BT embraces small satellites to connect internet black spots in the UK

Engineers have set up BT portable earth stations to receive satellite internet signals from the OneWeb (BT) satellite constellation

Engineers installed BT portable earth stations to receive satellite Internet signals from the OneWebs (BT) satellite constellation

The UK’s space ambitions are really heating up and that means we could soon see many new smarter consumer services powered by satellite data and super-fast, near-instantaneous internet speeds over the next few years.

In fact, sometimes when you’re trying to upload video to a music festival like Glastonbury or stream TV shows from your tent, you may already be on a satellite internet connection without knowing it.

On Wednesday, the government announced it would place space at the top of its agenda, reinstating the National Space Council and launching a new national space strategy to help expand the UK’s space sector.

This is exciting because it means much more investment not only in the UK Space Agency but also in the ability to launch spacecraft into low Earth orbit from our spaceports in Cornwall and Scotland.

A case in point is an announcement by telecoms company BT on Friday that it is now using the London-based OneWebs constellation of small satellites to help it improve high-speed internet coverage across the country and plug gaps in rural areas.

You’re probably familiar with this technology, it’s the same one used by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk with his Starlink satellite constellation, supplied only by the British company OneWeb.

BT has used the small satellites to broadcast a better internet signal on Lundy, a small rural island 12 miles off the north Devon coast, where speeds have generally been poor, downloads only possible at up to 10Mbps maximum, if the internet is working.

Now BT says Lundy can access speeds of up to 75Mbps transmitted by satellites, basically decent 4G mobile internet speeds comparable to those offered by EE in London. But currently, faster internet access is reserved for things like hooking up the local council building or for boosting card payments in pubs.

Lundy, off the coast of Devon typically has very slow internet speed (BT).

Lundy, off the coast of Devon typically has very slow internet speed (BT).

Even today, parts of the UK are known to struggle to access decent internet speeds, whether it be 4G or 5G mobile internet or broadband, particularly in rural areas. To counter this, BT has a goal of covering 90% of the UK with decent mobile internet speeds by 2028 and has tried various ways to achieve this.

Its efforts include deploying fiber broadband through OpenReach, flying drones using EE to create portable mobile base stations in the air, and even paying to use regular satellites, often to boost 4G and 5G internet at music festivals like Glastonbury. But some people are still unhappy.

BT says it is still doing all of these things and now wants to add small satellites to its network, making it the first example of a major British company using small satellite technology for a consumer service.

Our aim is that the customer is unaware of how they access the network to give them the coverage they need, says Andy Sutton, engineer and principal architect at BT’s Networks division.

We pushed that network to the edge geographically, so if we can boost the network through space, low earth orbit is much closer, our excitement is because we can get lower latency [the time it takes for you to make a data request from your phone and receive a response] and greater capacity.

What are small satellites?

A nano satellite made by the Glasgow-based company AAC Clyde Space (AAC Clyde Space)

A nano satellite made by the Glasgow-based company AAC Clyde Space (AAC Clyde Space)

Communications satellites are traditionally huge, weighing tons and about the size of a bus.

They also need to be launched into a geostationary orbit so they can stay above a specific point on Earth. The geostationary orbit is very far, 35,786 kilometers (22,236 miles) above the Earth. Not surprisingly, their launch into space costs billions of pounds.

For this reason, access to space has always been limited to a few large companies, meaning that any form of satellite communication has proved costly.

But, in recent years, the space industry has shown that if you were to launch much smaller and lighter satellites into space from the nose of a space launch vehicle and have them closer to us in low Earth orbit, just 160-1,000 km above the Earth, the launch would cost less than 1 million.

If you had a large group of these smaller satellites, they could collect data in space and transmit communication signals to us quickly.

Unlike GPS, life-changing next-generation capabilities from space will be delivered in the next 5-10 years.

British venture capitalist Mark Boggett

There are tiny satellites known as nanosats that are the size of two shoeboxes and weigh 25kg to 50kg. And there are small satellites, each about the size of a washing machine and weighing about 260 kg.

BT uses many third parties [traditional communication] Geostationary Satellites It’s only recently that low-Earth orbit satellites have arrived, says Sutton.

It takes 600 milliseconds to get a response from a traditional communications satellite in geostationary orbit, but less than 100 milliseconds to get a response from a small satellite.

Elon Musks Starlink uses both nanosats and small satellites to provide instant internet coverage, while OneWeb uses only the small satellites.

OneWeb now has just over 580 small satellites in space, while Starlink has about 3,000 nanosats and small satellites in total.

In the UK, you can subscribe to Starlink satellite broadband internet, with prices starting at £75 a month plus £15 hardware rental, or buy the Starlink receiver and router from John Lewis or B&Q for £449 and up which you need to place outdoors in your garden.

Starlink does not offer direct service to your smartphone [for consumers]they announced to T-Mobile US that they are working towards that goal, Sutton explains.

BT has similar aspirations. We are working with the [space] market and ecosystem to deliver that capability in the future.

Because the UK has a huge opportunity in space

Each satellite in the OneWeb constellation is about the size of a washing machine (OneWeb)

Each satellite in the OneWebs constellation is about the size of a washing machine (OneWeb)

While we don’t hear about it often and Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to stay on the International Space Station (ISS), only did so in 2016, British venture capitalist Mark Boggett says the UK’s space industry has grown steadily over the past 20 years.

In fact, the UK is now the world’s third largest producer of small satellites, behind the US and China.

The UK is the world’s leading producer of small satellites, said Boggett, managing director of British venture capital firm Seraphim Capital. In 2016, he was the first space investor ever to launch a fund in the world.

This is one of the areas where the UK has been very proficient, which is doing things with a high degree of technological challenge, at a low cost.

OneWebs satellites are manufactured by Airbus, but Boggett says three British firms Surrey Satellite Technology, Spire Global and Clyde Space are already considered world leaders in the production of small statetellites.

According to The Case for Space, a report from the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, the UK space sector is worth over £17.5 billion in income to the UK economy and employs 48,800 people.

And in May, Britain’s space agency said space already contributes £370 billion each year, 18 per cent of UK gross domestic product.

Former astronaut Tim Peake, seen here in the royal box at Wimbledon, addressed the newly reinstated National Space Council on Wednesday (PA Wire)

Former astronaut Tim Peake, seen here in the royal box at Wimbledon, addressed the newly reinstated National Space Council on Wednesday (PA Wire)

Smaller satellites have the ability to democratize space as they make it much cheaper for many companies to collect data using constellations and send it quickly to Earth. This will mean more innovative mobile app experiences for consumers leveraging data collected in space.

According to the EU, data from nanosats could be used to improve agriculture by monitoring croplands and fisheries from space; fight climate change using data on ocean currents and greenhouse gases; as well as using satellites to detect illegal immigration and stop piracy at sea.

By 2030, the UK Space Agency says around 100,000 satellites could be operational, and having a larger small satellite market would open up even more opportunities for UK companies such as space debris clearance, satellite maintenance or solar power generation.

But that’s not all a distant dream, says Mr Boggett: GPS [satellite navigation] it has become a utility we all rely on in our cell phones, has taken 30 years to reach maturity, and generates billions of dollars of business.

Unlike GPS, life-changing next-generation capabilities from space will be delivered in the next 5-10 years.

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