Theres no secret that the global demand for backhaul is increasing at an unprecedented rate. This demand is being driven by wireless and wired users in well-connected parts of the world, and the two-thirds of the world not currently using the Internet but looking for ways to cost effectively gain access to it.
What is promoting this demand for high-speed Internet access? With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets such as RIMs Blackberry line and upcoming PlayBook tablet, the Apple iPhone and iPad, and the more than 100 tablets and the thousands of Smartphone brands worldwide, the demand for bandwidth for data has grown exponentially. A few years ago, companies such as RIM, Apple, Nokia, Samsung, and Qualcomm served a cell phone market for low bandwidth voice traffic, text messages, or email. Companies such as Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and Google were much smaller, or didnt exist.
Today, for example, Apple still sells computers and phones, but they have developed an entirely new revenue stream for the sale of applications this generated $2.2B in revenue in 2010. Apples business case, and those of the pure Internet companies, hinges on the ability of their customers to have access to high-speed Internet.
This is a business model that many other Smartphone manufacturers are working towards. Google and Facebook also have business models that rely on Internet real estate. Its a numbers game. The more visitors on a site, the better chance of a user clicking on a revenue generating advertisement. If these businesses cases, as well as those of thousands of other Internet companies have achieved amazing success with only one third of the worlds citizens with access, just image what their business models look like if and when the entire world is online.
These business models provide tremendous opportunity but also incredible strain for mobile operators and Internet service providers who supply bandwidth and generate huge revenues as a result. The challenge is that in well wired areas, Nearly every major mobile operator is, or will shortly be, at capacity Chris Kissel, Industry Analyst for In-Stat. (http://www.in-stat.com/press.asp?ID=2899&sku=IN1004716GW).
The cost for backhaul continues to increase and the operators are unable to pass these fees along to their customer thus chipping away at their profits. However, even as the service providers in the fiber world struggle to keep up with demand, the problem outside the fiber regions is much worse.
According to Internet World Stats 2010, approximately 4.9 billion of the worlds almost 6.9 billion citizens are not currently using the Internet. Countries such as Canada and the United States are seemingly well wired, although the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) has estimated that 700,000 Canadian households do not have access to the Internet. In the U.S., the number is even higher. A new telecommunications administration report, Digital Nation 2010, states that about one-third of U.S. households dont have high-speed Internet, which means functionality like surfing the web or downloading photos or videos is impractical.
Two key factors that contribute to the lack of Internet usage in North America are the cost of Internet access and the lack of fiber optic infrastructure in outlying areas. From a cost perspective, many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are charging market prices and offering a wide range of packages in an attempt to meet most budgets provided a household is already equipped with the necessary hardware and software. Infrastructure is another story altogether. To understand this, it is important to understand the basic structure.
High-speed Internet depends upon an infrastructure of fiber optic cable that criss-crosses much of the developed countries and runs across the bottom of the oceans to connect continents together. Most major urban centers, such as Toronto, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Moscow, and London, are covered in a web of fiber optic cable that forms part of the Internet trunk. Through cable and phone lines, users in these urban centers have access to Internet broadband. Their decision to get online and obtain high-speed access is primarily based on affordability.
Outside of the major urban centres, and this could be only a few miles out of town, potential Internet users may find themselves with limited or even no access to high enough speed Internet. Consider small town North America, a self-contained population that is connected to itself by land lines, cable, and mobile access.
Quite often, these small towns have basic and antiquated infrastructures for carrying telephone, and perhaps coax or possibly even fiber for cable television in the town, but no fiber connecting the towns or connecting to the global fiber network. Consider that when cell towers were first installed, they were also designed with one purpose; to carry voice, not data. Voice over landlines or wireless within these small towns and even to urban centres is an easy business case for local telcos or cable operators.
That calculation changes fundamentally when data traffic is entered into the equation. The bottleneck resides between the small town Central Office (CO) and the connection to the Internet trunk called backhaul. Without fiber, the backhaul has to pass over phone lines that were not designed for high-speed to the fiber Internet. Alternatively, the data packets are passed through microwave towers, which again were designed for voice rates, not data rates. Data transmissions required for surfing the Internet or downloading a movie or pictures is not in the cards.
Now consider Africa, a continent where approximately 90 percent of the citizens do not have Internet access. Fiber optic cable runs around the coast of Africa but very little has been laid inland. In addition, small town Africa, in many cases, is not that small and may have a population of three to five million people. There is little or no infrastructure for Internet access and similar to small town North America, they have wired and wireless voice access which are barely capable of providing dial-up Internet access.
Most governments around the world recognize that the Internet is a wealth generator and an important component in improving the lives of their citizens. President Obama said he wants to see 98 percent of Americans with Internet access by 2015. Canadas Economic Action Plan also promotes access to the Internet for areas of Canada that are unserved or underserved. MTS Allsteam, a large Canadian telecommunications company, estimated a price tag of seven billion dollars and a 10 year timeframe to wire the Canadian North, yet the population served by this initiative would be just over 100,000 people. The business case does not make sense. Until there is a cost-effective solution to digging trenches and burying cable, the cost of wiring remote areas is a difficult pill to swallow.
