Could satellites help provide the fat pipes needed to meet our mobile data demand? A news item yesterday from Tooway brought my attention to Eutelsat’s latest bird, which can deliver 70 gigabits per second that can be divided between uplink and downlink capacity. Tooway is a broadband provider that sells capacity on the Eutelsat’s satellite. The news from Monday said that ASI, the Italian space agency, has licensed access to 10 spots covering Italy so it can deliver 10 Mbps down/4 Mbps up connections to government agencies inside Italy.
Those speeds are nothing to scoff at, but if we’re going to get excited about faster satellite service, there are a host of issues we need to be aware of when it comes to sending and receiving those signals and turning them into a service that can deliver Facebook or Netflix streaming on the go.
It’s a particularly relevant issue in the U.S., given that roughly 2 percent of the population can’t get access to fast broadband because they’re located in remote areas where it’s impossible or uneconomical to deploy wired or even cellular broadband. Satellite is a likely solution for that problem, and next-generation birds such as what Eutelsat has deployed may be an option. But outside the expense associated with building and launching a satellite (and acquiring the terrestrial backhaul), there are plenty of limitations associated with satellites as broadband pipes.
Latency. Latency is how long it takes a packet to reach the user. Because signals going back and forth from satellites travel a lot farther than to the nearest base station, it can take longer for data to pass back and forth. This is mostly an issue for real-time interactions such as video calling and video streaming from a consumer point of view. Data-intensive and real-time enterprise functions such as financial trading also require low latency.
Capacity. Satellites deliver coverage in spots, which are circles of coverage that deliver a set amount of capacity. So a satellite may deliver hundreds of spots with 70 Gbps capacity, but then the satellite provider divvies up the capacity within each spot to offer service. So with 70 users in a spot, then each customer has a theoretical speeds of 1 gigabit split between uplink and downlink. This is why satellite service is good for sparsely populated areas but isn’t the solution for the urban core.
Devices. Because satellites are in orbit, they require a variety of tweaks on the receiving end to make a connection. For fixed broadband, it’s a satellite dish that faces the satellite or constellation, and for mobile devices, it’s a special chip and a larger antenna designed to pick up the signal from so far away. The end result is a higher cost for consumer devices, and for mobile devices, a larger handset and generally a shorter battery life.
So, as Europe welcomes a satellite with awesome capacity and coverage, it’s good to weigh the excitement about better mobile broadband against the tradeoffs necessary in getting a signal from the skies.