Monday, May 27, 2024

Low-orbit satellites pitched as solution to PH Internet access woes

It’s no secret that Internet access across the country is severely limited. In fact, according to the National ICT Household Survey, 82% of Philippine households had no Internet access in 2019.

Image from Freepik.com

There is emerging technology, though, that is poised to increase the country’s Internet access: Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites.

Compared to geostationary satellites that are fixed at altitudes above 36,000 kilometers, the smaller LEO satellites orbit around the planet at less than 2,000 km above the Earth’s surface.

Their proximity gives LEO satellites the lowest latency among all satellites or the shortest amount of time for data to complete a roundtrip from the ground stations to satellites. They are deployed in constellations of hundreds to thousands to ensure a continuous connection.

Last March 17, the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA), the US Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Better Access and Connectivity (Beacon) Activity, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) hosted a webinar where policy-makers, satellite suppliers, and experts discussed the benefits and challenges of using LEO satellites to address the country’s inadequate Internet access.

Arndt Husar, ADB senior public management specialist for digital transformation, emphasized during the virtual event that LEO satellites are well-suited for the Philippines because they are the least costly and the simplest method of delivering broadband to the country’s remote and sparsely populated areas.

In line with Husar’s talk, PhilSA director-general Joel Joseph Marciano Jr. said the agency will confirm the viability of these satellites through their INCENTIVIZE project.

INCENTIVIZE stands for Introducing Non-Geostationary Satellite Constellations Test Deployments to Improve Internet Services. It is an open invitation to satellite Internet operators to bring new space technology to the Philippines. Through INCENTIVIZE, PhilSA will also investigate and assess the feasibility of these satellites in the Philippines context.

Marciano revealed that several groups had already sent letters of intent, with testing of their technology beginnng as early as the second quarter of 2022.

“Internet connectivity through satellites is an important space science and technology application,” Marciano said. “The Philippines with PhilSA is here not just for the ride, nor to be a spectator, but hopefully to contribute to this exciting space journey.”

Other groups that are looking forward to increased Internet access are the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI).

Their respective goals of financial inclusion for all Filipinos and e-commerce penetration for rural economies would only be advanced by satellite Internet access, they said.

PCCI president George Barcelon touched on the main argument for satellite Internet when he stressed that satellites may be the “only option” to provide rural mountainous and island-based communities with reliable, high-speed Internet services.

The prohibitive costs of cell towers and underground cables for these regions are barriers to successful Internet penetration, he said, adding that satellites could also improve disaster risk response in the country by diversifying the Philippines Internet infrastructure.

“When communities are in their greatest moments of need, Internet communication is vital for speeding up humanitarian aid and disaster response,” Barcelon said.

Heather Variava, acting US Embassy Chargé d’ Affaires, said in her speech that despite the advantages of LEO satellites, there are local challenges that may slow the adoption of these satellites.

Satellite suppliers speaking during the webinar — Amazon’s Project Kuiper, AST SpaceMobile, OneWeb, and SpaceX — named affordability for low-income groups, as well as the country’s regulatory landscape, as two of the top obstacles.

On affordability, all companies committed to keep the prices for their services low by streamlining hardware designs and subsequently, cutting down on manufacturing costs.

Direct connections to community centers and schools, subsidy programs, and partnerships with NGOs were also suggested to reduce costs for low-income Filipinos in rural areas.

Fariba Malouf, Amazon’s Project Kuiper corporate counsel, summed up the regulatory elements necessary for an enabling environment for satellite services.

First, he said there should be streamlined administrative processes for license applications, grants with reasonable fees and reporting requirements, as well as flexible licensing mechanisms. He said Executive Order 127, which liberalizes access to satellite technology for telecommunications companies, is one example of a regulation that is a step in the right direction.

Second, Malouf explained that clear and fair rules for spectrum-sharing among different operators would prevent overcrowding on frequencies and speed up deployment.

Spectrum-sharing refers to the strategy regulators can implement that permits several users to utilize the same frequency brands.

The virtual webinar is the first in a two-part series of talks on assessing the promise of LEO satellites for rural areas in the country. The second part of this forum will be held in May 2022.

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