Satellite constellations, a new geopolitical issue and threat for telecom operators

A satellite of the OneWeb constellation, on the Russian base of Vostotchny, on May 18, 2021.

What is the link between the war in Ukraine and the future of telecoms? The Russian attack having cut off part of the country’s terrestrial networks, the Minister of Digital Mykhaïlo Fedorov called for help from the Starlink satellite constellation and its founder, Elon Musk. Tit for tact, the American company dispatched 10,000 antennas on the spot. “150,000 people have been connected to the Web in this way”the minister tweeted on May 2, thanking Starlink for this “crucial support for Ukrainian infrastructure”. Beyond the communication coup for Elon Musk, this baptism of fire is a message for the world of telecoms, underlines Dan Ives, analyst of the bank Wedbush Securities: “Starlink’s role in the war in Ukraine highlights the enormous potential of satellite constellations. »

Today, the telecom sector is wondering about this new mode of connection to the Internet, which, like Starlink, promises to connect the whole globe thanks to thousands of satellites orbiting in low orbit around the Earth. “Satellite constellations are starting to be on the radar of many telecom operators, which was not the case just a year ago”says Mr. Ives.

Will these new entrants be partners or dangerous competitors? “Starlink is a natural complement to telecom networks, fiber and 5G”wanted to reassure Elon Musk, during the major industry congress in Barcelona, ​​​​in June 2021. But others point out the ” danger “ : “For telecom operators, not investing in satellite constellations was a mistake, as for submarine cables”, judge Guy Pujolle, professor emeritus at the computer science laboratory of the Sorbonne, in Paris. For this network specialist, the constellations could increase from 1.5% to 10% or 12% of global web traffic by 2030. “The debate is no longer whether satellite constellations will disrupt telecoms, but to what extent? »believes Mr. Ives.

Starlink is the leading edge of this new segment: the company has already launched 2,400 of its 36,000 satellites and boasts 400,000 subscribers. The operator is present in 32 countries and promises a global network. France has just been added to the map: the telecoms regulator has just given the green light on Thursday. The Indo-British OneWeb has put 428 vehicles into orbit and operates in part of the northern hemisphere. Amazon’s project, dubbed “Kuiper,” has yet to send any of its 3,326 satellites into space, but plans to do so within five years with 83 launches, including Ariane rockets. Brussels also wants a European project. China would prepare a megaconstellation of 13,000 satellites.

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