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What is Satellite Connectivity? Become the King of Coverage for IoT

Satellite connectivity is a way of extending coverage to achieve truly global connectivity, especially relevant for IoT devices. By relying on satellite networks such as LEO and GEO, satellite connectivity can augment cellular connectivity to complement new business use cases for devices in rural or remote locations.

Traditionally, connectivity for consumer and business use cases was handled by terrestrial networks, namely cellular networks. However, while it’s true that the vast majority of the world’s population has access to cellular networks, the vast majority of the world’s geography does not. There are a wide variety of regions that have limited or no connectivity at all via cellular networks, such as seas, deserts, mountains, and even just rural areas away from the city centers.

Satellite connectivity is a way to add coverage for IoT devices in these regions, providing a back-up or alternative to cellular networks with a new kind of connectivity.

What are the benefits of using satellite connectivity? 

Historically, satellite systems have been a last-resort option for most businesses, mainly because they were prohibitively expensive, and added a lot of administrative overheads.

Think about the use of satellite for consumer use cases, such as satellite phones for when mobile phones have no coverage, or a satellite dish to obtain more TV channels. To benefit from these solutions, people would need to carry a satellite phone as well as their regular mobile phone, or have multiple TV aerials on the roofs of their homes. Today, the  iPhone 14 has changed this, as the first iPhone that offers satellite as back up, so that consumers can use their iPhonefor communication via cellular or Wi-Fi networks, and then if and when they lose coverage, they would know that they can rely on the satellite as a backup to call an emergency service, or send an emergency SOS.

The same has been true for utilizing satellites for IoT. To offer satellite connectivity, each vendor has traditionally had to provide its own proprietary hardware – and businesses would need to buy all new modems, and totally separate devices. Imagine a Logistics use case where every parcel tracked would need to have a satellite asset tracker as well as a cellular one in case of a gap in coverage. The costs will quickly add up, and it’s a nightmare for Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). As the cost of satellite is many orders of magnitude higher than for cellular connectivity, no business will use satellite alone, which means IoT has relied heavily on cellular, limiting where use cases can develop and launch.

More recently however, 3GPP, the global telecommunications standards body, has found a way to allow businesses to converge cellular and satellite into a single solution, by releasing standards for non-terrestrial networks (NTN). This is covered in Release 17. The announcement means that the same protocols can be used for non-terrestrial communications like satellites, as are used for cellular devices, and hardware can simply be upgraded to use certain types of satellite connectivity with a simple firmware update. Release 17 enables cellular and satellite connectivity to be linked, with a standardized approach made up of NR-NTN, and IoT NTN, covering both broadband applications on 5G New Radio, as well as LPWA IoT applications using NB-IoT and LTE-M. Simply put? With the same devices that you use for cellular, it’s now possible to extend coverage to satellite connectivity, too.

As the infrastructure is not land-based, and instead, satellites are orbiting the earth, and communicating via ground stations, satellite coverage is capable of covering the entire planet, with no area that devices can’t access the internet to send and receive data. That means its main benefits are to extend the coverage of an existing solution without additional hardware, to act as a backup when cellular connectivity fails, and to offer coverage in remote locations where cellular coverage does not exist.

What is the difference between LEO and GEO? 

Satellite connectivity is not all created equally. Different satellite constellations have different orbit types, frequency bands, impact on latency and bandwidth, and vary in terms of communication protocols. The orbit type that you choose will have an impact on the size of the satellite, and also the cost of the solution and the latency of the communications. LEO and GEO are the two kinds of satellite orbit that are specified in Release 17 by 3GPP for NTN IoT connectivity.

LEO stands for Low Earth Orbit, and GEO stands for Geostationary Equatorial Orbit. The main difference between the two is the height at which they are placed. LEO orbit satellites are much closer to the surface of the earth, between 400 and 2,000km altitude, while GEO satellites typically orbit the earth at 35,780km above its surface

As LEO satellites are much closer to the earth, one common use case is that they could be used to collect high-res images. In fact, the International Space Station is a LEO satellite.

