Cloud connectivity has been typically delivered via a combination of terrestrial wireline access and cell towers, feeding traffic into local, regional, nationwide and global fiber networks. Additionally, the overwhelming majority of international traffic today is being transported by a global mesh of submarine telecom cables. But now, with Low Earth Orbit (LEO) now more and more in the mix we can also think about looking up and connecting to the Global Cloud using orbiting antennas that are quite literally above the clouds! STEVE ALEXANDER takes a deep dive into this.
LEO satellites, which orbit between 250-2000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, will take the internet to places that conventional fixed and mobile networks cannot or do not reach. Constellations of LEO satellites allow service providers to offer an internet service where other technologies are simply economically unviable. The likes of Amazon’s Kuiper initiative, SpaceX’s Starlink and Telesat’s Lightspeed Network can provide high-speed internet to currently under-served regions of the world, consumers and enterprises.
With the tech industry launching satellites into space at ever increasing numbers there will soon be the possibility to bring affordable high-speed internet access to virtually the entire surface of the Earth. LEO satellite networks will become a key tool to closing the digital divide by connecting underserved low-density populations and remote locations across our planet. Consumers, remote outposts, offshore mining rigs, rural cell towers and maritime and transport companies will all benefit.
And just as importantly, LEO satellite networks can offer island nations, many of which cannot afford the build-out of a submarine cable, a pathway to high-speed internet for the first time on an individual basis. While many have had access to geostationary and mid-Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites, these can require complex ground stations and many don’t have the high-speed capability, when compared to the promise of LEO satellite network. They also can incur noticeably higher latency due to their distances being significantly farther from the Earth’s surface. LEO satellite networks can also offer nations without diverse network connections a secondary emergency connection in the event of a cable cut, such as the one Tonga recently experienced following an underwater volcano eruption.
LEO satellites are generally smaller than MEO and GEO satellites, and less expensive to manufacture and launch per satellite, but you need many more if them to complete the network constellation. This economy of scale ensures we can fill our orbit with literally thousands of them to provide blanket Earth coverage. They also orbit closer to Earth’s surface, which ensures sufficiently low latency for many Cloud applications. These benefits are why LEO deployments will continue in the years ahead — yet, like most emerging technologies, there are some considerations that must be addressed.
There also needs to be continued investment in the LEO technology itself, and we’re not just talking about the technology in space. LEO networks must seamlessly integrate with terrestrial networks. As such, there needs to be significant investment in terrestrial wireline infrastructure between satellite ground stations, to other communications service providers, and data centers hosting accessed content.
There is a lot more to consider with LEO satellite networks than simply launching as many satellites into space as possible. And, with thousands expected to be launched into orbit over the next few years, it’s only a matter of time before the Cloud will be delivered from beyond the clouds.
- Alexander is Chief Technology Officer, Ciena.