Small Cell Backhaul

Hughes satellites open up rural and remote small cells

Vinay Patel Hughes 150We’ve tracked the evolution of satellite backhaul for remote/rural small cells over the past decade. It’s often been considered just too expensive. We spoke with Vinay Patel, senior director, International at Hughes Network Systems. They continue to invest in new satellite capacity and are already enabling commercially viable remote small cell deployments around the world.

South America covered

Hughes invested in the Telstar 19V satellite, launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 last month. It brings coverage to five countries across South America, reaching more than 90% of the population in Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. Service will be on stream after testing, early in Q4 2018.

This is just one of many geostationary High Throughput Satellites (HTS), which use the Ka band with multiple spot beams and handle traffic levels measured in many tens of Gbps. Analyst Euroconsult recorded 36 HTS satellite launches over the past 10 years, forecasting 100 more before 2025. Total capacity is measured in Terabits per second.

2019 Worldwide HTS Satellite Capacity

Non-geostationary satellites are also attracting investment and interest. Ambitious projects such as OneWeb (Softbank/Qualcomm/Hughes/Others), Starlink (SpaceX) and LeoSat would add further Terabytes of capacity to the mix, with the further advantage of lower latency. These use innovative techniques which if proven could radically improve global accessibility and capacity.

LeoSat is aiming at the premium end of the market, launching 84 satellites to ensure that every location on earth can view at least two at all times. It has filed with the FCC for up to 108 to allow for some expansion. It’s aimed at a premium market where resilience and reliability are critical. The budget is $3.6 Billion with launches projected for 2021/22.

OneWeb plans to launch 900 satellites with commercial service starting in 2019. One of their ambitions is to make it possible to connect every school in the world to the Internet by 2022. Their compact ground receivers may have built in Wi-Fi, Ethernet connectors and even 2G GSM cellular functions.

SpaceX have received FCC approval to deploy two sets of low orbit satellites at different altitudes, totalling over 12,000 (yes you read that correctly) and budgeted at $10 billion. The plan anticipates deployment from 2019 through 2025.

Prices dropping

The cost of satellite bandwidth is higher than terrestrial links in urban areas, but by far the cheapest and easiest to deploy in remote areas. The recent surge in available capacity has already driven prices down. Just five years ago, service on older Ku band satellites would cost you around $900/Mbps/month where now it’s down below $450. Ka-band capacity pricing has halved over the last five years, dropping to sub $200/Mbps/month. One analyst forecast is for a further slower price decrease, with geo-stationary satellites slightly less than non-geo. Other forecasts suggest we might see a more aggressive price fall once this huge glut of additional capacity materialises.

Unmet demand

Ovum estimate that fixed Internet access is available to 41% in the developing world compared with 81% in developed countries. Key growth areas are Africa (14% CAGR), South America (8% CAGR) and APAC excluding China (6.5% CAGR). Cellular access is much greater but still doesn’t reach many remote areas.

More attractive pricing for satellite cellular backhaul will make many more towns and villages in these remote and rural areas viable, both in the developed and developing world.

Truly ubiquitous coverage

There may be some deep valley canyons in mountainous regions or heavily built up urban areas that don’t have full view of the sky, but for almost every location however remote, satellite service brings instant Internet. It’s quick to setup using compact and lightweight ground stations, requires minimal amounts of power and low maintenance.

The cost of a satellite ground receiver is less than $1000 today.

Small Cell Backhaul

Vinay Patel, senior director, International at Hughes Network Systems, clarified the typical benchmark backhaul capacity being allocated for remote/rural small cells using satellite today.

Live commercial cellular service is already operational worldwide with satellite backhaul for 2G, 3G and 4G.

2G can be very thrifty with backhaul, serving large areas of up to 20km with taller cell towers that may only have a few hundred subscribers. As little as 256kbps can be adequate for each 8 channel GSM transceiver.

3G introduced data service, with 5Mbps down and 2Mbps up being a fairly standard backhaul capacity assignment.

4G can support much faster data rates and would typically be assigned multiple 10’s of Mbps per site. A ratio of 5:1 or 6:1 is typical between downlink and uplink streams. Backhaul bandwidth can be saved by “opening up” the encrypted data stream and optimising it. The potential to cache data locally, or even process applications using Mobile Edge Computing, can dramatically reduce backhaul requirements.

Where a network operator deploys many small cells in a region, the aggregate capacity can be shared between them. This balances the load and smooths out peak flows because not all villages throughout a country are busy at exactly the same time.

Some examples from around the world

Vinay highlighted some Hughes examples illustrating that network operators are no longer restricting satellite to just a few isolated and exceptional cases.

Reliance Jio of India has identified a large number of remote sites where satellite backhaul would be the best choice. They have leased bulk capacity which allocates 2Mbps per site (uplink and down), shared to provide load balancing across all their sites.

Vodacom in the Democratic Republic of Congo have designed a standalone remote cellsite with its own solar power and battery. These are 2G voice/data only and so only need around 300kbps per site. These are profitable as soon as they enter service.

Global IP are deploying 150Gbps of capacity available throughout Africa, intended for both fixed broadband internet access as well as cellular backhaul. It should be onstream sometime next summer (2019). This could support anything from 10,000 to 50,000 sites spread across 40 countries.

Changing the mindset

Vinay addresses four major concerns commonly heard within the cellular industry:

  1. Does it work? Commercial service for 2G/3G/4G today demonstrates this to be the case.
  2. Does it have adequate speed/capacity? These latest High Throughput Satellites can offer hundreds of Mbps almost anywhere on the planet, with more to come.
  3. Is the cost too high? Prices have come down dramatically in recent years and are likely to fall further. Especially when shared across multiple sites, these have proven commercial viability and attract new investment.
  4. Is anyone else using it? The examples above are just a subset of more widespread adoption.

With cellular operators under growing regulatory pressure to improve geographic coverage, satellite backhaul combined with standalone rural cells is a winning combination.

Partnerships and Managed Services

Hughes has been partnering and testing with several small cell companies, including Huawei, Parallel Wireless and two other small cell vendors. They can offer a complete standalone cell site including solar power, tower and satellite downlink. An 8 or 10m tower sitting in a 3x3m enclosed area can serve a village of up to 500 people.

Furthermore, the company can offer a fully managed service where they would install, operate and maintain a set of rural small cells on behalf on a mobile operator for a fixed monthly fee.

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