed per satellite. Orbiting around 800-1600 km from the Earth’s surface, LEO systems offer a major advantage of low latency between 30-50 milliseconds, enabling LEO broadband services to support low latency services such as online gaming and live video streaming.”
ABI Research notes that, traditionally, Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites are mainly used to provide broadband services to homes and businesses in remote or rural areas where the deployment of mobile or fixed broadband connectivity is challenging. Although GEO satellites support viable speed over 100 Mbps speed broadband access, their distance from the Earth surface, about 36,000 km, creates a drawback of longer latency as high as 600ms, limiting the use of low latency applications.
LEO satellite operator SpaceX first launched its Starlink broadband services to residential users in 2020, supporting 100 Mbps broadband speed with unlimited data caps per month. SpaceX has launched over 1000 LEO satellites and aims to serve more than 600,000 homes and businesses in the United States. The company is now working toward the expansion of its broadband service to some markets in Latin America. Other companies such as OneWeb and Telesat have launched LEO satellites providing connectivity to the business segment. Amazon, which plans to launch LEO constellations named project Kuiper, received FCC approval for its project in mid-2020, although the first satellite launch date is yet to be confirmed.
As broadband connectivity is becoming an essential service in today’s homes, satellite broadband services will remain an important part of the broadband market. There is inevitable competition from terrestrial broadband networks due to the expansion of fixed broadband networks and mobile networks. The expansion of LTE and 5G networks will challenge the satellite broadband industry by supplying fixed wireless access (FWA) services to residential users. However, the cost and time associated with terrestrial network deployments can limit distribution in remote areas. “Satellite systems will continue to provide broadband services to underserved and unserved areas,” Lynn says.
LEO systems’ arrival will benefit users in remote areas by supporting high-speed, low latency broadband service. “The challenge of LEO-based broadband service currently is the cost of terminals, which are relatively high compared to existing satellite or terrestrial platforms. LEO satellite operators need to find ways to lower the terminal cost. Flexible packages and pricing could make the services affordable for users in both developed and emerging markets. Even though heavy subsidising of hardware costs may be required initially, the ability to boost adoption rates will help ecosystem development and eventually lower the hardware cost,” concludes Lynn.