GEOs are stationary satellites, and LEOs are not. GEOs have been in orbit for more than 50 years. While GEOs are positioned to stay in the same place in the sky at all times, and LEOs move, GEOs can cover a much wider area than LEOs. It only takes a few GEOs to cover the whole planet. In comparison, covering a large area with LEOs will require many more satellites, as they orbit far closer to the surface of the earth.

It’s also important to think about network speeds and the impact of latency, the calculation of which may be critical for your IoT use case. You can get lower latency with LEOs, as the average is 50ms, compared with a 500ms average when we’re talking about GEOs. This means you may need to consider the impact of high latency with GEOs, comparatively speaking. However, as GEO satellites are stationary, you can benefit from real-time information and download speeds, which means if you need IoT for critical use cases like healthcare or manufacturing, you might want to choose GEO.

In the end, it will come down to your own business use case. While LEO may be better for LPWA and massive IoT, GEO will likely be the right choice when you need real-time data and are serving critical IoT use cases. At floLIVE we can help you through the different options for your business to support you in making the right choice, and we support both LEO and GEO to meet your needs.

Which use cases could benefit from satellite communication in IoT?

As the vast majority of the geography of the world is not covered by cellular connectivity, any remote use case would be a great use of satellite extensibility. Here are a few examples:

  • Maritime: The oceans cover 70% of the planet! Satellite IoT could provide greater insight into wildlife and eco-sustainability through smart sensors, support safer and more secure tourism at sea, and allow for intelligent and proactive vessel tracking and maintenance.

  • Energy & Utilities: The largest source of solar power is in the world’s deserts, currently not served by cellular infrastructure. Wind turbines are also often found in remote areas. Satellites can increase the reliability of your power supply and augment grid management.

  • Mining: IoT can support the Mining industry with environmental regulation compliance, workforce safety, and machinery telematics, but only if coverage can reach rural and remote areas. Satellite connectivity can bridge this critical gap to improve profitability and add data where it’s needed most.

  • Agriculture: IoT opens doors for precision agriculture, supporting farmers in getting more out of the work they do, increasing both productivity and yield. Think about automated irrigation systems, weather monitoring, and soil and crop analysis. All unlocked with the right infrastructure.

  • Shipping and Logistics: Failsafe connectivity opens doors for vessel tracking and diagnostics, as well as real-time communications while off the beaten track. Smart packaging and labeling can ensure always-on reliability in logistics, with zero gaps in visibility and control.

  • Transportation: Say goodbye to dead zones, where data can’t be shared as cellular coverage is weak. Satellite completes the picture, offering anything from safety and security, to entertainment and communication. Think emergency notifications to first responders, airbag alerts, and visibility into self-driving and autonomous vehicles.

How can floLIVE support customers with satellite services? 

For floLIVE, the new 3GPP standards allow us to extend our hyperlocal global connectivity to truly cover the world. Our existing network of local POPs already gave our customers compliant cellular coverage anywhere it was available, and now – through partnerships with Satellite operators such as Skylo and Sateliot, we can augment this with satellite connectivity, all from the same SIM, and with one SKU. For MVNOs and MNOs, we’re the perfect choice to help extend coverage with the support of satellite connectivity, opening doors for new business models and revenues.

Where it’s available, devices can connect via cellular connectivity, and then where it’s unavailable, satellite coverage can step in seamlessly, switching over-the-air (OTA) to assure customers of reliability with zero gaps. We optimize and reduce costs, provide you with a single unified bill, 24/7 global support, and real-time access to data and network events where necessary.

The convergence of cellular and satellite connectivity has opened the door to scalable IoT across any industry. Whether LEO or GEO is the right satellite technology to support your business use case, we’re the ideal partner for your IoT roadmap.

Get in touch to discuss your exact requirements. 

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