Shot in the dark
Low Earth orbit satellites have the potential to provide a lucrative new revenue stream for state enterprises, but their business model still requires testing
Imagine connecting to high-speed internet anywhere in the world, including deep in the forest, high in the mountains or even the ocean, without relying on terrestrial telecom cell sites. Life would be much easier for many people, especially those in remote areas.
This is not a fiction, and it could happen in the coming years because of the power of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.
The technology has courted attention from several Thai enterprises as a new business opportunity in the telecom segment.
Some formed a joint venture to study LEO satellites and started program coding for it, while others entered an agreement to seek ways to provide satellite gateway services in connection with LEO satellites and engage in the marketing and sale of LEO satellite services in the region.
Local capital funds have requested information about the technology from satellite service providers to stay updated on the technology.
LEO satellites seem to be drawing the most interest from governments, mining companies, shipping conglomerates and people in remote areas. The technology is in the early stages of development and its commercial service has yet to materialise.
However, some observers believe that LEO satellites' broadband service could become a threat to existing fixed broadband providers in the years to come.
In the vanguard for this technology is SpaceX, a US rocketry firm founded by Elon Musk, under the Starlink project, a satellite constellation that provides satellite internet access.
As of Aug 7, 595 Starlink satellites have been launched. Its initial plan to send 12,000 Starlink satellites to space has been approved by the US Federal Communications Commission. In October 2019, the company sought permission to send 30,000 more to space.
American tech behemoth Amazon came up with Project Kuiper, which it said supports the launch of a constellation of LEO satellites that will provide "low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world".
It plans to send an initial fleet of 3,236 LEO satellites to space.
Another competitor is UK-based OneWeb, with 74 satellites already in orbit and hundreds more planned. The company, which filed for bankruptcy, received a boost in early July when the British government and Indian telecoms conglomerate Bharti Enterprises said they would together raise US$1 billion to buy OneWeb.
China is not missing this trend. State-owned China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp aims to embark with a network of 156 satellites by 2022.
Both SpaceX and OneWeb said partial networks could provide service in 2021.
HOW THEY WORK
LEO satellites operate between 500 and 2,000 kilometres from Earth's surface, versus traditional communication satellites, also known as geostationary satellites, which are higher up at around 36,000km. The lower orbit means lower latency in signal transmission.
As signals can travel faster through space than fibre-optic cable, LEO satellites have the potential to rival ground-based networks.
OneWeb said in July 2019 that a test of its LEO satellites showed they delivered broadband speeds of more than 400 megabits per second with average latency of 32 milliseconds (ms), compared with geostationary satellites that have a median latency of almost 600ms.
The test demonstrates its satellite constellation's ability to "provide superior broadband connectivity anywhere on the planet", the company said in a release.
At lower altitudes, LEO satellites move around the globe faster, at about 8km per second, compared with geostationary satellites that move at a speed that matches Earth's rotation.
Accordingly, a small part of the LEO satellite orbit is visible to receivers on the ground, so multiple satellites are important to ensure a permanent internet connection.
Once operational, Mr Musk says the Starlink satellite network is expected to generate $30-50 billion in revenue per year.
NEW JOINT VENTURE
Back in Thailand, SET-listed satellite service provider Thaicom and state enterprise CAT Telecom recently formed a joint venture to serve as a hub for LEO satellite service in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The JV is aimed at providing satellite gateway services and solutions as well as marketing and the sale of LEO satellite services. In the JV with registered capital of 10 million baht, Thaicom holds a 75% stake, while CAT holds 25%.
Thaicom chief executive Anant Kaewruamvongs said the formation of the JV is to capitalise on the demand for high-speed internet and innovative applications. The move also helps to ensure Thaicom's business after its satellite operating concession with the Digital Economy and Society Ministry ends in September 2021.
Thaicom operates two satellites under a revenue-sharing concession regime: Thaicom 4 broadband satellite, or iPSTAR, and Thaicom 6 broadcasting satellite.
