An exciting technology has emerged over the past few years from companies, such as OneWeb, SpaceX Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and Telesat LEO working on deploying Low Earth Orbit satellites for data communications. Earth’s orbits in space are broken up into three layers; Low Earth Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit and Geostationary Earth Orbit. GEO is the furthest away at about 35,000 kms while LEO is around 800 kms from the surface.
LEO satellites have much lower network round trip latencies than GEO satellites because they are closer to the ground. Radio waves travel at the speed of light so the closer the satellite is to you, the quicker your data response. This means data communications can be as much as 50 times faster than with GEO satellites. Lower latencies drastically improve network and communication performance.
Solar Ship makes aerostats able to provide communications up to 100 kms radius and up to 1.4 Gbs bandwidth while being only hundreds of meters above the ground. This provides a low cost and low latency data communications service for end users in remote areas. Real world latencies between aerostats are in the 1-3ms range.
Solar Ship can build a robust and self-reliant aerostat communications system using commercial off the shelf products and install it in remote locations anywhere in the world in months using ground-based aerostats as opposed to years with LEO satellites.
LEO satellites only work when there is seamless or full coverage over an area. The reason for this is that each satellite is only visible to the ground antenna for 5 to 10 minutes at a time before the ground antenna has to switch to the next satellite. Since each satellite has to orbit the earth about every 90 minutes which means the ground antenna has to switch to a new satellite up to 12 times an hour. If the constellation is not fully built, then there will be gaps in the network where the ground antenna won’t be able to connect to a satellite. Ground antennas that can track the satellite when it is moving at about 27,000 kph are also needed. Ground tracking antennas can be mechanically or electrically steered, but they are expensive. They range from $5,000 USD to deliver 128 kbs, or up to $100,000 USD for 600 Mbs. It will be several years before antennas are cheap enough to compete against existing LTE or Microwave Customer Premise Equipment antennas which cost around $120 USD.
Solar Ship aerostats are stationary and fixed to the ground, so ground antennas only need to connect to the nearest aerostat for constant and reliable communications using LTE or microwave wireless technology.
While we are many years away from seeing the cost of LEO internet services come down, the remote areas of the world need connectivity now, particularly in Canada’s north and in many parts of Africa. LEO providers will be focusing on corporate, government, and military customers for the next several years because they need to cover their build costs.
It is not a question of either/or, but rather the right tool for the job in a rapidly changing world where the importance of connecting to the global economy from remote areas is growing in urgency. LEO will be very useful to trunk broadband to an area where the service can be distributed to members of a community using LTE or Microwave broadband. At Solar Ship, we are developing mesh networks of aerostats for remote areas and working with industry leaders to provide connectivity to remote parts of Canada and Africa. COVID has taught us all that connectivity is a necessity, not a luxury. The more ways we can connect people, the more we can save lives and solve problems.