Five ways low earth orbit satellites will impact Asia and the Pacific

Article | 27 April 2021

Despite the rapid spread of internet use across Asia and the Pacific, almost 2.4 billion people, or 55% of the region’s population, remain offline according to the latest data from the UN International Telecommunications Union (ITU). More than 3 billion people live farther than 10 kilometers from high-capacity fiber optic cable infrastructure, making the prospect of accessing broadband internet even more unlikely.

Even before COVID-19, broadband internet was essential for building knowledge economies and driving service-based growth. Since the pandemic, internet connectivity has become even more critical for resilience and is key to the recovery. It expands skills development and economic opportunities for individuals and strengthens community resilience in times of disruption. In contrast, those without high-speed internet capacity are at a big disadvantage.

Satellites are already being used to enable internet access. However, billions of dollars are now being invested in a new generation of satellites that orbit the Earth at a low altitude. These low earth orbit (LEO) satellites can better connect remote and inaccessible regions. Many new groups of these satellites, known as constellations, are in development. However, some are partially deployed, with more than 1,500 satellites in orbit and thousands more in the pipeline. 

As of 27 April 2021, Starlink, a constellation being built by SpaceX, has already launched 1,445 satellites and is testing its service in North America, Europe, and New Zealand. OneWeb, another satellite broadband provider, has placed 182 LEO satellites in orbit. Other companies, including Asia-based ones, are planning to join in.

To better understand the potential and challenges of LEO satellite constellations, ADB has produced a working paper titled “Digital Connectivity and Low Earth Orbit Satellite Constellations: Opportunities for Asia and the Pacific.”

Here are five ways that new LEO satellite constellations may impact ADB’s developing member countries:

1. Global coverage will make high-speed connectivity a reality even in remote regions

Because LEO satellites orbit at altitudes of less than 2,000 km above the Earth’s surface, they circle the planet several times a day. As a result, each constellation requires hundreds or thousands of satellites, blanketing the entire globe, to provide continuous connectivity for any given area. By contrast, traditional satellites are predominantly positioned in geostationary orbits and provide concentrated connectivity service that covers a fixed geographic area. LEO constellations are estimated to be able to increase satellite internet capacity more than 10-fold in just a few years and will distribute their service more evenly across the planet.

 Geostationary Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit, and Low Earth Orbit
Figure: Comparison of Characteristics: Geostationary Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit, and Low Earth Orbit

2. LEO constellations will improve satellite internet quality, expanding the applications and services that can be used 

The low altitude of LEO satellites reduces the time it takes for data to travel between two points, known as latency, from approximately 477 milliseconds inherent in GEO service (because of their distance of 35,786 km above the earth’s surface) to less than 27 milliseconds. This means they can be used for applications that rely on low latency, such as high-definition video conferencing or action-based gaming, processing of sensitive financial transactions, or remote operation of machines.

Even basic voice calls would benefit, as they are most effective when latency is below 150 milliseconds. Taking advantage of the improved service quality of data communications over LEO, Starlink has partnered with Microsoft to connect its infrastructure directly to Microsoft's cloud and data center infrastructure. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is expected to offer cloud services as well. 

This would further enhance internet quality, particularly for cloud-hosted applications and services, enabling remote communities to access services such as online banking, e-learning, and government services. It would also help them offer products and services online.

3. Competition should reduce broadband prices where LEO-based internet service is permitted

The expansion of global satellite capacity driven by LEO constellations is expected to help reduce costs where service is available. While no new LEO operator has started offering commercial services, Starlink is offering a beta test at competitive rates compared with existing satellite connectivity services and earth-based technologies. The ease of market entry for satellite service providers, and a drop in equipment costs as production is scaled up, will be key to price-competitiveness.

4. LEO connectivity can improve network infrastructure resilience for regions prone to natural disasters

Parts of Asia and the Pacific are particularly vulnerable to communications disruptions caused by natural disasters that damage terrestrial infrastructure, such as typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Satellite connectivity is already key to re-establishing communications and supporting disaster response.

Landlocked developing countries and small island developing states may have limited, if any,  direct international connectivity via terrestrial or undersea fiber optic cable. For these countries, the additional coverage and capacity introduced by LEOs would expand options for redundant or backup connections.

5. Expanding LEO constellations and increasingly affordable rocket launches are benefiting other space technologies and services

Large LEO satellite constellations for broadband data communications have been tried before, particularly in the 1990s, and several high-profile initiatives failed. What has changed since then is the ever-growing demand for high-speed data communications, improvements in satellite technology, and a dramatic reduction in launch costs, led in part by rocket re-use technology.

Continued progress in the development of launch technology also has benefits beyond telecommunications, including Earth observation – a rapidly expanding source of real-time data that is used for monitoring crop health, tracking deforestation and reforestation, measuring economic activity, and providing data for predictive analytics in disaster management.

Technology development for human space flight and exploration has triggered a wide range of innovations benefiting life on Earth. Among these are water purification systems, home insulation, and adjustable smoke detectors. As the cost of launching satellites continues to come down, this can benefit Earth observation and support development in Asia and the Pacific.