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After the failure to launch a market sector in the 1990s, a largely new field of players is betting big on high-speed services for a very different world.

Before the close of the 20th century, an entity called Iridium launched a network of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites designed to provide enterprises, the military, and the government an out-of-this-world resource for communications links to virtually any location back on planet Earth.

Iridium’s constellation of satellites initially focused on telephony applications in the decade-long, pre-iPhone era. Motorola-backed Iridium survived a LEO constellation market segment shakeout that hit others, including Globalstar, Teledesic, and Odyssey.

Now fast forward to 2020, where Elon Musk's SpaceX, Amazon, Telesat, and OneWeb are vying to fully take flight to support next-gen networking-driven initiatives here on Earth, likely providing IT managers with fresh new options for supporting new and rearchitected business undertakings.

With earlier geostationary satellites, several high-orbit birds could provide global coverage, albeit from over 22,000 above Earth. With LEOs, which are set at about 100-1,200 miles above the planet, a LEO can cover about 1/66th of the globe, which means a large constellation of birds is required for true blanket global coverage. Though they have shorter lifespans, they are more advanced and less expensive.

As a result, today’s LEO satellite networks promise higher-throughput, lower-delay communications that provide more bandwidth per user, “even more than cable, copper, and pre-5G fixed wireless,” states a report released by McKinsey & Co. earlier this year.

Changing uses

Early LEOs were commonly used for voice communication and military applications. However, this latest generation of operators are expected to offer HD video streaming, higher-bandwidth data communications, and provide rural broadband to bridge the digital divide. Most of their former voice traffic is carried on terrestrial wireless and wired networks.

Musk’ SpaceX had already launched a constellation with over 400 LEO satellites by April (with more to come) under the Starlink brand name. Telesat will start with over 100 birds, with more available, and Amazon has already filed to launch 32,000 plus satellites in its constellation.

Under Amazon’s Project Kuiper, the company will invest $10 billion in an FCC-approved plan to launch 3,326 LEO satellites.

Yet another competitor is OneWeb, which has emerged from bankruptcy under new management and with new funding just before Thanksgiving. It plans to recommence satellite launches in December, toward its initial goal of 650.

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