Vodafone and Rakuten join the low-orbit space race

Satellites are back in fashion and soon enough tens of thousands of devices will be swirling above our heads, now Vodafone and Rakuten are teaming up to join the trend.

The race to the skies is quickly becoming one of the more interesting trends in the telco industry, as more operators search for ways to expand coverage in a cost-effective manner. Telefonica and Softbank are two of the founding members of the High-Altitude Platform stations (HAPS) Alliance, Google’s Project Loon is making headway in proving the commercial viability of balloons as a means of delivery, and low Earth orbit satellites are appearing everywhere.

The new joint venture from Vodafone Group and Rakuten, SpaceMobile, will aim to launch a constellation of low Earth orbit assets to fill in the coverage holes, addressing rural environments in developed nations and tackling the difficulties in commercially justifying network deployment in developing regions.

“At Vodafone we want to ensure everyone benefits from a digital society – that no-one is left behind,” said Nick Read, CEO of the Vodafone Group. “We believe SpaceMobile is uniquely placed to provide universal mobile coverage, further enhancing our leading network across Europe and Africa – especially in rural areas and during a natural or humanitarian disaster – for customers on their existing smartphones.”

Perhaps the most interesting element to this project is the proprietary technology which is being incorporated by AST & Science. The start-up, which has recently completed a Series B funding round to which Vodafone contributed, is developing technology which theoretically allows any 4G and 5G compatible phone to connect to the low Earth orbit satellites.

According to Vodafone, this is somewhat of a gamechanger. Satellite connectivity was only useful for specialist satellite phones traditionally, but in democratising connectivity, the usecases begin to add up. Whether this is to fill in ‘not spots’ in the UK or to deliver connectivity in regions where the environment makes traditional deployment unfeasible, this is a supplementary layer of connectivity for everywhere and anywhere.

“AST & Science’s SpaceMobile venture is a perfect fit for us,” said Mickey Mikitani, chairman and CEO of Rakuten. “Our investment is part of our broader strategy to become a leading mobile network operator in Japan and a global solution provider to markets around the world.

“Rakuten’s strategic investment with AST & Science has the potential to support our efforts to connect users across Japan through mobile innovation, expanding national coverage from metropolitan to remote areas and bolstering the network in times of natural disaster.”

For Vodafone, the first deployments will be in Africa, where the topography and local economies have made traditional network deployment difficult. However, these are the early days of the project and it will take years to see any material impact on the connectivity landscape. But it is an interesting project.

The question which remains is why satellites are coming back into fashion? The answer is really quite simply; the technology has improved.

Not only are traditional satellites only able to connect to specific satellite devices, these were massive assets with poor performance associated. This is why satellite broadband has largely only been discussed in the developing markets over the last decade or so, the technology was too expensive and not good enough to be considered elsewhere.

With the introduction of companies like SpaceX and the introduction of reusable launch system, the cost of delivering assets into the skies is dropping every day. And with the invention of low-orbit satellites, performance has increased.

The simplest way of looking at it is that it is a question of physics; the further away the satellite is, the higher the latency, the weaker the signal and the slower the download speeds. Vodafone was not able to give any estimates on what speeds they expect from this low Earth orbit constellation, but it should be acceptable performance.

The important point to remember about these satellite connectivity layers is that it is just that; an additional layer to add to the connectivity mesh to improve coverage and reliability. It fills ‘not spots’ and builds options in the rural environments. This is not a technology which will replace traditional means of delivering connectivity.