PARTNER FEATURE: The Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic shone a spotlight on the critical role of connectivity in keeping people in touch with one another and delivering access to crucial information.

But with billions of people still unable to access even basic mobile services around the world, the crisis also highlighted the importance of swiftly bridging the remaining digital divide.

Connecting remote and rural areas has long presented a simple economic problem in terms of the payback on the cost of deploying the infrastructure. While deploying the base stations themselves may appear to be the key barrier in this regard, an often-overlooked challenge is the backhaul element. Fibre is great when the terrain is accessible or the population high, but what do you do in more remote and rugged areas?

Satellite service provider Intelsat recently offered an answer with the launch of its cellular backhaul offering, a service employing its fleet of geostationary (GEO) birds.

Jean-Philippe Gillet, SVP sales and GM of the company’s networks business (pictured, right), explained the system differs from previous satellite-based communications set-ups by removing the need for specialised end-user devices. At its simplest level, Intelsat’s CellBackhaul service extends network coverage, delivering “connectivity to a tower, which is then using 2G, 3G, 4G or 5G” base stations to connect to end-users.

Already available in Peru and recently launched in the US through regional operators, Intelsat is now eyeing expansion into sub-Saharan Africa.

Gillet explained the initial launches demonstrate simplicity of the system: “it’s about ease to deploy, the speed to deploy, how do we make it easy”. The system is tailored to customer’s requirements, with the US deployment covering installation and maintenance of the equipment on the remote site, “so it’s a lot more than just the connectivity”.

Tower companies or MNOs still handle operation of the base station, “but we really want to provide connectivity to the tower”, Gillet said.

Highlighting the adaptability, Gillet explained the US deployment of CellBackhaul centred on expanding 4G, and eventually 5G, coverage, while in Africa operators are looking for solutions spanning 2G and 3G. The key is it is the “exact same logic and same principal as a way to expand” availability.

The flexibility of Intelsat’s approach extends beyond the specific technology. In Peru, for example, Gillet noted it partnered with local service provider Andesat to access its infrastructure, as part of a government-backed initiative to deliver connectivity to thousands of citizens either lacking any connection or able to access only 2G.

“The government has identified a number of sites that either are 2G that need to be upgraded to 3G, or that today are not covered. What they’re doing is establishing a mechanism to provide the licence to one of the rural operators. And that’s what Andesat is doing.”

In Peru, it made more sense to partner with a provider that already had the required infrastructure in place, Gillet explained. Combining Intelsat’s connectivity with Andesat’s hub and uplink antenna was an “opportunity”, he added, highlighting the underlying technology is the same, but is flexible enough to be adapted to local requirements.

Gillet believes the approach taken by Peruvian authorities is “very innovative”, with regulation developed to “find a mechanism to create the demand, but also the right economic environment”.

Intelsat’s work in the US also benefitted from a push by the Federal Communications Commission, all of which Gillet explained helps to overcome perceptions that satellite connectivity remains a pricey option compared with terrestrial or other aerospace-based alternatives.

He noted much has changed in the satellite industry to make it a more cost-effective option. “There is change in the market, there is change in the technology, and above all, there are changes in the economics.”

Part of this relates to the equipment, with a new generation of high frequency satellites enabling “a lot of throughput” to be beamed to specific areas which, when combined with a reduction in the size of the equipment deployed on site, delivers benefits around ease of installation and lowering power consumption.

“When you combine all of that together, that means that [when] you transmit you use less throughput, [which] means that your total cost on the usage of the satellite is decreasing.”

Gillet noted a broader push toward open RAN equipment also contributed to cost-reductions, making the business case for covering “areas that are smaller” more palatable. The open RAN movement also brings in “big players like Parallel Wireless” and others, which “also changes the economics”.

There is also a growing ecosystem of connectivity options, with options based in the earth’s stratosphere adding to the list of satellite options. Gillet highlighted these as an opportunity rather than a challenge: in 5G, for example “it’s clear that there is not one technology which is going to be able to serve all of the requirements”. As a result, satellite operators like Intelsat have led an effort “to have non-terrestrial solutions included into Release 17” of 3GPP specifications.

As noted, Covid-19 has also focused attention on the importance of connectivity: “You usually have these discrete components that are completely changing the way we see satellite connectivity today”, Gillet noted.

Due to these various factors, Intelsat’s experience so far with cellular backhaul has highlighted that “you don’t need thousands of sites to be profitable”, Gillet explained.

Where deployments number in the several thousands, established business cases around economies of scale apply, while in cases where “the regulator has requested that you deploy few” sites, the government backing makes the case.

Gillet highlighted these extremes, explaining it is executing a contract with Africa Mobile Networks spanning 1,000 sites across seven countries covering 3.8 million people, “mainly” on 2G with future upgrades to 3G in the works.

In contrast, a deal with “one of the large MNOs in Japan” is fully 4G and involves 3,000 sites.

Gillet said this mix of use cases is the best way to “prove the financial or economic attractiveness of these deployments, and why things have changed so much now that this is a lot easier to deploy”.

“I think what’s key in the way that we are approaching it, is satellite connectivity for extension of mobile networks is really now not only a reliable, but also a profitable way of deploying a network,” he added.