Frost & Sullivan: Small communications satellites to surge by 2030

Artist rendering of a low Earth orbit communications satellite constellation (OneWeb)

Major shifts in the satellite and launch sectors will see a rise in low Earth orbit (LEO) small-satellite constellations offering global connectivity. A recent Frost & Sullivan report predicts a wave of small communications satellites will launch into space in the next decade, spurred by advancements in the small-satellite production chain.

“Small-satellites are the focus of changing space industry dynamics,” said Vivek Suresh Prasad, space industry principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan’s aerospace and defense division. “Existing players such as Airbus, Eutelsat and Thales Alenia are investing in small-satellite businesses to develop their systems and infrastructure and harness lucrative, future, low-cost small-satellite services.”

“Significant opportunities will be created by high-volume subsystem demand, on-demand launch services for small-satellites, capacity expansion of global ground station services, and simplified standard platforms for downstream services,” the report said.

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Overall, Frost & Sullivan predicts launch demand will reach 11,740 small satellites by 2030, with revenues reaching $70.1 billion. Prasad told FierceWireless that 52% of those small satellites will be communications satellites offering connectivity and voice services. By comparison, communications make up just 13% of small-satellite launches between 2015 and the first quarter of 2018.

The growth of small satellites, coupled with advancements in radio frequency chips, has given rise to a new class of small communications satellites that can provide gigabit speeds with lower latencies than some terrestrial broadband technologies can offer. A slew of operators including SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat and LeoSat have announced plans for LEO constellations of small satellites that’ll offer communications services around the globe targeting backhaul, longhaul, internet of things, and residential and enterprise broadband services. According to Frost & Sullivan’s report, SpaceX and OneWeb are the two leaders in the space.

“The increased downstream demand for geospatial and communication services and developments in the new space systems are driving these activities,” Prasad said. “Formerly critical incumbent players are now embracing the small-satellite business model by offering low-latency and low-cost Internet of Things services to the downstream users. The downstream users will benefit not only from the evolving competitive market dynamics but also from the complementary services that best suit their businesses.”

While many of these proposed constellations have been in the works for a few years, the first quarter of 2018 saw multiple small-satellite operators launching technology demonstration satellites for future LEO constellations, according to the report. Such technology demonstrations are crucial first steps toward launching full fleets and offering commercial services.

Earlier this year, SpaceX launched two prototypes for its proposed 4,425-satellite Starlink broadband constellation. The two satellites, named TinTin A and B, are testing flat phased-array antennas. According to a tweet from SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the satellites are demonstrating 25 ms latencies.

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OneWeb planned to launch a first class of 10 of its small satellites this year, but the company has since decided to continue ground testing. OneWeb plans to launch 1,980 small satellites into low Earth orbit that’ll use Ku (11/14 GHz) frequency bands for global connectivity services. The company plans to offer speeds up to 2.5 Gbps by 2021.