Satellite-based Internet services continue to grow and will begin to compete with fibre and mobile broadband in the coming years. This is according to two South African ISPs who offer satellite broadband packages – Vox and MorClick. Most of the country’s highly-populated areas are capable of accessing the Internet via either fixed-line connectivity or mobile data coverage from the two biggest service providers in the country – Vodacom and MTN.
However, remote areas with fewer inhabitants don’t offer high returns on investment in fibre and base station infrastructure, which means they have weak or no data signal. One of the few alternative options available to users in these areas is satellite-based broadband. To get connected to a satellite Internet service, customers require a satellite customer premise equipment (CPE), which is similar to a DStv dish unit.
This transmits and receives connectivity to and from a satellite that is positioned in geostationary or geosynchronous orbit, 36,000 km away from Earth, and linked to a landing station to break out to the Internet. Due to the position of the satellite above the earth, it is capable of providing coverage to large areas.
Vox Head of Wireless Jacques Visser Said two primary issues with current satellite broadband connectivity were latency and cost. “The distance for data packages to travel from the CPE to the satellite and the landing station result in high latency – around 600ms -which causes a delay at the user,” Visser said.
In addition, he said the service is expensive due to the high costs of the CPE, its installation and international Internet break out when the landing station is located on another continent. In recent years, advancements have been made which improved data throughput, particularly for satellite connectivity operating in spectrum in the Ka-band.
MorClick said that while older satellite technologies had operated in lower frequency ranges – between 12GHz and 18GHz – Ka-band uses frequencies in the 26.5GHz to 40GHz range. “This higher frequency increases bandwidth, which means a higher data transfer rate and, therefore, higher performance and speed,” MorClick said.
This means satellite Internet packages are easily capable of supporting high-demand use-cases such as video and music streaming services, as well as video conferencing. The improvements have allowed MorClick and Vox to roll out uncapped satellite broadband products.
Visser said there are about 10 major providers that are responsible for 95% of the services provisioned over many different satellites, and MorClick noted that three of these were available in South Africa. MorClick and Vox use the YahClick service provided by Hughes, one of the world’s leading satellite Internet providers.
Entry-level plans from Vox start at less than R200 per month, while both ISPs offer uncapped packages at the following prices: Vox also provides an uncapped voice plan with unlimited calls to South African numbers at a fixed price of R172 per month. This service requires a satellite service with a voice channel at a slightly higher price.
Increased coverage, performance and pricing
MorClick said it has seen increased demand for its service during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“As the need for reliable, affordable Internet connections continues to grow to run small businesses and keep your home and family connected – so we feel that satellite will become the preferred choice of many South Africans living outside of key metropolitan areas,” it said.
Vox’s Visser said more satellite coverage can be expected in serviced areas in the coming years, with the added increase in backhaul data services to be provided for aeroplanes and vessels. Notably, the launch of additional Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites will offer attractive pricing for broadband and IoT services.
“High-throughput satellites positioned in MEO and LEO stationery will become operational in the next 12 to 24 months. These services will play an important role in under-serviced areas, as well as IoT,” Visser said. “It is expected that LEO satellite services will compete with terrestrial services from a pricing point of view,” he noted. According to Visser, LEO satellite services will be very close to earth with approximately 50ms latency at an attractive price point.
One of the most well-known LEO projects is Elon Musk’s Starlink venture, which aims to put a network of 12,000 satellites in orbit to provide global connectivity to remote and hard-to-reach locations. This service is expected to support latency of as low as 20ms, due to the satellites orbiting at only 550km above the earth. Visser said he expects Starlink to become available in South Africa in future, especially as a connectivity provider for vehicles, aeroplanes, and IoT.
He anticipates Starlink should replace many legacy services currently in use, taking over backhauls of GSM towers and ATM connectivity. In addition, it will be an alternative for redundant terrestrial services and can play an important role in mobile and tracking services, he added. Starlink is set to enter service in the US and Canada by the end of 2020, with a near-global rollout due in 2021.