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How LEO constellations are not only a viable backhaul solution for non-urban areas, but also a cheaper one, for MNOs and ISPs

Fort Amherst St. Johns, St. John's Canada

Unfortunately, about half the world’s population does not have access to affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet. Mobile network operators (MNOs) and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) desire to expand their broadband networks and bridge this digital divide; but to date, backhaul and network deployment for most connectivity infrastructure options has been too difficult or expensive to implement.

To address this, the Rural Broadband Consortium formed in May 2019 by C Spire, Microsoft, Nokia, Airspan Networks, Siklu and later joined by Telesat, to evaluate different technologies and how they fit into new business models that will enable MNOs and ISPs to bring high-quality broadband to rural and remote communities. In late 2020, the Consortium published a case study highlighting hybrid networks using fibre, fixed wireless and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites for backhaul. The study examined how this would play out in two underserved, rural communities in Canada: Altona, British Columbia and Cleardale, Alberta, to meet the Government of Canada broadband internet standard of 50/10 Mbps to the household.

The case study compared six different hybrid networks for internet configuration, including access via fiber and fixed wireless, and backhaul via fiber, fixed wireless and LEO satellites. While fibre provides high speeds and reliable connectivity for urban areas, connecting sparsely populated regions over rough, uneven terrain is both difficult and costly. Fixed wireless backhaul avoids some of those challenges but comes with the expense of tower construction and the challenging requirement of maintaining a direct line to sight between connection points.

The study noted that satellites in LEO, approximately 1000 km from Earth, support low-latency broadband, are economical for connecting widespread communities and eliminates development challenges due to line-of-sight, terrain and foliage. It’s worth noting that geostationary satellites were not included in this evaluation due to their high latency, which negatively impacts the user’s Internet experience.

After thorough evaluation, the study published by the Consortium concludes that a LEO backhaul network with fixed wireless access was not only the highest quality, lowest-latency solution for bridging the digital divide in rural Canada, but the most affordable one for MNOs and ISPs to implement. This configuration resulted in 40%-90% lower total cost of ownership (TCO) overall, decreased time to market with faster deployment, and scalability and flexibility to meet demand and transfer bandwidth between communities. This configuration would result in revenue generation in new, hard to reach markets without a large investment in an end-to-end system. The result of this case study is great news for MNOs and ISPs in Canada and around the world. For all of us at Telesat, it’s really validating to see that LEO networks like ours, Telesat Lightspeed, will help these organizations bring broadband Internet to rural and remote communities. Telesat Lightspeed is the only LEO network designed for enterprise-grade backhaul links, with the ability to bring Gbps links into a community. When this once would have come at a very high cost for MNOs and ISPs, this case study demonstrates how through Telesat Lightspeed, these organizations can profitably enable people everywhere to take part in the digital economy.

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