He said Thaicom also entered into various non-disclosure agreements with other global satellite business operators for joint work and study.
"The company expects to engage in operational and marketing partnerships with LEO service providers," Mr Anant said.
He said Thaicom believes in the strength of its global communication network and management, as well as marketing and sales channels. CAT has strength in gateway service, submarine fibre and telecom network.
Targeted LEO businesses include network engineering, gateway service as well as marketing and sales, he said.
CAT Telecom's president, Col Sanpachai Huvanandana, said the advantage of LEO satellites is lower signal latency, which can be compatible with Internet of Things (IoT) devices, machine-to-machine technology, drones and applications that require high levels of accuracy, such as remote surgery.
LEO satellites can provide high bandwidth network service with low communication latency, he said.
Another state telecom enterprise, TOT, entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Mu Space Corp, a Thai satellite and space tech startup, in July to tap the LEO satellite business.
The cooperation starts with a joint study and testing of program coding for server payload in rockets as a trial for signal transmission.
Under the plan, TOT aims to provide gateway stations for LEO satellites and strives to own LEO satellites through a consortium model in the future, said TOT acting president Morakot Thienmontree.
He said TOT set up a working group to study and conduct a lab test for LEO satellites early this year.
The working group consists of 60 TOT executives and staff as well as a small group of science-based high school students under the TOT academy.
"LEO satellite development is seen as a revolution in mobile connectivity in the new economy, especially for the next 3-5 years when the technology is expected to mature commercially worldwide," Mr Morakot said.
He said TOT has studied the potential of business opportunities in connection with LEO satellites and conducted program coding tests at TOT's satellite ground stations since early this year.
The cooperation with Mu Space includes trial program coding for server payloads of rockets. Mu Space is responsible for booking payload quotas in the rockets for testing.
TOT has one satellite gateway station in Bangkok and another in the Northeast.
"The LEO satellite business is compatible with 5G tech, and it could be a tech killer for traditional telecom infrastructure providers in the future," Mr Morakot said.
Gateway stations, cellular networks and fibre-optics providers could be in trouble if the "cloud storage" concept in space happens, with data servers sent to the sky, he said.
"I think the LEO satellite business could offer free broadband internet for a mass market, which can be called the 'Internet for Thai' project in reality," Mr Morakot said.
This technology could be considered a public service and it would be difficult for any existing broadband operator to prevent as it serves customer demand, he said. Users may only need a small, easily installed satellite disk to log on the service.
Mu Space chief operating officer Samathorn Teankingkaeo said an LEO satellite constellation would enable remote areas in Thailand to access the internet.
Referring to the cooperation with TOT, he said the move would help "strengthen the space business in Thailand".
TOT has potential in the space and satellite business in Thailand because of its strong infrastructure, Mr Samathorn said.
Responding to concerns LEO satellite broadband service would be a threat to mobile operators, he said satellite services and the 5G network could still be used in parallel in the future.
"In the big city, mobile operators can provide coverage on every corner. In remote areas, satellite operators can provide much larger coverage," Mr Samathorn said. "They both have different advantages and features, depending on customer usage."
Pisut Ngamvijitvong, senior analyst at Kasikorn Securities (KS), said some local funds asked KS for updates on LEO satellite development and business potential.
KS has invited both Mu Space and Thaicom to provide information about potential business to the management of funds.
The LEO satellite trend is seeing interest from both telecom operators and investors, but is yet to be commercially viable globally, he said.
"LEO satellite service could be a threat to fixed broadband providers, though it is still difficult to match 5G service because of the limited capacity of satellites in the sky and obstacles that could hinder communication signals," Mr Pisut said.
There is still no clear picture about what business model would be used, he said.
Another telecom veteran who requested anonymity said LEO satellite service still has a disadvantage in terms of signal latency.
Although LEO satellites have a signal latency of about 30ms, which is better than the 40ms of the 4G network, it is inferior to the 5G network, which has a latency of less than 1ms.