Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity could be a gamechanger for the satellite communications industry, experts say.
Technological changes such as the advent of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, edge processing and more have made satellites an increasingly attractive solution for IoT applications. The requirements for IoT services are different than for traditional satcom users, and the industry is adapting its satellites and constellations to provide more tailored solutions to new customers.
“The quality of connectivity they’re looking for has changed,” Brian Pemberton, chief commercial officer at satcom provider Omnispace, told Connectivity Business News.
Instead of looking at satcom as a stand-alone solution for dozens of users, customers are looking at it as part of a hybrid solution connecting hundreds, thousands or even millions of devices, Pemberton explained.
For example, a user might want to tag each grapevine in their vineyard with a device that can measure yield, health and environmental quality. Tagging and gathering data at such a granular level redefines the customer’s needs from a connectivity standpoint, Pemberton said. In this new landscape, many customers prioritize universal availability over simplicity or finding the lowest cost solution possible. New customers may not have as deep an understanding of satcom as traditional customers, but they see satellites as just one part of a hybrid network solution, he added.
“What we’re seeing is that space provides a number of advantages to other means of IoT connectivity. Satellite technology provides more ubiquitous coverage in areas that are very difficult for terrestrial, whether wireless or other means, to reach,” Patrick Campbell, partner at Milbank LLP, told Connectivity Business News.
Satellites may not provide IoT connectivity to all areas, but they have become a critical component of hybrid solutions that use space-based and terrestrial networks to connect devices, Campbell added.
LEO opens the door
The proliferation of LEO satellites, driven by lower launch and manufacturing costs, has made it much more practical to connect space systems directly to devices. Unlike geostationary (GEO) satellites operating more than 20,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, LEO satellites operate anywhere from several hundred miles to a little over a thousand miles up. Since they are approximately 19,000 miles closer to users on Earth, LEO satellites can offer far lower latency, which is often a premium for IoT devices.
“The main advantage [of LEO] is its proximity to Earth, the decrease in latency. Chatty applications just can’t handle that 250-millisecond delay up to GEO,” Steve Good, chief commercial officer at Ramon.Space, told Connectivity Business News.
Geostationary satellites have played a role in IoT connectivity, said Campbell, primarily for backhaul and support. Providers often connected to devices via terrestrial networks and then transported that data to ground stations, uplinked it to satellites and then transported it around the globe. Low-latency LEO satellites, however, can communicate directly with the device, cutting out or minimizing the need for terrestrial transport, he explained.
But customers need to be re-educated on what satcom entails, Pemberton said. Many base their expectations on what satcom can do on older GEO systems without factoring in technological changes enabled by LEO, such as smaller antennas.
Medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites could also provide some IoT connectivity, Good said. Slightly higher than LEO, MEO constellations can cover more area with fewer satellites without sacrificing too much latency. However, MEO comes with its own challenges, such as radiation, he added.
Processing at the edge
Edge processing — meaning processing data where it collected instead of transporting it to another location first — could also play an important role in the expansion of LEO satellites in IoT connectivity.
“IoT devices have more throughputs. They have more time-sensitive requirements. And what we as an industry need to do is move towards more of a processed solution on board,” Good said.
Traditionally, the low size, weight and power requirements of spacecraft were incentives for operators to transport data to ground stations for processing. However, technological improvements have made it easier to incorporate more advanced processors on spacecraft. Now, instead of taking time to move data from the device to the satellite, and then from the satellite to a remote processing location, where decision-making takes place before responding to the device, some LEO satellites can process the data on board and quickly respond.
“If we incorporate processing on board — the ability to make immediate decisions on board — we’re really going to open up the envelope of what IoT connectivity can do,” Good said. “We as an industry would have supported these IoT changes earlier if we had a means to do processing on board, but we were really limited by the technology — at least until now.”
A potentially unlimited market
IoT applications can be introduced into any industry where users want to collect atomized data, including trucking, agriculture and energy production.
“It’s growing. There’s a lot more to be done,” Campbell said. “The market has a lot of maturing to do. I think it’s a huge, potentially, addressable market — in some respects unlimited.”
However, spectrum policy and availability remain a challenge, he said, adding that standardization also needs to take place as companies chip away at the problems. Establishing standard protocols that enable data to move across networks will make it easier to create hybrid IoT solutions, where multiple networks are linked to form a seamless connection.
“The IoT industry is just incredibly well poised to help advance that whole [technological] renaissance that we’re seeing,” Campbell said.
“Every piece of data that I can think of [or have] seen, as far as the volume of users and the market opportunities, is in billions, in some cases tens of billions, some even go beyond that,” Pemberton said.
While the current number of IoT satellites users is “barely more than a million,” Pemberton said, he predicts user growth by orders of magnitudes over the next five years, emphasizing that standardization will be key for that growth.