OQ Technology could augment private cellular networks with satellite NB-IoT

OQ uses "shoebox size" nanosatellites that are less expensive and quick to launch. (OQ Technology)

Luxemburg-based OQ Technology had a successful launch of its first low earth orbit (LEO) satellite Wednesday, as the company targets narrow band IoT connectivity for verticals, and could potentially augment private cellular networks.

OQ is one of several LEO satellite ventures, but unlike Elon Musk’s Starlink or Telesat’s Lightspeed, to name a couple, it isn’t looking to deliver consumer broadband in rural areas. Instead the company, formed at the end of 2016, has its sights set on vertical industries like oil and gas, maritime, logistics, transport and drones, to support IoT – eventually for Machine-to-Machine communication (M2M) and Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC).

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It’s targeting regions such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, in areas where infrastructure is lacking.  

Omar Qaise, founder and CEO of OQ, told Fierce that it wants to launch up to 70 satellites for service over the next two years to address real-time global connectivity with URLLC and M2M, but initial commercial service for “latency-tolerant” low-power devices can start as early as the fourth quarter.

With previous roles at satellite company SES and the European Space Agency (ESA), Qaise had noticed there were market gaps not currently filled by satellite communication, particularly for low-power, low-cost, small messaging IoT devices. OQ recently won its fourth contract with ESA, following a contract worth EUR 2 million in March. Another nanosatellite launch, dubbed MACSAT, is planned with funding from the Luxembourg Government through an ESA contract in the Luxembourg National Space program.

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Of satellite broadband ventures, many have run into funding issues and Qaise acknowledged that in this type of business it’s important to keep costs low and start service as early as possible to expand the network.

The company has been awarded around $7 million in funding from government and institutional contracts to get to this point. In addition to government contracts, OQ co-founder, Mohammed Al Muhairi, comes from the oil and gas industry in the United Arab Emirates and self-invested in the company. With the first satellite launch, OQ is starting its fundraising campaign and aims to soon start generating some level of revenue to continue going forward.

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The initial contract from ESA was to design a satellite constellation that could support NB-IoT, to address challenges with terrestrial networks. Typically, connecting to a cell on the ground, it’s around 20-30 kilometers away, according to Qaise. Satellites are about 500 kilometers away, traveling fast, at about 7 kilometers per second, “which really destroys the waveform of NB-IoT.”

“We had to work with these challenges in order to make sure the user can seamlessly switch between terrestrial and satellite connectivity,” Qaise said. OQ figured out a solution and patented its technology. In 2019 it successfully tested a prototype supporting NB-IoT waveforms in low earth orbit with uplink and downlink, showing success for NB-IoT via satellite even in harsh conditions.

Connecting directly to IoT devices via cellular standards

Importantly, OQ is following 3GPP-based cellular standards for NB-IoT.

“This means we can use the existing cellular chips and existing cellular IoT devices to connect directly to satellites,” Qaise said.

So users don’t need to come with any new hardware, they can buy existing NB-IoT supported devices or modules from cellular IoT OEMs and device makers and then get service in remote areas from OQ. The company uses mobile bands that also extend to satellite, including 2 GHz S-band.

Companies like AST SpaceMobile have similar ambitions in terms of connecting directly to mobile devices on the ground, but again, OQ isn’t focused on consumer broadband.

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A second avenue is a hybrid satellite-cellular device developed and launched by OQ, what Qaise referred to as a concentrator. That’s for applications where users might only be using sensors that connect via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or other means. The concentrator collects data from the numerous sensors (up to 1,000), encapsulates it and sends information to the satellite using an NB-IoT link.

Using existing standards and hardware helps OQ keep costs down, with the aim of offering similar pricing as terrestrial networks. Satellite is typically expensive, and “it would unlock a lot of use cases and a big market for us if we could match the same price as cellular,” he said.

Low latency is a key feature, currently at below 10 milliseconds. This allows OQ to address latency critical applications it's targeting – including drone control, smart cars and others – compared to traditional satellites that may take 150 ms.

“For these applications coming up, especially with 5G, latency is a very critical factor,” Qaise said.

Now with the launch of its first commercial satellite, OQ is planning service trials and proof-of-concepts with customers. Qaise said the company will need to put up to 72 satellites in orbit to have global real-time coverage from the North Pole to the South Pole, with a target of two years. But in the meantime, some commercial service is planned for those “latency tolerant” applications, such as asset tracking, agriculture use cases, or alarms, which the company is currently working on.

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While some LEOs like Starlink have launched more than a thousand satellites, Qaise said 70 is enough to support OQ’s business plan and pipeline for use cases. Broadband also requires higher power to target consumers rather than machines, meaning larger and more satellites seen with other companies.

“But of course, the more you put, the more capacity you could have, and there are plans for expansion in the future,” he said.

Another big difference from other LEOs like Starlink is that because OQ is supporting NB-IoT, it can use nanosatellites. As the name implies, nanosatellites are very small “shoe-box sized” that are inexpensive and quick to launch.

Augmenting private networks

Mobile operators, MVNOs and solutions providers are potential customers for OQ.

Selling excess capacity is an option, but Qaise said there’s interest from operators and MVNOs that would like an enterprise solution for oil and gas or shipping companies, for example, that works with NB-IoT.  

Instead of several roaming partners or adding infrastructure in difficult to reach areas, service providers could tap OQ’s satellite network for IoT connectivity where there are gaps in terrestrial network coverage.

Notably, many of the industries that OQ is targeting have also been pegged by the wireless industry as good candidates for private cellular networks – with increasing interest on Industrial IoT in particular.

Rather than a competitor, Qaise said OQ can actually help or augment private networks. It’s a new concept that the company is trying to introduce to the industry.

Private networks still require the deployment of infrastructure, he noted and can cause an issue for mobility when assets are spread out.

Qaise described a use case example for the oil and gas industry where a site may use a private network. But if an oil pipe is thousands of kilometers, there is likely not a good case for putting up a private network that can cover the entire area. However low-cost, low-power sensors with long life cycles could be spread along the deployment – connecting via NB-IoT to OQ satellites. Or in the case of a large drilling machine, which he said companies can often lose when lending out to oil and gas providers in desert regions, requiring asset tracking.

“The problem with these cases, is you cannot cover it with private networks,” he said. So OQ’s network could pick up where the private network leaves off. He noted that satellites come with very high security, also a key consideration for enterprises considering private networks.

“Imagine with these satellites we can offer a private network, but on a global scale,” Qaise said. Even if customers have multiple private networks and then could connect them through the satellite constellation.

“So you have your own private network spreading over a big footprint and not just where your cell towers are,” he said. It’s a use case OQ is exploring, as well as for enterprises with mobile assets that need to connect once they move outside of the private network coverage zone.

“You will still be connected to your private network through our global access network,” Qaise said.

Corrected to reflect satellite velocity as 7 kilometers per second, not 70 meters per second.