The civil satellite communications sector has four priority addressable market segments, each with decreasing availability of government support:
The end-user needs, technical solutions, costs, level of competition and barriers to entry are quite different for each of these market segments. The SmartSat CRC seeks to understand each of these and work with Australian policy makers and industry to ensure our research program positions them to provide optimal, competitive solutions to drive economic growth for Australia.
The USG addresses voice services and “broadband” internet connectivity and is driven by the need to provide reliable, affordable services to Australians, irrespective of location. In the development of the Universal Service Guarantee, the Department of Communications and the Arts noted that “fixed voice services could be provided at much lower costs by using wireless and satellite technologies” compared to delivery via Telstra’s copper network.
For the national commercial market, new opportunities to utilise satellite communications more broadly across the economy will drive productivity. Examples include agriculture, mining (especially remote/autonomous operations) and transport/logistics. These are all target end-user application areas for SmartSat CRC and not just for improved satellite communications.
Morgan Stanley forecasts the global space economy will nearly triple in size to US$1.1 trillion in 2040. Satellite broadband is projected to be half of the projected growth. The global space economy is growing dramatically, estimated at US$383.5b in 2017, yet Australia’s share is projected at only US$3 billion, less than 1%, even though Australia currently enjoys nearly 2% of global GDP.
At present, Australia satellite communication service providers are heavily focused on the domestic market through adoption of technology developed by international partners. This lack of indigenous technology development limits the scope for Australian telecommunications companies to compete in regional or global markets where much of the increased economic activity will be generated.
Innovation in satellite design, manufacture, launch and space operations are opening up access to low earth orbit for small satellites. Miniaturisation and increased power efficiency of electronic circuits (Moore’s Law) is enabling greater functionality in smaller form factors and tipping cost/benefit outcomes towards smaller satellites.
Moreover, the world is experiencing exponential growth in computing power, reduction in storage costs, the ‘cloud’, computing on the edge, artificial intelligence & machine learning, software defined radio (SDR), software defined networks (SDN), IoT, quantum information science all of which are driving down the cost of infrastructure typically needed to provide customer access to space services.
Communications by satellite is the most effective means of communication in rural and remote areas due to Australia’s geography. Our current satellite communications are not optimised to deliver both fixed and mobile, secure, high speed, low latency data, particularly for agriculture, asset management, and Defence.
Australia’s nbn network is comprised of two geostationary satellites and an extensive ground infrastructure. However, nbn’s Sky Muster suffers from ‘latency’ (communications response time) due to the signal transmission delay to/from satellites in geostationary orbit. The delay is 20 times higher than terrestrial communication systems and is unsuitable for many forms of device-to device IoT connectivity for augmented reality, autonomous vehicles, some remote robotic applications and some social interactions.
A solution to the latency problem is to provide satellite services from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) which are physically closer to the earth and incur less signal propagation delay. There are other challenges arising from LEO constellations for which the SmartSat CRC is well positioned to identify solutions.
A characteristic of LEO satellites is their movement relative to the earth meaning persistent coverage requires multiple satellites. The Australian landmass represents 1.5% of the surface area of the world and a LEO constellation developed to service Australia is also equally useful globally.
The ESA is anticipating a shift from geosynchronous satellites to MEO and LEO satellite constellations, driving change in technology and the number of satellites. There is also a shift from TV satellites to satellites for high bandwidth data communication.
Although, LEOs orbit at much lower altitudes than traditional communications satellites, signal strength is a challenge with the constraint of low power to ensure long battery life. The potential deployment of millions of sensors will pose a significant signal processing challenge. The development of mission and safety-critical applications addressing security and reliability challenges is crucial.
Constellations of small, inexpensive satellites (micro-sats) are currently being launched in their thousands.
Space X, founded by Elon Musk raised $500 million on a constellation of satellites called Starlink and has already launched a number of its satellites which fly as low as 550 km. SpaceX gained approval to launch a total of almost 12,000 satellites for internet services worldwide. By January 2021, Space X has launched over 1000 small satellites meaning is has become the largest satellite operator in the world. Space X and OneWeb, backed by Virgin, Airbus, Qualcomm, Kepler Communications, Boeing and Telesat and others, also have similar plans for high-speed internet constellations.