Bridging the digital divide in rural Australia


Many regional and remote areas of Australia are still without high-speed, low-cost connectivity, despite the spotlight on closing the digital divide in recent years. These services are essential to keep up with a world shifting rapidly online, greatly impacting the liveability, productivity and safety of these communities.
Oceania map with connection networks.

Low earth orbit (LEO) satellite communication is rapidly emerging as a solution, with potential to offer rural communities a reliable and cost-effective way to stay connected.

LEO satellites provide a much faster connection and lower latency than traditional satellite technology, making it an important technology for enterprises to revolutionise communications to people and things.

This is achieved because LEO satellites circle much closer to the Earth’s surface, which means they can provide high-speed broadband over very large areas of the planet and deliver a much stronger signal.

All without the crippling latency suffered by previous generations of high-altitude satellites.

These factors make a wide range of tasks possible. Direct satellite connection for small Internet of Things (IoT) devices can provide affordable global coverage on land or at sea, without involving SIMs, telco providers and roaming complications.

This is perfect for mining, agriculture, environmental management and other industries across Australia.

It will also enable voice and data services from a satellite to an unmodified 4G smartphone to extend coverage to remote locations, as well as being ideal for streaming video and audio.

Gartner predicts that 100% of smartphones will be capable of directly connecting to LEO satellites by 2028, compared to just 5% in 2022.

We’re already seeing the use of LEO satellites by mobile providers in Japan to backhaul cells in remote areas instead of a fixed or microwave network connection.

Applications like this should help remote parts of Australia, without subscribers needing any special equipment, just their normal mobile phones.

The Australian Government launched a LEO Satellite Working Group last year to examine the future role the technology will play in delivering telecommunications services around the country.

In particular, the impact it will have on First Nations people; supporting greater resilience and redundancy in emergency circumstances; and delivering universal telecommunications services.

Increase in available services

SpaceX Starlink is currently the only commercially operating LEO satellite services provider in Australia. Today, the company launches rockets every 11 days on average.

Within a year, it could launch a rocket every day – and other private companies are also picking up the pace.

Telstra just announced on 12 February it has embarked on the rollout of Eutelsat OneWeb LEO satellites to enhance voice and video calls in rural Australia, with up to 25 gigabits of LEO capacity to be delivered to Telstra’s remote mobile customers.

The Australian Government expects the number of providers will grow over the next three years, and earlier this year NBN Co started exploring LEO connectivity solutions with providers.

The increasing scale and affordability of LEO satellites vastly expand the business opportunities in space. Companies can build inexpensive LEO satellites and set constellations numbering in the thousands into orbit.

Technical limitations

The LEO satellite industry remains nascent, however, with a lot of evolution expected, so take a cautious approach to adopting early as it is an emergent technology in a complex market. There are some technical issues that need to be considered when determining its suitability.

LEO broadband performance can vary based on a range of factors, and current services are not always available globally – either because they are limited by regulators in some regions or that their satellite coverage is not yet complete.

Constellation owners have to continually launch new satellites to replenish their inventory – LEO satellites have a limited lifespan of approximately five years due to orbital decay and other factors.

This is expensive, particularly as some of the proposed constellations would require their operators to launch several hundred satellites per month.

Industry standard technologies and protocols are increasingly being adopted, but terminal equipment – such as a fixed two-way communication dish – is still predominantly proprietary, so in some cases you will be locked into a supplier.

Most equipment is cumbersome and requires considerable power to operate. However, this will change with LEO satellite services expected to be capable of delivering broadband to smartphones and satellite-enabled drones in the next few years.

Overall, it’s a good idea to start testing LEO broadband now, especially for remote location connectivity and as a potential replacement for traditional satellites. In the long term, LEO will also be an alternative to some fixed and cellular broadband services.

While there aren’t many options in Australia yet, look to buy LEO broadband services tactically and be prepared to switch providers if the service becomes uncompetitive or more suitable technology and pricing emerge.

About the author Nick Jones is a Gartner distinguished vice president. His research focuses primarily on technology innovation, IoT, emerging technologies, and the role of the CTO.

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