The challenge remains how to cost effectively hook up the remaining two thirds of the world to the Internet in timely manner? From an options perspective, data can be transmitted either through cables or through space. From a timing perspective, it is a race of turtles. Backhaul via fiber is a very expensive and time consuming endeavour. Backhaul via satellite is a relatively new alternative and had been driven by necessity because that was the only option. Although its a race of turtles, satellite infrastructure is a turtle on steroids as compared to fiber infrastructure. Its faster and cheaper.
But even these traditional GEO satellites designed for television broadcast, VSATs, or some mobile applications, have only megabit data rates, not the gigabit data rates required for high-speed Internet. Until recently, only purpose-built, high bandwidth GEOs like Viasat-1 and Ka-Sat, or the equatorial based MEO O3b, hold some promise to make a dent in demand but even these satellites dont offer a global solution.
The latest entrant into backhaul via satellite market is by a Canadian satellite manufacturer, Microsat Systems Canada Inc., with COMMStellation, a global constellation of 78 microsatellites in a Polar Low Earth orbit (the satellites travel over the north and south poles) in six orbital planes that will provide 100 percent global coverage. The challenge is to bring Internet backhaul capacity to the global market in a cost-effective manner and in a reasonable time to market, while providing bandwidth comparable to that of fiber. Its a tall order and requires consideration of the satellites proximity to Earth, the footprint of the satellite beam on Earth, the ability to have enough satellites that each footprint overlaps, and the right payload and ground segment that can transmit high-speed data.
COMMStellation is able to achieve this based on the following factors. First, microsatellites are considerably less expensive than traditional full-sized satellites. Cost-efficiencies are based on two main considerations; the physical size and reduced complexity of the satellite. The second factor is that the microsatellites use a Low Earth Orbit at approximately 1,000 km from the Earths surface. Radiation levels are comparatively benign thus the need for very expensive ultra-high reliability space-grade parts with long production times is reduced, and carefully selected but readily available high-quality commercial grade parts can be used. These cost and schedule efficiencies enable a business case for 78 microsatellites which in turn, at 1,000 kilometres, provide overlapping footprints to cover the entire Earth.
The orientation of the orbit is also a key factor in the coverage, speed and capacity of a constellation. A constellation in an equatorial orbit (orbiting the Earth around the equator) travels in one orbital plane. For a given beamwidth, the only way to increase coverage is to move a satellite further away from the surface of the Earth. But the further away it is, the more harsh the radiation environment and the greater the power required (increasing at roughly the square of the distance) to obtain the same signal strength back to Earth. The end result is increased latency, requirements for expensive space-grade parts, larger antennas, and a much larger and more complex satellite to generate the additional power required.
The resulting satellites are more expensive, physically larger, require larger and more expensive launchers to place the satellites in orbit, and result in a larger footprint on the Earth. This translates into more users per satellite, sharing the same bandwidth and thus lower speed per user. Equatorial orbits are also limited in their coverage and depending on the distance a satellite is from the Earth, a Medium Earth Orbit satellite, for example, will provide acceptable coverage only between 45 degrees of latitude north and south. A geosynchronous satellite will provide coverage up to around 70 degrees of latitude, but the further away a user is from the equator, the weaker the signal.
A polar constellation, on the other hand, does not need to travel on one orbital plane. As long as the satellites pass over the north and south poles, it is considered a polar orbit. COMMStellation will be placed into six orbital planes separated by approximately 30 degrees of longitude. Due to the nature of the polar orbits, satellites in adjacent orbits will be furthest away from each other at the equator. Even at the equator, they will still have a 250 km overlap. As these satellites are closer to the Earth than a MEO or GEO Satellite, for the same signal strength to the ground receiver, their footprint (coverage area) is much smaller, thereby concentrating the data bandwidth across fewer users. Ultimately, this results in higher speeds. As the satellites converge over the poles, ground footprints overlap and satellite bandwidth is shared over even fewer users. Where an equatorial orbiting MEO and GEO have lost signal strength, a polar orbiting LEO gets stronger and stronger until it reaches a point where it is the only option available.
Ultimately, the end-user doesnt really care from where high-speed Internet access is delivered, as long as they can perform a Google search, download an app, engage in a Skype video call, or share their travel pictures or download a movie without interruption. They are contented users. In areas of the world where the Internet is not a way of life as it is in the Western World, users are quite happy to be able to surf the web and send an email.
Backhaul via satellite has become a viable solution for the explosive demand being experienced worldwide. Backhaul is more cost effective and can be less expensive to implement and will, for now, have to meet demand until newer, more cost effective solutions emerge.
About the author
Justin R. Phillips is the Vice President of Marketing and a member of the Strategic Advisory Board for Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI) and COMMStellation. Justin has more than 17 years of marketing experience in the high-tech and aerospace industries. For the past seven years Justin ran HiPoint Marketing as President and CEO.
Learn more at http://www.commstellation.com