Insights Cell towers in the sky – opportunities arising from NGSO satellite constellations expansion

Telecoms operators and non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellite network operators alike are actively exploring mutual partnership opportunities with new deals around the world being announced every week to augment and expand mobile coverage using non-terrestrial network (NTN) infrastructure. It’s worth exploring some of the factors driving these challenges and opportunities being presented by NGSO-powered communications solutions.

Mobile networks involve cell sites and base stations that convey signals to devices within range via radio waves. The effective range of each mobile cell depends on a number of factors including antenna height, power output, site configuration, spectrum, the chosen mobile network technology, geography and density. Mobile cell sites also aren’t cheap, and the economics of deploying and maintaining them means that there are some areas that have little or no mobile network coverage, such as locations with low population density (and therefore consumer demand) or hard-to-reach places where it is not cost-effective to install and maintain mobile tower sites and required terrestrial backhaul.

NGSO satellite constellations offer a solution to the issue of economically servicing hard-to-reach locations by enabling mobile backhaul or even mobile connectivity directly to devices on the ground using NTN infrastructure. NGSO satellite solutions offer a potentially lower cost-per-premises on a like-for-like basis compared to equivalent terrestrial solutions.

The key NGSO satellite constellation operators today (and around the corner) include Starlink, OneWeb, AST SpaceMobile, Lynk Global and Kuiper. Starlink has the largest NGSO constellation, which currently consists of 4,450 operational satellites out of a planned 12,000. OneWeb has recently completed its initial phase NGSO deployment of 618 satellites enabling it to provide global coverage. If all NGSO satellite network operators realise their deployment plans, by 2030 there could be up to 50,000 constellation satellites in orbit serving more than 10 million subscribers and counting globally.

To give a sense of the breadth and scale of the opportunities and implications of NTN solutions for mobile voice, broadband and mobile network backhaul, a snapshot of some recent developments involving these operators in this space include:

Space direct to mobile

  • T-Mobile has partnered with Starlink to provide 4G/5G coverage using Starlink’s NGSO satellite constellation, with testing in the US beginning later this year, promising customers high-speed mobile broadband connectivity in rural and remote areas that until now have been uneconomical to service using terrestrial networks.
  • Vodafone has partnered with AST SpaceMobile to provide mobile coverage across continental Africa. Its test satellite, BlueWalker3, supported the first ever direct-to-smartphone call using a satellite connection. As mentioned in our previous article, AST SpaceMobile is focused on signing up deals with mobile network operators to fill mobile network coverage whitespots.
  • Omnispace is set to deliver a global 5G NTN with connectivity directly to mobile devices from its LEO satellites.
  • Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 processor enables a global messaging service to supported Android smartphones using the Iridium satellite network.
  • Apple in late 2022 launched its Emergency SOS via satellite feature for its latest iPhone handset in partnership with global satellite service operator Globalstar.

NTN-based broadband

  • As mentioned in our previous article, the UK government is trialling using Starlink’s NGSO network to deliver high-speed broadband connectivity to more than a dozen “very hard to reach” locations, many in remote mountainous areas or small islands that have until now never received high-speed broadband services.
  • The UK Government has committed to deliver high-speed broadband solutions for up to 35,000 properties in remote locations some of which will involve a solution using OneWeb’s NGSO satellite network with partners BT and LEO satellite internet services provider Clarus following trials in the Shetland Islands and Lundy Island.
  • Telstra has partnered with Starlink to provide home phone and broadband services in remote and hard to reach places in Australia.
  • Carnival has announced an agreement with Starlink to provide internet connectivity across its global fleet, in a move that has nearly tripled ship bandwidth since 2019.

NTN-based mobile backhaul

  • Orange and OneWeb signed an agreement to use OneWeb’s NGSO satellite network to enhance and expand Orange’s connectivity solutions, particularly in rural and remote areas across Europe, Latin America and Africa.
  • AMN has partnered with Starlink to connect AMN’s mobile network base stations enabling 3G and 4G services to rural communities across Africa.
  • Telstra has partnered with OneWeb to provide mobile base station backhaul to help serve Telstra’s most remote mobile customers.

The factors driving the decisions behind NGSO satellite network operators and their partners vary significantly depending on the nature of the proposed services, contemplated use case, geography, economics, technology development and hardware availability. Some of these factors include:

Route to market

While the likes of Starlink have a B2C offering providing internet connectivity directly to customers, several NGSO satellite network operators such as OneWeb are pursuing a completely B2B approach relying on partnering up with telecom providers to service particular markets or supporting specific uses such as remote tower backhaul. These approaches lend to different commercial, legal and regulatory considerations. More competition, lower unit costs, new launch technologies, miniaturisation and manufacturing advancements are increasing the availability and economic viability of a wider range of NTN-based solutions that will advantage different commercial models.

Regulatory strategy

While satellite service providers may have the ability to provide terminals and use spectrum, they may not have the necessary licenses to provide communication services in each jurisdiction. Starlink’s NGSO network for example has global coverage yet it currently only has the right to provide broadband services in just over 50 countries. A satellite provider offering internet connectivity on a B2C basis will likely need to meet regulatory requirements that accompany providing electronic communications services in a given jurisdiction, whereas in a B2B scenario that obligation may instead rest with the reseller partner. Satellite service providers may therefore choose to partner with a local operator that holds licensing rights and can integrate the satellite network with their own offering, guarantee service levels, provide customer support and most importantly, acquire and maintain any necessary licenses and spectrum rights to provide communications services in that particular jurisdiction. This is particularly the case in certain jurisdictions that in effect preference established incumbent operators. On the other hand satellite resellers or integrators would also want to configure their offering considering the extent to which they want to be providing a regulated service in a particular geography. Additional considerations also arise for mobility use cases such as providing satellite based connectivity to aircraft or vessels that cross over multiple jurisdictional lines giving rise to additional cross-border regulatory considerations.

Adapting devices for NTN-based signals

Many of the recent deals announced involve either using satellite to provide mobile tower backhaul or the propagation of NTN-based signals that emulate terrestrial-based signals to allow connectivity with devices using existing technologies and hardware. Significant opportunities will be realised once devices (and software that run them) could be adapted for NTN-based signals in a way that retained mass-market appeal. This will require, and in many cases depend on, buy in and leadership from device and hardware manufacturers cooperating with NTN service providers.

We frequently advise clients on potential legal, regulatory and commercial issues arising from satellite broadband, satellite reseller, spectrum regulatory and connectivity product feature launch. Get in touch if you’d like to have a further discussion about your satellite related project and we’d be delighted to assist.