Gartner on low Earth orbit satellites and its potential for Africa

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Earlier this week Gartner released its Hype Cycle for ICT in Africa, identifying 24 technologies will shape business on the continent. The research firm highlighted three in particular which are predicted to have an effect over varying periods of time during the coming decade.

Two of those three have been spoken about in detail in recent years – smart cities and IoT.

Low earth orbit satellites however, which is the third technology, piqued our interest as the field is still looking to find its feet. This as sending assets into space is a very expensive process, not to mention the fact that the return on investment for such initiatives is still too difficult to gauge at this stage.

It’s also a technology which Gartner says will only begin to take shape within the next five to 10 years, which means quite a bit can happen between now and then in the sector.

With that in mind we decided to speak to senior principal analyst at Gartner, Bill Menezes, about the technology and where he sees the potential for low Earth orbit satellites heading.

The necessary assets

To date we’ve seen a number of firms try to beam down internet connectivity to varying degrees of success, with SpaceX being the latest to make its attempts with Starlink. When asked about who will be the major players in this field in the coming decade, Menezes points to the firms that already have assets in orbit.

“Some of the major players in the field are the companies that have the most assets to bring to bear,” he explains.

“Companies like Canada’s Telesat, which is an established satellite operator, but has now got its first satellite up for what will be a constellation for a low Earth orbit system that will provide broadband connectivity. They have the experience, the infrastructure, and you’d have to think that they have some sort of advantage going forward,” Menezes notes as an example.

Another factor is time to market, according to the senior principal analyst, with a firm like OneWeb which already has its first handful of low Earth orbit satellites in space for commercial testing. Commercial availability, however, is only expected to start until next year.

As such there is an interesting mix of firms vying for a space in the low Earth orbit field, many of which are still in the very early stages of deployment, which means the next couple of years will prove interesting from a development perspective.

Regulation needed?

Another important element in this equation to consider is regulation. Despite US president Trump’s call for a Space Force not being taking seriously, it does bring up a significant issue, namely the security of those expensive assets in orbit.

In this regard Menezes such regulatory concerns fall to bodies like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which companies sending assets into orbit will need to work with.

This is vital especially if firms want to ensure that their orbiting assets can serve a specific region without fear of interference from another satellite.

The ITU also oversees the number of satellites orbiting Earth, which with a well documented amount of junk floating in space around our planet, means things could soon get quite congested.

On this count Menezes cannot provide any definitive information, but once again points to bodies like the ITU, who are monitoring this field with keen interest.

Keeping a keen eye 

While Menezes is reticent to earmark specific companies or countries as being potential leaders in this field over the coming decade, purely as there isn’t enough data and industry information to go on, he has stressed the importance of service providers and businesses on the continent to carefully watch what is happening in this space.

This as, Menezes notes, is vitally important should businesses wish to gain traction in previously underserved areas thanks to the connectivity now afforded thanks to low Earth orbit satellites.

“What these organisations need to think about is where there is a potential for a return on investment from having this sort of connectivity,” he says.

“Many of these companies will be terrestrial service providers. If you think about the difficulty of having cellular or mobile coverage in far-flung regions or remote areas, all of a sudden with these satellite systems, you now have the potential to deliver the desired type of coverage,” adds Menezes.

The Gartner analyst continues by stating that the value of low Earth orbit satellite systems will be the ability to eliminate the need for additional infrastructure to towers in remote or underserved areas, which is often far more costly than erecting the tower itself.

As such these systems can negate those costs, and potentially make delivery to underserved areas far easier for businesses… should they see the ROI in doing so.

Beaming down more

Lastly we spoke to Menezes about the scope for applications of low Earth orbit satellites outside of simply beaming down connectivity.

We’re already seen the like of Amazon Web Services (AWS) announce its Ground Station plan late last year, which aims to place data centre-esque functionality on satellites and potentially limit the need for physical data centre presence in future.

This is certainly a potential use case for low Earth orbit satellites says Menezes.

“Ground Station is an interesting endeavour and from my discussions with Amazon is not predicated on launching its own satellites into orbit, so as other constellations become available, it would make sense for AWS to use the connectivity available for its Ground Station system,” he adds.

“The ability to access your data that way, as opposed to building your own ground-based infrastructure, would certainly prove more viable for AWS customers,” he concludes.

It therefore looks as if low Earth orbit satellites are one of the more intriguing technologies in Gartner’s Hype Cycle for ICT in Africa, but also one of the more difficult to predict at this stage. The next two to five years then, should prove quite interesting indeed.

[Image – Photo by NASA on Unsplash]

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Editor of Hypertext. Covers smartphones, IoT, 5G, cloud computing and a few things in between. Also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games when not taking the hatchet to stories.