Up, Up, and Away: Satellites Add to IoT Options, with New Capabilities on the Rise

K. Weldon
K. Weldon

Summary Bullets:

  • Satellite services augment/complement cellular coverage for IoT deployments in specific verticals and hard-to-reach geographies.
  • Recent enhancements from satellite providers improve speed and latency, and new management platforms and vertical solutions make them even more compelling.

Service providers such as Iridium, Inmarsat, Orbcomm, and Globecomm have been offering satellite services for many years in order to serve enterprise mobility and IoT deployment requirements where cellular service is weak or unavailable. These include rural areas and other locations where there is little or no connectivity such as aboard ships and in military installations. Some providers, such as Globecomm, partner with carriers, offering backup services for IoT to AT&T in far-flung global locations. Others are MVNOs that aggregate an array of carriers’ cellular access in addition to offering their own satellite capabilities.

Many of these providers are going beyond ‘vanilla’ connectivity, offering value-added services. For example, Orbcomm offers end-to-end solutions in asset tracking, monitoring, control, and security for road/inter-modal transport, as well as heavy equipment along with its own subscriber, device, and app management platforms, hardware (18 SKUs), and professional services. Globecomm also has its own connectivity platform and IoT solutions that include ‘industrial video,’ i.e. video surveillance as well as remote ‘field-casting,’ which broadcasts an event from anywhere in the world, streams it live, and archives and secures the content for on-demand viewing. Iridum sells to the government for military operations and is also well represented in heavy equipment deployments for asset tracking and geofencing use cases. It has a unique channel strategy where it sells direct to the government, sells handsets and trackers directly to end users, and uses VARs to reach businesses.

In addition, the technology is getting better. Once perceived as low-speed, high-latency, expensive options, new low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite launches have heightened the usefulness of satellite services for more diverse use cases. LEO satellites provide shorter transmission paths, stronger signals, lower latency, and shorter registration time than with legacy geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellites. Iridium’s Certus offering, for example, is supported by its new NEXT satellites, which can provide IoT data transmission at rates of about 1.4 Mbps – lower than 4G for sure, but faster than many of the LPWAN access types being rolled out today that are designed for low-bandwidth, sporadic data transmission requirements. Newer satellites using the Ka band are achieving downstream data speeds of up to 50 Mbps. Inmarsat’s latest satellites use a combination of fixed narrow spot beams that enable it to deliver higher speeds through more compact terminals and steerable beams which allow capacity to be directed to where it’s needed. Satellite communication networks also offer superior coverage and reliability, with up to 99.9% uptime – crucial in the event of extreme weather or an emergency.

Use cases for satellite are expanding; smart agriculture is a growing area, while connected cars and connected aircraft are other scenarios that may benefit from a combination of access solutions to ensure reliable connectivity. A combination of cellular and satellite access for mobile use cases makes sense for deployments that need backup options, high reliability, and wide geographical coverage.

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