Millicom is working to expand 4G services in Latin America and keeping an eye on satellite-based tech including low Earth orbit (LEO), according to CTIO Xavier Rocoplan.
“The implications for us could be really important,” he said in an interview with Fierce, regarding LEO and other satellite companies aiming to provide backhaul and connectivity services. “We look at it as a complement to what we do.”
There have been a flurry of LEO initiatives targeting rural areas, including SpaceX’s Starlink, OneWeb, and Telesat’s Lightspeed to name a few. There are also satellite companies like Intelsat that are helping to expand capacity for telecom service in rural areas, such as GCI in Alaska with a multi-satellite solution including geosynchronous (GEO)-based.
Millicom has both a fixed and mobile business that Rocoplan said brings benefits with synergies in infrastructure. The operator, which provides service via its Tigo brand, has been vocal about pushing fiber including backhaul for many towers.
But fiber isn’t viable everywhere, and operators like TIM in Brazil have been testing out LEO satellite-based services as a way to expand geographic mobile coverage in remote communities that are challenging to service because of cost, distance or terrain. In May, TIM determined Telesat’s phase one LEO satellite used for backhaul performed well enough to deliver mobile experiences on par with terrestrial 4G networks.
“We believe Telesat Lightspeed, with a mobile-optimized hardware ecosystem, has the potential to become a core component in our future infrastructure,” said Silma Palmeria, director of architecture, innovation and technology at TIM Brasil at the time.
With a 4G network upgrade underway with Ericsson, Millicom is first focused on population coverage (more on that here) but going forward LEO and other satellite-based solutions could be a way to expand the geographic footprint.
“Geographical coverage can be a challenge,” Rocoplan told Fierce. And if the technology evolution for satellite-based services comes to fruition he thinks “for sure we’re going to use it” to supplement, adding it’s something Millicom is looking into.
“It’s still a little bit of a prospective [venture] in my opinion, but yes that would be fantastic,” he added.
To be clear, Millicom does already use some satellite-based services for backhaul due to the nature of certain locations, where it’s the only viable option. There will be some expansion of that, Rocoplan said, but noted some satellite providers are making bigger promises.
“We’re trying to stay close to that because if that moment comes, of course we’ll complement our footprint with this type of solution.”
Different satellite LEO ventures have somewhat different aims. SpaceX’s Elon Musk recently spoke at Mobile World Congress 2021, describing how Starlink could be a complement to fiber and 5G. One avenue is backhaul, while a second is where Starlink would help operators by serving the hardest to reach customers, or around 3%-5% of the customer base.
OT Technology, meanwhile, just launched its first LEO satellite but is focused on narrow-band IoT, targeting enterprises and vertical industries. AST SpaceMobile is focused on consumer broadband, directly connecting to mobile devices on the ground.