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Running IoT Through the Skies

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By Dana Cohen Mizrahi, Product Marketing Manager at Sony Semiconductor Israel

Non-terrestrial network (NTN) connectivity is making its way into IoT chipsets, enabling connected devices and installations to be deployed anywhere. Some devices are being outfitted with stand-alone chips that can only connect to satellites, while others are using hybrid chipsets that support both terrestrial and non-terrestrial connectivity. 

Why NTN?

Legacy cellular networks deployments cover more than 80% of the population but less than 40% of land and less than 20% of Earth. Satellite connectivity has been used for years to provide ubiquitous coverage. However, its high cost has limited use to very specific scenarios, such as  TV and broadcasting. In the IoT domain, satellite connectivity has always been a last resort alternative to terrestrial networks.

In recent years, the cost of NTN solutions has dropped. As a result, it is economically feasible to use NTN communication for IoT devices and start enable answer the need of “communication everywhere.” NTN has developed into a communication channel of choice in various scenarios, including that of emergency communication networks or offloading traffic from the terrestrial networks during peak times. Industries such as automotive, energy infrastructure, trackers devices, agriculture, maritime, railway, and more have the option to enjoy true global communication.

Mountain climbers, for example, often move from connected areas to areas outside of cellular coverage. Extreme sports require having a connected device in the event of an emergency, and hybrid cellular/NTN-connected devices can help in those situations. 

Maritime shipments, offshore oil rigs, and trains typically find themselves outside of cellular range. NTN can provide a reliable connection for monitoring and controlling these installations, even in remote locations.

Over the past few years, we have seen a number of new players in the space, many of whom are developing their own proprietary technology. 3GPP developed standards to enable the market to grow, for both broadband NTN and also for IoT-NTN- LTE-M & NB-IoT. 3GPP has started with study items in releases 15 and 16, and concluded working items starting in release 17. 

Looking at Satellite IoT Trends

According to IoT Analytics, the total number of satellite IoT subscribers reached 5.1 million in 2021. It is forecast to grow at a 22% CAGR between 2021-2026, and is expected to reach 13.5 million subscribers by 2026.

Non-terrestrial networks (NTN) are comprised of satellites – Geostationary Equatorial Orbit (GEO), Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) – as well as high-altitude platform systems (HAPS), which include unmanned airships or airplanes above 20 km, and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones. 

Most of satellite systems used to provide IoT/M2M communication services are based on either GEO or LEO satellites. GEO constellations are more associated with legacy satellite operators, while LEO satellite services are provided by a combination of established and emerging satellite operators.

GEO, has the advantage that it provides a much larger cover area, which also means it requires fewer satellites to deliver global coverage. GEO satellites rotate at the same speed and direction of the Earth and appear stationary when viewed from a fixed point on the ground. Ground antennas can connect to the satellite by pointing at it, without needing to track its position. This helps make using GEO technology relatively inexpensive, while at the same time, these satellites have a much longer lifetime compared to LEO.

LEO constellations, as the alternative, are quickly becoming a good option for satellite network providers that offer IoT/M2M connectivity services. LEO satellites orbit the earth with very high velocity and appear moving when viewed from a fixed point on the ground. It offers quicker and cheaper network building and deployment, a better link budget, and a higher availability of orbit paths. Additionally, LEO offers better latency than GEO due to the shorter distance to Earth. 

The round-trip time for a GEO satellite is approximately 600–800 ms, while data moves back and forth to a LEO satellite in the range of 30–50 ms. This would make it seem like LEO constellations are better suited to real-time applications. However, most of today’s LEO satellite IoT networks have a limited number of satellites in orbit. They are unable to provide continuous connectivity to the entire world, but rather provide an intermittent, periodic coverage. This might mean that data points can only be taken from IoT devices a few times every 24 hours as the satellites move around Earth, depending on the number of LEO satellites they have. As a result, the latent GEO constellations are often better suited to near real-time applications than LEO constellations. 

The Future of IoT NTN

The future of NTN looks promising, as the technology continues to evolve and improve. New technologies, such as low-power radio and advanced modulation schemes, are being developed to improve the efficiency and reliability of NTN connections. Additionally, companies are working on reducing the costs of infrastructure and services, making it more accessible for businesses of all sizes to use NTN for their IoT applications.

NTN connectivity is an increasingly important technology for connecting devices in remote and hard-to-reach areas. As the technology continues to improve and costs decrease, we can expect to see more and more devices and applications utilizing NTN connectivity in the future.

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