Advances in space tech are changing the communication landscape


By Professor Tim Whitley, MD, Applied Research and MD Adastral Park

It’s the month of looking expectantly to the skies. As technologists, we’re doing just that.

Space has become a key connectivity battleground for the likes of OneWeb, Kuiper and Starlink. Although Low Earth Orbit (LEO) technology has been around for quite a while, it offers solutions whose time might finally be coming.

Early deployments of new technologies nearly always focus on more populated areas. These are where the commercial returns are, which help, in part, to fund the rollout of technology to less populated areas. But with growing competition and coverage in urban centres, attention has now turned to covering ever more remote and rural areas. Not only is this important for Governments in supporting access to modern technologies for all the population, but it’s also a key differentiator for telcos too. 

In the UK, EE’s 4G coverage is more than 2,500 square miles larger than its nearest competitor. For organisations that require higher bandwidth for the latest apps and services, reliable connectivity or quick set-up, for example during emergencies, across wide and remote areas, that’s a key USP.

But the incremental rollout of networks means that very hard to reach locations that need better connections, remain. This can be hugely expensive and time consuming to deploy and for that reason they were the subject of a Government consultation earlier this year. But new technologies look like they may help to solve some of those problems and this month sees a couple of important milestones.

Since signing a global deal with OneWeb last year, we’ve installed and monitored performance of their system at our research headquarters at Adastral Park, Ipswich, plus undertaken trials at our EE lab in Bristol and our satellite communications operations centre of excellence at Madley, UK. We’re now taking the next step and installing equipment with a couple of our business customers, including a multinational company with operations in some of the most difficult to reach places in the world. If tests are successful, this will lead to the first field trials next year, both in the UK and beyond, promising a robust solution that could help transform the way a number of industries operate, from farming and mining to maritime and logistics.

Routes to market are key for this technology and for now, they are more clearly for businesses than consumers. The capacity offered by OneWeb’s satellite constellation isn’t yet ready for mass market adoption so BT is taking a “business customers first, households to follow” sequence for the OneWeb solution, to ensure we’re only offering solutions that are appropriate to the customer. Over time this will change. Just last week OneWeb sent a further 40 satellites into space via a Falcon9 rocket in Florida. The launch of more satellites will boost capacity and make the connections more apt for UK consumer use.

This is an exciting development. Traditional infrastructure is very capital intensive and can be slow to deploy. LEO solutions could help to cut some of these costs, as well as providing high quality connectivity — or backup — where it wasn’t possible before. Geologists in the field can easily set up a high-bandwidth, low-latency connection to transmit data in real time, rather than taking them home on hard disks. Companies can connect newly built facilities in remote areas where the infrastructure is not ready yet. And they also offer IoT and automation opportunities that could be used in asset tracking, livestock management, farms, substations, reservoirs, and many other sensor applications. Finally, with network resilience firmly in our minds, LEOs could be ideal to provide back up support in areas where the existing infrastructure is potentially fragile or hard to repair.

And while a mass market solution for consumers isn’t yet there, we’re beginning to see some initial offerings. Starlink dishes are a viable broadband option for properties that can afford the technology and were one of the providers in a recently announced Government pilot in Wales. And Apple’s iPhone 14 Emergency SOS service, first tested in North America, is now coming to a few select countries in Europe, including the UK this month. The service allows iPhone users to send an emergency text via a Globalstar satellite connection if they are beyond the reach of a mobile or Wi-Fi connection.

This technology remains formative in its application to real world consumers and it can take some time for a message to send or be received. But that it’s even possible at all shows that technology investment is beginning to make even the remotest places connectable.