What will nano-satellites for communications bring to Latin America? Credit: By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Networking & Communications

What will nano-satellites for communications bring to Latin America?

Nano-satellites will soon be helping to provide affordable communication services to remote areas of Latin America thanks to a new partnership between Sky and Space Global and mobile satellite service provider Globalsat.

The telco giant signed a customer agreement with Sky and Space Global having seen great potential in the company’s narrow band (S-band) communication infrastructure, for which the organisation was awarded Frost & Sullivan’s Technology Innovation Award in 2016. Under the memorandum of understanding (MOU) it will explore the provision of these communication services to its end users.

Sky and Space Global is the first company to bring nano-satellites into the communications market, having to date only been used for-profit in the earth observation sector. It has developed a networking management software platform that provides its satellite constellation reliable inter-connections, which allows it to deliver uninterrupted connectivity services irrespective of which satellite the user connects to.

Removing the need for a network of ground stations for telemetry, the platform also enables the constellations to function autonomously, performing essential transmission activities and ‘heath checks’.

“What we’re bringing to the table is a very sophisticated way of controlling the constellation,” explains Meir Moalem, CEO and Managing Director of Sky and Space Global. “The satellites work as ‘routers in space’, managing both themselves and the data traffic autonomously. No one has used inter-satellite communication in space the way we plan to,” he says.

As well as providing a high-tech communication solution, the nano-satellites are also much cheaper to build, launch and replace than traditional communication satellites. This provides the opportunity to deliver more affordable connectivity services to remote locations in developing economies where affordability is a key factor in determining success.

Sky and Space Global will be launching its first nano-satellite constellation, made up of 200 nano-satellites, over the equatorial region in 2018. Its aim is to provide more affordable connectivity solutions to remote communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia Pacific.

“Nano-satellites are very cheap to manufacture and launch into space, so the CAPEX for our entire constellation is roughly US$150m dollars – the cost is roughly ten per cent lower than traditional models. This removes the entry barrier for a lot of customers in the region, as many people cannot pay the current user cost of around $2-3 per minute,” highlights Moalem.

There’s a growing demand for connectivity in Latin America, which is being addressed with the adoption of fibre optic solutions where possible. Responding to this demand, undersea fibre links are continuing to connect Latin America with other regions to provide more capacity, and Argentina and Chile are both building a fibre backbone for their countries.

However, satellite continues to play an integral role in reaching those living outside of the main cities.

“Latin America is characterised for having large countries and therefore it has its own communication infrastructure challenges,” notes Diego Ansini, Research Director of Infrastructure, at IDC. “Capital cities and financial areas will have more offerings, competition and better prices, but if you go to secondary or tertiary cities then you’ll maybe find just one or two operators and higher prices as the investment is less. In the remote areas there’s no other way to have connectivity than via satellites.”

“Every industry and sector is affected by an increasing need for 24/7 connectivity and in areas with little or no infrastructure satellite communications are a simple and interoperable way to fill the gap,” continues J. Alberto Palacios, CEO of Globalsat Group. “Therefore there is continuous interest in satcom-based communication and growth in some sectors if you are able to create added value and differentiators to traditional solutions.”

As Frost & Sullivan’s Latin American Research Manager Ignacio Perrone notes, this new agreement with SSG “opens the door to a stronger Globalsat, with a broader offer”. Globalsat understands that in order to go beyond its current customer base in Latin America it needs to offer lower service costs, which is something Sky and Space Global’s technical solution enables.

“The technological breakthroughs and paradigm shifts under which Sky and Space Global is working would allow us to offer machine to machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity quite below the current price points, which in turn would allow a significant increase in the cost-effective use of satellite communications,” Palacios notes.

Part of the paradigm shift is also having a business model that accounts for change. Lower orbits and smaller satellites usually mean the hardware will last for less time and therefore needs to be replaced more frequency. But instead of being a problem, this can be seen as an advantage.

Technical innovation moves so quickly that instead of having to wait 25 years for a new satellite, which has been the status quo, 25% of Sky and Space Global’s nano-satellites will be replaced each year, providing the latest technology and capabilities. This is means that several generations of communication protocols will be supported by the constellation at any given time, keeping the system protocol-agnostic and obsolescence-resistant.

Satellite communication solutions may have a niche market, but it’s one that’s here to stay. Thanks to its high cost it’s never going to become more popular than ground infrastructure, however it’s the go-to solution for regions where the cost of deploying such solutions is too high. Now, with Sky and Space Global’s new lower cost solution, there’s a hope that more of the region’s citizens – and its smaller, regional businesses, will have access to a reliable and affordable communication network.

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Keri Allan

Keri Allan is a freelance journalist and editor who has been covering the engineering and technology sector for over 15 years, writing for titles including E&T Magazine, The Engineer and Arabian Computer News.

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