Arctic connectivity competition is heating up
Satellite operators are venturing into the Arctic to improve connectivity as the changing atmospheric and geopolitical climate drives demand for more bandwidth in one of Earth’s last remaining frontiers.
Fledgling and established operators alike see a growing market for capacity in areas best served by satellites in non-geostationary orbit (NGSO).
OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink, the world’s largest broadband megaconstellations in low Earth orbit (LEO), already have polar-orbiting satellites in their expanding fleets.
SES is looking at using inclined planes to cover the Arctic with O3b mPower, its next-generation medium Earth orbit network that aims to start deploying satellites this year.
The Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission (ASBM) — a joint venture between British satellite operator Inmarsat, the Norwegian Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Air Force — plans to deploy two satellites in highly elliptical orbits on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in 2023 for polar coverage.
Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) has outlined plans to add four satellites in highly elliptical orbits to its fleet in the following years to extend coverage deep into the Arctic Circle.
And Telesat has committed to connecting indigenous communities in Canada’s northernmost areas with its planned LEO constellation in return for government funding.
These high-speed networks are looking to transform connectivity in the Arctic. For decades, Iridium Communications has been the only operator able to provide continuous coverage over the poles — and only for less bandwidth-hungry services such as mobile telephony and various monitoring and tracking applications.
For higher bandwidth needs, operators have been using satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO) to cover parts of the Arctic with a line of sight to their fixed positions along the equator, noted Armand Musey, founder of advisory firm Summit Ridge Group.
The curvature of the Earth means geostationary satellites positioned above the equator can’t reach high polar altitudes. However, Musey said militaries and other government users have previously tasked older GEOs that have drifted north or south of their original equatorial orbits to provide capacity in these areas.
“The polar coverage for a non-station kept satellite is usually only for several hours a day at each pole,” he said.
GEO satellites also call for using larger and more expensive dishes the closer they are to the poles because of the low elevation angles, and “even then small variations in the terrain can block the look angle.”
“For NGSO constellations with polar orbits, the opposite is true,” he said.
“The satellites are crossing at the poles, and that is where capacity and look angles are the best.”
MORE USE CASES
Despite government subsidies for connecting remote Arctic areas often poorly served by terrestrial solutions, the region’s population is relatively small and has not historically proven to be a major market for the satellite industry.
But while the Arctic continues to be seen as a niche market, satellite companies are increasingly investing in the area as a number of factors drive demand for more capacity.
More planes with passengers demanding better inflight Wi-Fi are flying over the poles to reach international destinations, and the warming climate is carving out more efficient shipping routes that are increasing the flow of maritime traffic.
The Arctic is also rich in natural resources, and its strategic importance to governments will have likely increased after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine significantly deteriorated relations with the West.
Musey pointed out that some of the markets coming into focus in the region, particularly maritime and aviation, are among the fastest-growing users of satellite connectivity worldwide.
Data from Northern Sky Research published in November — three months before Ukraine was invaded — forecasted commercial satcoms demand from government and military customers to climb from about 1,000 gigabits per second (Gbps) to 12 Gbps by 2030.
“While that’s a small opportunity in the grand scheme of things,” noted NSR’s Brad Grady, the projected growth rate between 2020 and 2030 is nearly four times that of Europe, which is expected to achieve the next best growth rate over the period.
Geopolitical rebalancing due to the Ukraine conflict could accelerate the demand, and Grady said there are also “highly likely” to be proprietary military satcoms networks that provide an additional layer of connectivity to government and military customers given the strategic importance of the region.
For the Arctic’s commercial maritime market, NSR expects demand to grow to around 80 Gbps by 2030 at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 60%.
Merchant traffic using northern sea routes, passenger exploration-class cruise vessels transiting through higher northern latitudes, fishing, and the potential for more oil and gas exploration are driving demand here.
“Again, it’s a relatively small opportunity, but it presents some of the highest 10-year CAGR for capacity demand in the maritime market,” Grady said.
“Overall, we expect more vessels to be present in the Arctic as we see more ice-class newbuilds on the horizon, melting polar ice caps enabling safer operations, and longer-term development of arctic resources.”
NSR does not currently provide similar forecasts in the region for aviation, but Grady said the recent shutdown of Russian airspace to Western flights, which is forcing more planes to fly over the Arctic to avoid traveling through the country, increases inflight connectivity demand over the region at least in the near term.
NEW NGSO BATTLEGROUND
Because high-speed NGSO broadband systems are much better suited for Arctic communications than GEO, Musey expects these operators to pursue the market “far more aggressively” to carve out new business opportunities.
Unlike Starlink, all of OneWeb’s satellites orbit from pole to pole, so it has no choice but to cover the region. The Western ban on using Russian rockets has also paused OneWeb’s satellite deployments, leaving the upper part of the northern hemisphere the only area it has activated services to date.
