Inmarsat: Filling IoT Coverage Gaps for ‘Always On’ Applications

A. Amir

Summary Bullets:

  • Satellite providers have key roles to drive IoT market especially in filling the coverage gaps in remote areas
  • Satellites are mainly used for backhaul network, not so practical as the last mile access due to its technical limitations such as latency and physical dimensions

While some satellite providers are entering the IoT space and compete against the mobile operators (for more, please see Cable and Satellite Companies Pushing into IoT: Can They Win Against Mobile Operators?, July 6, 2018) other satellite providers such as Inmarsat are partnering with carriers to fill the IoT coverage gaps in areas beyond cellular network can reach offshore oilrigs, airplanes in transit, remote environmental monitoring, and vehicle and people tracking. Based on GlobalData’s IoT Deployment Database, there are more than 100 satellite-based IoT deployments tracked, with an installed base that almost doubled in the last two years. This also reflects the IoT market trend shown by GlobalData IoT Project Insight 2017 (n=924) where 17% of IoT deployments today are on fleet management (the third highest after equipment management and building management). In some cases, the satellite network is also used in cellular areas, but offered as network diversity to offer higher availability for mission critical applications such as payment terminals in petrol stations.

Unlike terrestrial network services in which universal CPE and while labeling have become a norm due to NFV, satellite networks still require dedicated terminals. Inmarsat, one of the early satellite providers entering the IoT space, developed its Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) M2M to enable a wide range of IoT applications over satellite network (as the backhaul). Inmarsat is also actively driving the ecosystem and works with 40 partners from various technology areas to co-develop solutions based on customer demands. It partners with Vodafone to enable the carrier’s satellite IoT services. One of BGAN’s key advantages is the network runs on L-Band (1.5GHz). The low frequency band means the network is not prone to rain fade, which is a major issue in tropical countries.

However, that lower frequency band also means larger antennas and bulky terminal devices. The smallest BGAN M2M terminal available today has dimension of 20cm x 20cm, weigh 1.6kg and priced at around US$1,700. The size and price point make BGAN irrelevant as an IoT access network but more practical as IoT backhaul with LPWAN as the last mile, especially cost is still one of the major challenges in IoT implementations, as found in the same study. The study also shows 18% of IoT deployments require real-time communications while others require regular, batch processing, and exception-based communications. Providing real-time communications is another limitation for satellite operators. Just like other satellite networks, BGAN tends to have high latency.  Inmarsat claimed it to be from 800ms, which may significantly affect performance of certain applications such as voice and video conferencing and smart vehicles with driving-assistance where milliseconds matter.

Therefore, due to technical limitations in satellite network compared to terrestrial, satellite providers will likely continue to be IoT enablers as backhaul network instead of last mile access. Satellite providers also need to increase its initiative in driving the ecosystem as well as expand their partnership with carriers to enable ubiquitous coverage with high availability IoT services.


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