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Multi-Orbit Broadband Internet Service

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Interoperability with GEO satellites must happen—it’s common sense ... Customers don’t care whether it’s a LEO satellite or a GEO satellite—all they want is connectivity.  —Neil Masterson, OneWeb CEO, at the Satellite 2021 Conference

Three satellite companies, SES, Telesat, and Hughes, are working toward integrated, multi-orbit broadband Internet service and Eutelsat may join them.

  • SES is already a multi-orbit Internet service provider with its medium-Earth orbit (MEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO) constellations and its second-generation MEO constellation, O3b mPower, will begin delivering service in the third quarter of 2022.
  • Telesat, an established GEO operator, plans to begin offering low-Earth orbit (LEO) service in 2023 with global coverage in 2024.
  • GEO operators Hughes and Eutelsat are investors in OneWeb’s LEO constellation and Hughes and OneWeb are working on LEO-GEO integration.
  • Eutelsat and SES are both members of a consortium investigating the possibility of a European Union LEO constellation.

It is too soon for these companies to be offering integrated multi-orbit services, but they have begun testing and demonstrating switching and antenna technology.

  • Hughes and OneWeb have demonstrated seamless switching between the Hughes GEO and OneWeb LEO satellites. Latency-sensitive activities (like video gaming and a video call) were transmitted via OneWeb LEO and bandwidth-intensive activities like video streaming were transmitted via Hughes’ GEO satellite. The switching was automated using HughesON active network technology software that instantaneously evaluated the type of traffic and transmitted it over the most efficient path.
  • A demo flight from Melbourne, Florida to the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua saw dozens of switches successfully completed between SES GEO and MEO beams, and between multiple MEO satellites within a beam. Engineers aboard the test flight were able to demonstrate reliable delivery of 4K video streaming, super-fast social media networking, e-commerce transactions, audio conferencing, interactive gaming, and web browsing at rates in excess of 265 Mbps.
  • More recently, in a demonstration with Hughes, SES transmitted high-definition video and sensor data from an unmanned recognizance drone to a command center, automatically switching between the MEO and GEO constellation based on pre-set policies. The command center stayed connected when a signal experienced interference and jamming.
  • Isotropic Systems has demonstrated multiple simultaneous connections to SES MEO satellites and in phase two, they will test simultaneous links between an Isotropic Systems antenna and GEO and MEO satellites.
  • Using Intellian’s 1.5-meter antenna, the Navy was able to maintain a broadband connection while switching between Telesat’s LEO and GEO satellites and Intellian will supply antennas for SES’s forthcoming O3b mPower satellites.

These are just some examples of early tests of multi-orbit connectivity and new technology is being developed. For example, check out this short video of a test of a SatixFy multi-beam antenna that was able to lock on to and track LEO and GEO satellites while rotating at 20 degrees per second.

SatixFy recently contracted with OneWeb to supply LEO-GEO in-flight connectivity terminals

OneWeb, Telesat, and SES are working on integrated, multi-orbit services. I don’t know what SpaceX and the forthcoming LEO constellation operators—China SatNet and Project Kuiper—are planning. China space expert Blaine Curcio told me a China SatNet partnership “would require more GEO-HTS capacity than China currently has, and indeed, maybe even more than they have plans for.” A partnership with Hughes would be impossible in today’s political climate, but perhaps they could do something with Telesat, SES, or another non-US GEO provider as could Kuiper.

Since LEO Internet service will diminish GEO Internet revenue and free up capacity, GEO operators would probably be open to partnering with SpaceX. If SpaceX were to pursue a multi-orbit partner, Hughes, with its OneWeb experience and HughesON technology, would have the inside track as a GEO-interoperability partner.

Update Jan 23, 2022:

SES CEO Steve Collar: “We are not religious about orbits. There are things that we could do from LEO that are pretty attractive and we have some exciting projects that we are working on that I hope we will be in a position to announce soon that will likely leverage LEO. We have long said we are a multi-orbit operator. What I can say with a pretty high degree of confidence is that our future does not lie in a large LEO broadband constellation.”

That would make them the first 3-orbit operator.

Update Dec 2, 2022:

Eutelsat has ordered a geostationary broadband satellite that will support integrated multi-orbit service with its OneWeb low-Earth orbit satellites. The satellite will service the Americas, where immediate multi-orbit demand is expected to be greatest, beginning in 2026.

Before being acquired by Eutelsat, OneWeb demonstrated connectivity from an airplane to their LEO satellite and an Intelsat geostationary satellite. My guess is that they will operate with multiple geostationary operators.

We will eventually have multi-orbit standards for airlines and other users—perhaps Aalyria SpaceTime will fill that role.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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