#Connectivity & IoT

Satellite IoT connectivity: enabling global coverage

Technical Innovation
7 Mins.

Satellite technology was one of the great inventions of the 20th century and it continues to transform our lives today. Thanks to new developments and innovations by major industry players, satellite connectivity is now being used to provide universal coverage to the most remote corners of the globe. The possibilities for IoT expansion are endless.

In today’s digital world, few things are quite as frustrating as losing signal or seeing the dreaded “spinning wheel of death” on our laptop or smartphone screens. With so much of our daily lives now dependent on being online, this can be extremely disruptive. 

Despite great leaps in connectivity technology over the last three decades – around 95% of the world’s population has access to a cellular network1 – many rural areas still lack sufficient network infrastructure.

Of course, it makes sense to prioritize network coverage in urban areas, where most people live and work, but the rapid growth of IoT in recent years has increased the need to extend coverage to more remote regions that are beyond the reach of cellular networks. This creates a coverage gap that limits the potential of several IoT applications. 

As the demand for IoT connectivity grows – in 2024 almost 5,000 devices will be connected to the internet every minute2 – so does the need for truly global network coverage. After all, how can we reap the rewards of a fully connected world without first enabling global connectivity?

Thanks to recent developments in satellite technology, bridging this gap can finally become a reality.

Bridging the connectivity gap

Satellites have had an enormous impact on society since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957. Many of the services we now take for granted, such as GPS, television, and weather forecasting, were made possible by satellite technology, which also enabled humanity to make great leaps forward in space exploration and gain a greater understanding of Earth.

In the decades since, they have evolved significantly in terms of technology and range of applications. When it comes to finding a solution for global coverage, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the potential of satellite connectivity to fill the connectivity gap in remote and underserved areas unreachable by terrestrial cellular networks. But it’s not as simple as it might seem.

Until now, the proprietary nature of satellite communications has meant high costs and a lack of interoperability between devices and networks that have proved to be a barrier to mainstream adoption. That is set to change very soon.

Recent developments mean that is now possible to integrate terrestrial cellular networks, such as 5G, with satellite-based non-terrestrial networks – provided that the satellite networks support this or comply with the relevant 3GPP standards. This will finally enable seamless global coverage for all devices anywhere in the world with just one SIM card.

This has been driven by several factors:

  • Technological advancements: Significant improvements in satellite technology, such as miniaturization, more efficient design, and advanced materials, have made satellites cheaper to build and launch.
  • Deployment of LEO constellations: Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations offer lower latency and better bandwidth than geostationary or medium Earth orbit satellites, as well as greater cost efficiency, making them more suitable for a wide range of IoT services.
  • Government and private investment: Increased investment in satellite technology from both government space agencies and private companies has fueled innovation and development in this sector.
  • Standardization: Integrating satellite communications into terrestrial networks will be facilitated if non-terrestrial networks comply with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP).

This final point is especially relevant. Standardization ensures interoperability and global compatibility, allowing devices from different manufacturers to work together seamlessly across different networks. A crucial aspect of the specifications is the adaptation of narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) technology to function seamlessly with non-terrestrial networks. This adaptation will facilitate the expansion of global IoT coverage by enabling devices designed for low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN) applications, which may only need to transmit their data every few hours to reliably connect via satellite systems. This will reduce the need for larger satellite constellations.

Furthermore, the Release 17 specification provides enhanced support for integrating satellites at various orbits into the broader 5G network architecture to enhance IoT connectivity. This ensures that devices and infrastructure designed for 5G will also be compatible with satellite networks without needing significant modifications. 

For IoT service providers, these 3GPP specifications not only make satellite IoT connectivity more accessible, but they also pave the way for more expansive IoT applications in the future. However, not all satellites are built the same.

A farmer on a field

GEO vs. MEO vs. LEO satellites for IoT

There are about 8,000 satellites3 currently in orbit, and they can typically be sorted into three types based on their orbital position: geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO), and low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. When it comes to providing global coverage for IoT connectivity, LEO satellite systems are the clear winners.

GEO satellites, which are positioned at a fixed altitude of approximately 36,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface, provide extensive coverage of large regions such as North America or Europe, making them ideal for applications such as satellite television broadcasting. However, their high altitude results in long latency and limited data rates, while their equatorial orbit limits their ability to provide global coverage. 

