Is Low-Latency a Ticket to Profitability: How LEO Services Can Compete in Africa
Industry analysts expect 17,000 satellites to be launched over the next decade, of which some 58% will be for five new mega low earth orbit (LEO) constellations. Overall, it is anticipated that the space industry will add an estimated 200Tbps of capacity to the global network. From a macro perspective, adding broadband anywhere, anytime capacity to the global grid remains good news and will ultimately transform satellite connectivity and related industries.
With expected service launch dates set for 2023 and 2024, it is time to unpack the business case and consider where and how the new LEO satellite services, and imminent advanced GEO services, will fit into the fibre-LTE-wireless-satellite service matrix.
Satellite services have an interesting history. First developed in the 1960s, early innovations focused on intercontinental connectivity, then regional and national connectivity. A common theme was connecting areas and users that couldn’t otherwise be connected by means of fibre or microwave links. As terrestrial fixed networks developed, satellite moved on to service mobile, aero and other specialised applications.
Historically, the niche role of satellite services led to a commonly held belief that satellite connectivity was slow and expensive, with an inherent latency problem.
Thanks to the introduction of high throughput satellites from 2015 onwards, specialised operators such as Q-KON Africa have been able to develop the current generation of industry-leading services and largely overcome legacy cost, performance and latency limitations. Twoobii Smart Satellite Services were developed to service specific enterprise markets and have essentially eliminated the application constraints inherent in geostationary satellite technology.
The next advance will be to integrate LEO services into the service portfolio – an innovation which will remove any lingering latency constraints. LEO satellite services will be on a par with LTE and in the case of national and regional networks, LEO satellites will actually deliver less latency than LTE services.
With the removal of the latency constraint, can we expect LEO services to be positioned in the connectivity service matrix, and the low-latency advantage to translate into sales and market share?
To gain understanding
The purpose of this discussion is to gain an understanding of, and perspective on, the unfolding telecommunications landscape, rather than to conduct a price comparison or give out hypothetical awards. We will therefore consider the fundamentals of the respective technologies using current industry average parameters, including the expected metrics of new LEO services.
It should also be noted that since very little detailed information on the expected LEO performance-price-product is currently available, this review has been conducted on general guidelines rather than specific service values. The guidelines used are based on generation-1 LEO services, while ongoing innovation certainly improves the relevant metrics from the second generation of LEO onwards.
Technology map overview
First, we analysed LEO services in the context of connectivity services currently available in Africa for the fixed-user services market (including the enterprise, business and consumer sectors). We considered fibre as being representative of broadband or MPLS services and wireless networks (including both point-to-point microwave architectures and community point-to-multipoint networks).
Cost remains the number one market driver. End-user solutions are mostly selected based on cost first, and only then on functionality. With LEO service price points expected to be around the $300/Mbps point and fibre services currently available at less than $10/Mbps in South Africa, it is clear that LEO services will not impact on the fibre market. Instead, they will largely continue to be viable only as an “off-grid” location or alternative applications service option.
It’s interesting to observe that LEO satellite services are almost exclusively promoted on the basis of their low-latency advantage. Low-latency is indeed a significant breakthrough when comparing the LEO latency of +/-70msec to current geostationary latencies of around 650msec. However, as LEO services will not compete against current GEO services, the competitive landscape is populated by fibre, wireless and LTE offerings.
The fascinating thing to note is that latency over LEO networks will be very similar to current LTE networks, and in some cases will be even better. For example, considering a national enterprise network deployed in South Africa, the LTE latency varies from a max of 208msec with an average of 68msec for the long-distance links to a max of 75msec and average of 11msec for regional links. In this example, the +/-70msec latency of LEO services, for all the links, is actually an advantage with lower jitter and higher service-assured quality.
This is a very variable metric to use for comparison purposes, so for this review, we will consider the maximum data rate per user terminal, the typical services available in the market, and the overall available network capacity.
Maximum data speeds over fibre are really not a constraint, and to some extent, this applies to wireless networks too; this leaves LTE and LEO more as alternatives. While the maximum data rates for LEO services can be impressive at around 100Mbps/20Mbps, maximum data rates and overall network capacity are still expected to be more constrained than with LTE networks.
Ease of deployment
For the purposes of this review, ease-of-deployment refers to the user terminal deployment and not the network build program. From this perspective, LTE terminals are simple and easy to install. Fibre service installation to end-user points can require trenching and pathway works. LEO services will represent a big step forward in terms of ease-of-deployment since the user terminal antenna will be much easier to install than GEO terminals. Line-of-sight requirements will also be essentially eliminated.
Reliability and availability
These have always been the primary advantages of all satellite services, and this will remain the case in terms of LEO services. Anywhere, any time, always-on will form much of the market positioning of LEO services for various user applications.
Fibre, wireless and LTE terrestrial networks simply can’t match the high-availability, everywhere-available characteristics of satellite networks in general, and LEO networks specifically.