Business Analysis

Low Earth Orbit satellites to shake up telecoms market

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LEO satellites enable rural areas to benefit from better quality broadband (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Government is taking steps towards investing in increased satellite connectivity to upgrade service to remote areas, writes Paul Budde.

AS WE HAVE foreshadowed before, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite systems such as StarLink – but increasingly also others – are going to have a serious impact on the overall telecommunications landscape in Australia, especially in the regional and remote parts of the country.

So, it didn’t come as a surprise that both the Northern Territory and the Western Australian governments are going to change their focus from terrestrial solutions for regional and remote telecommunications infrastructure to satellites. This will have a serious impact on the future of the NBN in Australia.

In a parliamentary inquiry, both governments discussed the limitations of conventional telco infrastructure investment. With limited potential for co-investment, the Government plans to start looking more to LEO satellite connections, investing in new satellite technologies to achieve hybrid solutions that can provide urban-grade service in remote areas.

The unique challenges faced by these governments, including vast distances and isolated communities, make trenching fibre or implementing other solutions commercially unviable. Telcos have focused on connecting schools to telco services using independent modelling, indicating that LEO satellite technologies have significant potential. The Government anticipates expanding connectivity to various government personnel and agencies including police stations and health clinics in the future.

The Territory Government emphasised the need for facilitation and enabling rather than heavy regulation to improve telco services, with a belief that technology advancements will drive progress more effectively. The WA Government highlighted issues such as capacity, affordability, device specifications and the management of potential costs.

Digital inclusion remains a challenge in remote areas, where the conventional urban, plan-based approach to telecommunications is not applicable. Handheld devices, such as budget Android handsets with prepaid services, are the primary means of consuming digital content and communication in these regions.

The Universal Service Guarantee and Universal Service Obligation, designed for regional and urban models, do not effectively address the telecommunications needs in the Northern Territory. Long-term contracts, reliable power supply, suitable infrastructure, and consistent bandwidth pose hurdles for accessing government services and streaming content in remote areas.

In the meantime, the Minister for Communication, Michelle Rowland, has acknowledged that the arrival of LEOs is a game-changer and that this will require some changes to the Universal Service Obligation.

Also recently, a report from KPMG called ‘Future of Telco’ indicates that advancements in LEO satellites could shake up traditional network connectivity for Australian telcos. The report says that given the current level of competition and the aggressive plans from some key players, the promise of global connectivity through LEO satellite constellations is coming closer to reality.

According to the report, the constellations are a new competitor with global reach and different unit economics and could up-end the industry’s overall investment and business strategy. This is one of the only technologies in development today that could fundamentally increase telcos’ customer base, including rural populations and private enterprise networks.

The report also urges traditional telcos to explore the use of satellite technology as it could threaten how they deliver content to consumers and businesses and will need new strategies in order to expand.

In regard to regulation, Australian telcos will take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to implementing data privacy rules and a digital identity framework as uncertainty remains over the Government’s regulatory requirements. The report says carriers will need to establish more robust data privacy and cyber security controls across their networks, applications and operations to maintain compliance.

But there is uncertainty over what regulatory requirements will be imposed because the Government and the regulators have yet to finalise their positions. Telcos are reluctant to implement early adoption of the regulations and will keep policy development at bay until the last minute. This is despite having already invested heavily in preparing for the introduction of tighter rules for the sector.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning tools will be central to future telco investment as 5G networks are rolled out across the country. The consultancy sees a five-to-six-year gap to the introduction of next-generation 6G, as we discussed in a separate article.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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