The current perception of satellite technology used for data transport is far from positive. It suffers from high latency, provides little throughput, and is costly. For most network engineers, it's an absolute last resort when there are no other alternatives. But what if it didn't have to be that way? What if a satellite constellation were designed to the point where it provided an enterprise-grade connectivity, low latency, high throughput, and cost-effective solution anywhere in the world?
I had the opportunity to talk with Mark Rigolle, CEO at LeoSat, whose company is looking to revolutionize satellite data transport to the point where it actually outperforms today's fiber-optics technologies. He shared some of the company's techniques for leaping ahead of traditional data transport satellite constellations – techniques that even surpass fiber. While it's unlikely that fiber will be completely abandoned for satellite transport, this new technology has compelling use cases. According to Mark: "Fiber is great, if you have it. But we see ourselves as a premium service that offers much more that what fiber gives you. We can plant a beam anywhere, even if you're in Antarctica."
With LeoSat's optical inter-satellite links, not only will you be able to plant a fiber-quality beam anywhere, the data transported will literally never touch the ground. Many satellite networks today will use terrestrial interconnects at some point along their journey, adding latency and making the connection vulnerable to hacking. This is what is called "bent-pipe" satellite design: The data is taken back down from the satellite to a gateway and then continues to the end destination through terrestrial networks, adding latency door to door. As most network engineers are highly concerned about performance, this is where LeoSat's unique design will really shine.
The key to LeoSat solving the high-latency issue that plagues traditional satellite data services partially has to do with where LeoSat plans to orbit its constellation. Many of today's legacy satellite constellations -- such as HughesNet -- have satellites that orbit around 22,000 miles from earth. Rigolle told me that the LeoSat constellation will be orbiting far closer: 870 miles, to be exact. That's even five times closer to newer constellations such as the O3b, whose constellation orbits at just under 5,000 miles from earth. The distance between the base station and the satellite largely contributes to latency times. The closer you get, there's less latency.
Additionally, the laser-connected satellite mesh that LeoSat is planning to build also will improve on any terrestrial-based communication, including fiber. While many think that fiber optics operate at the speed of light, that's not actually the case. While light beams are used as transport, they must travel down a glass cable, which involves refraction. Data transport over fiber ends up being about 66% the speed of light. Rigolle said the laser-connected LeoSat satellite network will operate in free space, and thus data transport will actually occur at the speed of light. Hence, the company claims that its network offers customers 35% to 40% lower latency on average, when compared to fiber routes.
Rigolle also touted the LeoSat network as the most secure in the world: Customer point-to-point and multipoint connections will be fully encrypted in VPN tunnels. Additionally, the bandwidth a customer buys will be dedicated to them; there will be no oversubscription or contention. "We take data exactly where it is, to exactly where it's going, guaranteed, every time, all the time," Rigolle said.
So it looks like some day in the near future, our perception of satellite technologies as data transport could shift from an unfortunate last resort to a first choice, premium service as it relates to speed, latency, and security. As a premium service, it’s still going to likely have premium pricing, however, so it won't be for everyone. LeoSat is going through a round of $100 million in funding as it finishes the design of its satellites. It's planning a 2019 or 2020 launch.