Why LEO satellite players are telcos’ new best friends

  • Connecting remote locations is important if digital coverage targets are to be met
  • Non-terrestrial technology options, particularly low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, are increasingly seen as a viable option
  • Telcos are brokering partnerships with satellite players to test and make use of such connectivity services
  • Latest moves show increased activity in the Asia Pacific region

As countries around the world place increasing importance on bridging the digital divide and ensuring broadband connectivity for all, and as the economics and technical capabilities of non-terrestrial communications systems continue to improve, telcos are turning to the growing number of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite operators to help them offer services to customers in remote and hard-to-reach areas on land, at sea and in the air.

While telcos everywhere are brokering partnerships with the likes of Elon Musk’s Starlink, OneWeb, AST Spacemobile, Lynk Global (and likely, soon, Amazon’s Kuiper), there has been a flurry of activity in the Asia Pacific region in recent days.  

Telstra and OneWeb in Australia

A notable recent development is the deal struck between Australian telco Telstra and its LEO partner OneWeb (the satellite player that emerged from bankruptcy in 2020 with the help of the UK government), Indian telco giant Bharti Airtel, and Japanese telco SoftBank, which is in the process of being acquired by Eutelsat.

Telstra and OneWeb believe their partnership will result in “one of the world’s largest rollouts” of commercial backhaul connectivity using OneWeb’s LEO constellation. Building upon tests conducted across the continent, the companies will begin migrating “hundreds of existing remote mobile base stations” currently using alternative satellite backhaul connectivity to OneWeb’s LEO solution later this year. The Australian telco will also use OneWeb connectivity for future sites where satellite backhaul serves as the preferable or the “only viable option”. The move, claims Telstra, will add 25 GBit/s of backhaul capacity to help it serve its most remote mobile customers.

OneWeb has “more than 630 satellites in orbit today, with global coverage on track for the end of the year. OneWeb’s services are anticipated to begin in Australia mid-year, with worldwide service available in early 2024,” it noted in its press release. A OneWeb spokesperson told TelecomTV that the connectivity the company will provide in Australia will be supported by the full global constellation, with all satellites orbiting the earth every 90 minutes.

Nikos Katinakis, Telstra Group executive of global networks and technology, explained that the move with OneWeb backs its T25 strategy, which has pledged to deliver an additional 100,000 square kilometres of mobile coverage by the end of 2025. “Our initial focus is using the service as a backhaul medium to connect remote mobile base stations. In time, it also offers us capability to deliver voice and fixed broadband services to regional Australia,” he added.

Part of Telstra’s plans, according to Katinakis, is an extension of the testing programme for additional use cases including network backhaul resilience – such as a backup to fixed backhaul “for selected critical sites”. Other plans involve using OneWeb’s service for emerging use cases for business and government customers, such as internet of things [IoT] services and connectivity “on the move for the emergency services agencies, mining, oil and gas sector.”

For OneWeb, the deal with Telstra symbolises “a first for us in terms of its scale and integration”, said David Thorn, vice president of APAC at OneWeb. “From our perspective, it’s one of the largest single rollouts of LEO satellite capacity for mobile backhaul worldwide. Telstra will also be pivotal in collaborating with us on future generations of OneWeb product development.”


OneWeb has also been making strides in Japan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of its investors, SoftBank (which owns a 19.3% share in the LEO operator), is collaborating with OneWeb on its extensive non-terrestrial network (NTN) plans, building on the partnership that was initially announced in 2021 – see SoftBank and OneWeb to collaborate on satellite communication service business deployment in Japan and global markets.

SoftBank’s interest in satellite-powered communications has long been known. In June 2021, it unveiled plans to develop NTN solutions using a multi-layered network that combines terrestrial mobile networks with LEO and geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites, and high-altitude platform stations (HAPS) in the stratosphere. Shortly after, it acquired as many as 200 patents for HAPS from the now-defunct Alphabet project called Loon.

It seems that SoftBank’s bet on satellite connectivity was well founded as customer demand appears to exist (though its scope is yet to be measured). In 2021, SoftBank signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Japanese shipping company Mitsui O.S.K. Lines and e5 Lab, a Japan-based marine industry solutions provider, to use OneWeb’s satellites for maritime broadband communications on vessels at sea.

South-east Asia

In the past few days, there have been a few other announcements signifying activity around satellite connectivity. According to a Reuters report, Indonesia, with the help of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has launched the country’s largest telecom satellite, which is expected to bring internet services to remote parts of the country as part of a $540m campaign. 

The project, which is a public-private tie-up between the Indonesian government and domestic satellite service provider Satelit Nusantara Tiga, is enabled by a 4.5 tonne LEO satellite that boasts a throughput capacity of 150 Gbit/s. 

According to Mahfud MD, coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs of Indonesia, satellite technology is key to the country – a sprawling archipelago comprising more than 17,000 islands – as it will speed up internet access to areas in Indonesia which cannot be reached by fibre in the next decade, reported Reuters.

Another South-east Asian country also “keen to embrace the many opportunities offered by the rapidly growing LEO sector” is the Philippines – at least according to international satellite service operator IEC Telecom. It announced plans to showcase “the benefits of LEO connectivity” to the Philippine maritime sector at the PhilMarine exhibition held in the city of Pasay this week. 

“As the world’s leading supplier of ships’ crew, the Philippines is at the heart of the maritime world”, the company noted in a statement unveiling the move. It added that LEO satellites are transforming the sector through their capability to deliver “high-speed, low-latency, reliable and cost-effective connectivity”.

LEO connectivity is also being tested in the country by domestic telco Globe in partnership with satellite connectivity service provider Lynk Global – see Globe and Lynk make history with first-ever LEO satellite to mobile connectivity trial in the Philippines.

- Yanitsa Boyadzhieva, Deputy Editor, TelecomTV