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Will satellite comms happen this time?

Updated: May 28, 2020


Having been occupied on other fronts lately, I find that there are so many topics I could comment on, as even with MWC20 being cancelled, there are quite a few interesting announcements these days. This time, however, I will add a few comments around satellite communication. Some weeks ago, Light Reading commented that “after years in the cold, satellite is hot again”.

Having been part of the development of mobile communications since 2G and 3G, I clearly remember the satellite crowd in the early days claiming to be “better” than terrestrial mobile services – or at least competitive. Therefore, I could say that satellites were ”hot” around the time of 2G hitting the market, then it went quiet for a while – and then they were “hot” again around the time of 3G and so on. Now we are facing 5G – and satellites seem to be “hot” again. It seems a hype around satellites happens around every “G”. The question really is: Will it happen this time?

Recapping a little, 2G and 3G came to market along with the plans and launches of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite systems and the launch of companies like Iridium, Globalstar and others – many of which are not there today. An interesting fact in this context is that iridium is a chemical element with the number 77 in the periodic system – and the Iridium LEO system was intended to launch with 77 satellites flying around the globe in low-earth orbits. This turned out, however, not to be feasible, so Iridium launched 66 satellites instead, flying in 6 circles of 11 rather than 7. While Iridium initially had to file for bankruptcy after some years, the company is back in business and still operates today. For reference, see also some earlier comments on 5G, 6G and “Gs” in general.

The expected huge growth of LEO services did not happen around 3G for a number of reasons. While their services were still under preparation, 2G had more or less taken the global market and had, not at least, reached global scale in handset production costs – and when 3G came to market, this trend continued even stronger. Today, according to GSMA, the market for terrestrial mobile services is truly global with more than 9.5 billion mobile connections globally. In comparison, LEO satellite terminals from specific companies have been based on their own standards and have obviously not reached the same scale – so not only the usage costs but also the handset costs have been far too expensive and thus only niche markets have been served. A point to note around satellite communication, whatever low earth orbits they have, is that the cells on the ground will be huge compared to traditional cellular systems in urban areas – so the capacity of a LEO system will be substantially lower.

In the last years, we have seen various companies aiming to cover the globe with LEO satellites (or more generally: High Altitude Platform Systems (HAPS) – refer e.g. my earlier comments on Loon). We have seen several moves by US-based tech companiesdriving for broadband internet access across the world (e.g. Google, Facebook and also Amazonannouncing that it through “Project Kuiper” will launch over 3.000 satellites to offer broadband). Connecting the unconnected is a good ambition (refer also the Loon commentary), however competing with terrestrial mobile services in congested areas is highly questionable – so a complementary perspective on rural areas or areas not (yet) covered by terrestrial mobile is essential. It is also essential that consumers do not need to buy separate handsets for satellite communication.

Recently, there could be light in the tunnel for LEO systems, for a few reasons. One is that the HAPS providers have realized that they need to be interoperable with cellular systems and that they aim to collaborate with the mobile industry – and a second is that the mobile industry seems to embrace it also.

Early February 2020, a cooperationbetween the EMEA Satellite Operators Association (ESOA) and the Next Generation Mobile Network (NGMN) Alliance was announced – on how they intend to work together to deliver 5G. On top of this, several large companies from the mobile industry including Bharti Airtel, China Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica, Ericsson, and Nokia announced late February that they will collaborate to deliver HAPS – and early March, Vodafone and Rakuten announced their investment into the “SpaceMobile” LEO network. Maybe LEO satellite networks will finally come to scale? Time will show …

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