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Can Satellite Networks Disrupt Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) Connectivity?

Illustration: © IoT For All

It may seem far-fetched given the current numbers today: technologies such as NB-IoT and LoRa are in the hundreds of millions of connections while only a few million devices are connected via satellite networks.  However, ABI Research has analyzed the implications of a technology segment they call Low Power Sensor to Satellite (LP-S2S) which they predict will increase the total number of connected devices by more than a billion. 

Satellite Connectivity

Naturally, this type of connectivity would also be poised to a large share of the 3.6 billion connected devices in 2025 that are conventionally attributed to technologies like NB-IoT and LoRa. ABI Research believes that the LP-S2S ecosystem will not only increase market adoption for IoT services but also take market share from terrestrial connectivity technologies.

Consider a satellite as a very tall, very effective communication tower with, from Low Earth Orbit (500 km), a coverage footprint the size of the United States and you can start to understand the promise.  Although it’s natural to be skeptical of such a claim given how long satellite has been available as a connectivity option with a minimal volume of  IoT connected devices to date, there are a few seismic technology shifts that are creating an inflection point.

Commoditization of Space

The reduction of the cost of satellites themselves has reduced the economics of a satellite constellation considerably. CubeSats are typically less than a foot tall, weigh approximately ten pounds, and are now are available from a variety of sources at high quality and low-cost. 

The other segments of launching a satellite constellation are similarly commoditized including the global ground station network that serves as backhaul, the rockets to deliver them (most notably SpaceX changing the cost of launch dramatically), as well as the mission management component.

The Evolution of Silicon Technology

When thinking of satellite endpoints, it’s likely you visualize brick-size, power-hungry endpoints that require a large antenna pointed at the sky.  Given the continual progression of Moore’s Law (silicon processing power doubling every 18-24 months and not slowing down), it’s now possible to connect, even indoors,  from a thumb-sized device, with an embedded antenna while maintaining multiple-year battery life on AA sized or smaller batteries. 

Another attribute of silicon technology is that enough LPWA endpoints can be supported for each CubeSat so that the pricing looks much more like NB-IoT pricing (a few dollars a year) than the $100 of even the cheapest, smallest data-usage plans for satellite service available today.

Broad technology shifts will enable a class of satellite connectivity that solves many of the limitations associated with existing terrestrial technologies. These include global indoor coverage on a single network, the ability to accurately track location without the cost, power, or coverage limitations of an additional integrated GPS/GNSS receiver and, if the waveform is implemented correctly, battery-life limitations that NB-IoT experiences for devices that are moving and handing over between cellular base stations.

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