BT Madley Teleport
BT's Madley Communications Centre in the U.K. Credit: BT Global Services.

LONDON — Satellites have been the option of last resort for telecommunication companies and their customers in past decades, according to Renato Goodfellow, head of global satellite at BT Global Services. However, thanks to the development of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite mega-constellations and high-throughput satellites, the technology has a chance to become a less frowned upon element in the larger telecommunications ecosystem.

“Our customers generally loath satellites,” Goodfellow said Sept. 21 at the VSAT Global conference here. “Unless they go to a location in the middle of nowhere, unless they are on the move or in a country whose government might be turning off its telecoms.”

According to Goodfellow, 95 percent of BT’s network relies on terrestrial infrastructure. This, he said, is not likely to change, but with the latest developments, satellite is on a trajectory to become a more integral part of the firm’s portfolio and hopefully a more acceptable solution for customers.

“With Ku-band standard solutions, we would offer customers 2 Mbps connectivity and they would say ‘no, that’s not acceptable, we would rather wait for terrestrial even if it’s six months later,’” he said.

“Thanks to high-throughput satellites and especially Ka-band, we are able to offer cost-effectively a minimum of a 10 Mbps service, and those customers then say ‘yes, now satellite is giving us something that we can work with. We would accept satellites where terrestrial isn’t available.’”

LEO mega-constellations, according to Goodfellow, will further stir up the situation, finally doing away with the problem of latency typical for geostationary satellites.

“With LEO we hope that when we will be making propositions to customers for a satellite service, nobody will talk about half a second round trip delays and things not working,” Goodfellow said. “Now we will talk about 50 millisecond round-trip delays that make terrestrial and satellite part of the single solution that the customer is happy with.”

Goodfellow said he envisions, eventually, LEO telecom satellites being directly connected to mobile base stations, providing extra capacity to mobile phone users.

“At a later stage it could be directly your handheld device working with those satellites as well,” he said. “We really hope that high-throughput satellites and LEO will be the salvation of the satellite world.”

However, whether or not satellite technology makes it closer to mainstream telecoms will depend on the pricing these aspiring satellite operators will be able to offer, Goodfellow said. Network operators are seeing large amounts of new capacity coming to market, which puts downward pressure on prices. LEO satellite solutions would have to be able to compete in this market to make a mark.

“We are worried that this might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Goodfellow. “If the pricing of the market, because of competition, is attractive for the service providers but the satellite operators don’t think they’ll survive.”

Also speaking at the conference, Ronald van der Breggen, chief commercial officer of LeoSat, which plans to deploy a 78-satellite constellation for secure point-to-point broadband connectivity to corporate and governmental clients, said the firm’s offering would be fully competitive with other technologies in the market.

“When it comes to price, we will definitely be very competitive,” he said. “We know who we are going to be competing with. It will be fully competitive with the likes of [geostationary] high-throughput satellites, [medium-Earth orbit satellites] and everything else.”

LeoSat’s first two satellites are expected to launch in 2019.

Goodfellow said BT’s other major concern is whether or not flat, electronically-steered antennas will be up and running in time for LEO constellations.

“We really worry if the phased array antennas are not delivered on time and reliable. Having to fall back on mechanical moving part antennas, we really don’t want that scenario,” he said.

Electronically steered antennas can connect to more than one satellite simultaneously, streamlining the process of connecting from one LEO satellite to the next as they rise and set over the horizon. Van der Breggen said LeoSat anticipates using Phasor flat panel antennas for its constellation.

Tereza Pultarova is a London-based science and technology journalist and video producer, covering European space developments for SpaceNews. A native of the Czech Republic, she has a bachelors degree in journalism from the Charles University,...