All broadband megaconstellations “have always had the challenge that ~70% of the earth is water,” Musey said via email, and with “access to the Russian and Chinese markets now largely closed, every other region, including the arctic, becomes that much more important to making their business models close.”
“OneWeb has a number of user terminals installed across Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Norway today with sites in Denmark, Finland and Iceland coming online in the near term,” said Dylan Browne, OneWeb’s vice president of government sales.
“These early adopted sites have applications ranging from Community Broadband to Defense and Security services.”
He said OneWeb is also testing services with offshore energy platforms and prototyping with naval fleets for Arctic patrols.
“We are also working with telecommunications companies to provide network extensions to businesses and communities inside the Arctic Circle,” Browne added.
“OneWeb is in active discussion with a number of airlines that anticipate to fly polar routes where existing broadband satellite connectivity doesn’t reach.”
Inmarsat says ASBM has an advantage over LEO competitors because it will offer the only capability specifically designed for the region.
LEO operators “make a big deal out of the fact they serve the Arctic, but they were never designed to serve the Arctic; it’s just that kind of comes for free,” said Peter Hadinger, Inmarsat’s chief technology officer.
Norway’s government is the prime system owner for ASBM’s two satellites, which are designed to hand off to each other so that one is always positioned above the North Pole at any given time.
The spacecraft will provide connectivity for Norway in X-band, for the U.S. government in EHF — both in military frequencies — and for Inmarsat in Ka-band in military and commercial frequencies.
“We have a combined commercial military payload so that we can serve the airlines that are flying the shortcut route across the pole, serve the shipping industry that’s sailing along the various northern sea routes, and also serve the governments who have UAVs, which prefer the use of Ka-band for their links,” Hadinger said.
ASBM’s systems in Ka-band will be compatible with the U.S. military’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) system, according to Hadinger, which is supported by Australia and other U.S. allies. WGS currently does not have a polar component.
FRESH LOOK AT THE ARCTIC
For most of Inmarsat’s more than 40 years of existence, the company focused on bringing connectivity to the world that can be seen from geostationary orbits — essentially everything but the poles.
“There really wasn’t a whole lot of business to be made there, quite honestly,” Hadinger said.
“A lot of this changed as we started getting into Global Xpress and a few things sort of coincided,” he said, referring to Inmarsat’s collection of mostly Ka-band satellites that it started deploying in GEO in 2013.
Periods of open sea lane across the north of Canada and Russia were getting longer due to global warming, he said, increasing shipping traffic as more vessels took the “shortcut northern route” between oceans.
“At the same time, those governments who were used to having ice-blocked northern borders all of a sudden had to start worrying about the fact that there were ships sailing across their northern borders,” he said.
“And they had no defenses up there. They had no way of observing what was going on, so they wanted to fly patrol UAVs back and forth across these vast Arctic expanses” to monitor their borders.
The geopolitical landscape also shifted around the same time, as countries with conflicting claims to Arctic resources started ramping up rhetoric around territorial rights.
“The big problem for many, if not all people trying to serve the Arctic, is the demand there is so small that it’s hard to make a business case for a satellite system just to serve the Arctic,” Hadinger added.
That’s a problem he thinks Inmarsat has solved by teaming up with governments.
Hadinger said the operator is also open to a similar arrangement for the South Pole.
“I don’t think we’ve quite found as much commercial and government demand in the South Pole, but we have told … southern governments that we’d be happy to entertain a similar kind of construct, as we did with Norway and the United States, if there was sufficient demand out there,” he said.
DEFENDING THE MARKET
Although more NGSO satellites are coming to the Arctic region, Iridium continues to see a market for its low-power services for applications that include scientific research, emergency SOS and environmental and natural resource monitoring.
“There are going to be multiple suppliers of Arctic services for broadband purposes, which is great,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch said.
But these services will mostly require large, power-hungry terminals, he said, and most of them will be fixed and not designed for mobility applications.
“There still needs to be small devices you can carry with you that you can put on your dog sled that don’t require a pizza-size-antenna while you’re on there,” Desch said.
Iridium also owns a part of Aireon, which uses the operator’s satellites to track planes.
Isavia ANS, Iceland’s air navigation service provider, said April 14 it has agreed to expand its use of Aireon’s services to the upper reaches of its controlled airspace, which extends from the North Pole to Scotland and from the prime meridian in Greenwich to west of Greenland.
“I think the Arctic region continues to be more and more important,” Desch said.
“No, it’s not as dramatic in terms of bandwidth requirements as [elsewhere], but increasingly people are realizing that the demand is only going to increase and it will be a good market — it will be a good market for them and it’ll continue to be a good market for us.”
He said industry attitudes about the Arctic have changed since Iridium started deploying its constellation around the turn of the century.
Attending one of his first satellite industry conferences, Desch recalled a GEO competitor telling an audience how no one cares about polar coverage because “only polar bears and penguins” would use it.
“Now of course, they’re launching a polar-orbiting service,” he quipped.
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.