Fighting for Arctic connections is hot

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Fighting for Arctic connections is hot

The world’s largest broadband megaconstellations in low Earth orbit (LEO), OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink, already have polar-orbiting satellites in their increasing fleets.

The Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission (ASBM) — a joint venture between British satellite operator Inmarsat, the Norwegian Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Air Force — plans to deploy two satellites in highly elliptical orbits on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in 2023 for polar coverage.

And Telesat has committed to connecting indigenous communities in Canada’s northernmost areas with its planned LEO constellation in return for government funding.

Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) has outlined plans to add four satellites in highly elliptical orbits to its fleet in the following years to extend coverage deep into the Arctic Circle.

Story Highlights

  • Both new and veteran operators expect a growing market for capacity in locations best served by non-geostationary satellites (NGSO).

  • SES is looking at using inclined planes to cover the Arctic with O3b mPower, its next-generation medium Earth orbit network that aims to start deploying satellites this year.

These high-speed networks are looking to transform connectivity in the Arctic. For decades, Iridium Communications has been the only operator able to provide continuous coverage over the poles — and only for less bandwidth-hungry services such as mobile telephony and various monitoring and tracking applications.

For higher bandwidth needs, operators have been using satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO) to cover parts of the Arctic with a line of sight to their fixed positions along the equator, noted Armand Musey, founder of advisory firm Summit Ridge Group.

The curvature of the Earth means geostationary satellites positioned above the equator can’t reach high polar altitudes. However, Musey said militaries and other government users have previously tasked older GEOs that have drifted north or south of their original equatorial orbits to provide capacity in these areas. “The polar coverage for a non-station kept satellite is usually only for several hours a day at each pole,” he said.

GEO satellites also call for using larger and more expensive dishes the closer they are to the poles because of the low elevation angles, and “even then small variations in the terrain can block the look angle.” “For NGSO constellations with polar orbits, the opposite is true,” he said.

“The satellites are crossing at the poles, and that is where capacity and look angles are the best.” MORE USE CASES
Despite government subsidies for connecting remote Arctic areas often poorly served by terrestrial solutions, the region’s population is relatively small and has not historically proven to be a major market for the satellite industry.

The Arctic is also rich in natural resources, and its strategic importance to governments will have likely increased after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine significantly deteriorated relations with the West. Musey pointed out that some of the markets coming into focus in the region, particularly maritime and aviation, are among the fastest-growing users of satellite connectivity worldwide.

More planes with passengers demanding better inflight Wi-Fi are flying over the poles to reach international destinations, and the warming climate is carving out more efficient shipping routes that are increasing the flow of maritime traffic. But while the Arctic continues to be seen as a niche market, satellite companies are increasingly investing in the area as a number of factors drive demand for more capacity.