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How low Earth orbit satellite networks improve internet access

Compared to traditional satellite setups, LEO satellite internet provides several benefits, such as low latency, reduced costs and better support for remote sites.

Enterprise WAN discussions have long centered on wired connectivity options, such as copper, coaxial and optical fiber. Increasingly, though, as 5G enterprise data services continue to spread and improve -- and costs for 4G services decline -- enterprises are paying more attention to their options for wireless WANs.

Of course, 4G and 5G cellular service are not the only wireless WAN options. Satellite networks have long provided internet access. However, traditional satellite internet access has its limitations, such as high costs of service in terms of megabits per second, low maximum bandwidth per link and high latencies. As a result, traditional satellite internet access has been a last resort. Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites promise to change that.

What is a LEO satellite network?

Dedicated satellite networks provide satellite internet services. Satellites are characterized primarily by the altitude at which they orbit Earth, the shape of the orbit and its angle to the equator.

High Earth orbit (HEO) satellites go around the Earth at or above an altitude of 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers). They have a geosynchronous orbit, resulting in a satellite that stays in place over a fixed spot on the ground. Medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites revolve anywhere below HEO but above 1,243 miles (2,000 km). They form the basis of many media and telecommunications networks and the current GPS system. LEO satellites orbit at or below 1,243 miles (2,000 km).

Many companies are building out LEO satellite constellations with a goal of providing broadband internet access for enterprises. The companies offering or planning to offer LEO satellite communications for internet access include Amazon, Hughes, OneWeb, Starlink, Telesat and Viasat. Hughes plans to offer managed services on the OneWeb network.

Why choose satellite WAN or internet

For many years, satellite connectivity has been expensive and subject to high latencies and packet loss compared to wired connectivity. So, why use it at all? In the past, the only answer to that question was: "We use it as a last resort when nothing else is available."

Satellite as primary connectivity was typical of ships at sea, planes in flight and facilities far from urban areas, such as pipeline monitoring stations and remote mines. Satellites as secondary connectivity made sense in places where only one wired connectivity provider was available but only until 4G and 5G cellular data services became nearly ubiquitous.

However, the push into LEO satellite networks has curbed bandwidth costs, packet loss and latency. The altitude of LEO satellites is less than one-tenth of the HEO altitude and of even some MEO systems. Because of this, LEO latency runs around 10% of previous systems' latencies, clocking in around 30 to 50 milliseconds.

Using satellite for primary or secondary connectivity is becoming more affordable. And, in many use cases, satellite performance is on par with available wired or cellular connectivity. Grocery and pharmacy chains and emergency services offices, as well as infrastructure and energy companies, have begun deploying LEO data services.

Can LEO achieve true 'work from anywhere?'

Looking beyond connecting locations, there's also the problem of connecting users to systems. The broad enterprise shift to support work-from-anywhere models has heightened interest in satellite internet connectivity for end users.

LEO constellations can already serve nearly any location in the continental U.S., for example, and large parts of the rest of the world as well. LEO-based internet could conceivably enable true "work from anywhere" and not just "anywhere in or near a city" -- and at reasonable prices with acceptable performance.

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