In contrast, MEO satellites occupy the space between LEO and GEO, orbiting at altitudes of approximately 8,000 to 20,000 kilometers. These satellites offer a good balance between coverage and speed, and are well suited for applications such as GPS navigation and communications. However, when it comes to truly global coverage, MEO satellites are still lacking compared with LEO satellites. 

The strength of LEO satellite constellations, which are made up of a large number of LEO satellites, lies in both their altitude (400 to 1,500 kilometers) and orbital speed (8 km/s), making them ideal for mobile broadband (MBB) and IoT applications. The combination of fast data transmission and low latency is perfect for real-time, responsive applications in remote areas, such as disaster relief or mobile logistics tracking, while their high-speed orbit ensures global coverage to all regions – a key factor that can drive mainstream adoption and expansion of satellite connectivity in the coming years. However, a relatively large number of satellites will be required to achieve seamless coverage.

A connected harbor

Unlocking the potential of IoT with satellite networks

The seamless integration of non-terrestrial networks with terrestrial 5G networks alleviates many of the cost and logistical challenges previously associated with satellite communications. This will have a profound impact on both a consumer and a massive IoT level. Enhanced internet access can empower billions of people in remote and underserved areas, sparking both social and economic growth. For the massive IoT industry, the list of potential new use cases is vast and diverse.

In transport and logistics, for example, satellite connectivity can play an increasingly critical role in monitoring and tracking goods in transit in remote areas where cellular network coverage is unreliable or nonexistent. Satellites can relay key data such as location, temperature, and any other conditions essential for maintaining the integrity of goods. This is particularly valuable for low-power telematics devices used to track vehicles and containers or report conditions along extensive shipping routes, optimizing supply chain management.

This is further enhanced in a maritime environment, where there is little to no existing cellular network infrastructure. In addition to supporting vessel tracking and cargo monitoring, satellite connectivity can help improve crew safety by enabling remote maintenance and real-time communication in the event of an emergency.

“Satellites, when combined with cellular mobile technology, will empower many new applications in the IoT. Therefore, I believe that the ’20s of the 21st century will usher in the era of satellite communication.“
Sönke Schröder
Director, Global Go-to-Market and Innovations, at G+D

These benefits can be extended to many other industries, such as agriculture, oil and gas, environmental monitoring, or mining, enabling access to high-speed, low-latency connectivity in even the most remote regions of the world. And as these networks continue to expand and new use cases emerge, the knock-on effect, in terms of stimulating innovation and economic growth, can be huge.

So, when will this technology be available? The reality is that it’s already here. Some industry players are already offering satellite-based connectivity services for broadband and IoT services. However, adoption is expected to explode in the coming years. By 2027, the number of satellite IoT subscribers is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 42%, skyrocketing from 5.9 million in 2023 to 23.9 million.4

In June 2023, G+D entered into a partnership with Sateliot, a satellite communications network operator headquartered in Barcelona, to enhance its leading IoT offering with global coverage. By leveraging Sateliot’s network of LEO nanosatellites with 5G coverage for NB-IoT (narrowband IoT), G+D’s IoT services will be able to automatically switch between cellular and satellite communications as needed, ensuring seamless and uninterrupted connectivity for IoT devices across the globe. The partnership makes G+D the only end-to-end IoT connectivity provider with truly global coverage, as well as the first to deploy an iSIM that uses both cellular and satellite connectivity. 

As satellite connectivity plays an increasingly important role in global IoT and mobile networks, it’s important to remember that it is not intended to replace terrestrial connectivity, but rather to complement it. This synergy will help bridge the global connectivity gap and ensure that every person and every device, in every corner of the world, stays connected. To facilitate this, connectivity and life cycle management will play a central role. Non-terrestrial networks are already integrated into platforms such as G+D’s IoT Suite, ensuring that devices can leverage both types of connectivity if desired. This enables them to stay connected regardless of their location or the infrastructure available, and making true global connectivity a reality. 

Key takeaways

  • Technological advancements and recent standardization have made satellite technology more accessible. 
  • LEO satellites are preferred for IoT due to their low latency and fast data transmission, enabling real-time global applications.
  • The seamless transition between terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks ensures continuous connectivity regardless of device location.
  1. Facts and Figures 2022, ITU, 2022

  2. GSMA Intelligence, 2023

  3. UCS Satellite Database, Union of Concerned Scientists (ucsusa.org)

  4. The global satellite IoT subscriber base to reach 23.9 million by 2027, Berg Insight, 2023

Published: 12/03/2024

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