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Electric power industry getting more satellite communications services to choose from

image credit: © Inmarsat

Peter Key's picture
Freelance Writer, Editor, Consultant Lansdowne, Pa.

I've been a business journalist since 1985 when I received an MBA from Penn State. I covered energy, technology, and venture capital for The Philadelphia Business Journal from 1998 through 2013....

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Companies in the electric power industry that want to upgrade their wireless telecommunications systems are looking to the sky more frequently.

That’s not because they’re exasperated. It’s because using satellite providers to link their mobile workers and gather data from equipment in remote locations is becoming an increasingly viable alternative for them.

Satellite telecommunications systems have been around since the 1980s, although for many years they didn’t have a large customer base outside of FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, who must have used them extensively, because they got better mobile phone reception in Siberia in the 1990s than most people get in New York City now.

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The recent growth in interest in them is largely due to the increase of satellites in low earth orbit, an increase that is about to accelerate.

Unlike traditional communications satellites, which weigh more than 2,200 pounds and operate at an altitude of 22,000 miles, low earth orbit (LEO) satellites weigh less than half that much and are positioned from 300 to 1,250 miles above the earth.

Because they’re closer to earth, LEO satellites can transmit and receive data with less latency. However, they also have smaller coverage areas than traditional communications satellites so a constellation of them handing off signals to each other is required to provide seamless coverage over a fairly wide geographic area.

The idea of deploying large satellite constellations to provide global connectivity dates back to the days when The X-Files was in its first run in prime time. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company last May listed four companies that wanted to do it, only one of which, Iridium Communications, actually did.

When Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, launched the last 10 satellites in the Iridium Next constellation into orbit in January 2019, that gave Iridium 75 LEO satellites — 66 active and nine spares.

Other companies are planning much larger LEO constellations.

When SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk announced in 2015 that his company was going to provide a satellite broadband service called Starlink, he said it had filed documents with regulators to launch about 4,000 LEO satellites.

SpaceX since has been granted permission by the Federal Communications Commission to fly 12,000 satellites for Starlink, and in October 2019 filed paperwork with the International Telecommunication Union to add up to 30,000 more satellites to its megaconstellation.

Amazon, meanwhile, received FCC authorization last August to deploy and operate a 3,236 LEO satellite constellation for its Kuiper Project.

While neither SpaceX nor Amazon has indicated they intend to pursue big businesses such as electric utilities as customers for their satellite broadband service, that’s not the case for Swarm, which began offering its LEO satellite communications service to commercial customers in February.

Unlike most of the companies offering LEO satellite communications services, Swarm’s service is low bandwidth, not broadband. That enables it to offer its service through a device called the Swarm Tile, a tiny, low-powered modem that can be embedded in any Internet of Things device. Swarm charges $119 for the tile and $5 per month for connectivity for it.

Although Swarm’s service can’t be used for large, high-speed data transfers, or pastimes such as gaming and streaming movies, it is well-suited for uses requiring relatively low amounts of data transfer at regular frequencies over very long durations.

Swarm CEO Sara Spangelo said the company’s first use case was containers and container ships, and it anticipated that logistics, trucking and agriculture would be good markets for its technology, but it has been surprised not only by the number of other industries that have expressed interest in its service but by the number of uses being found by the industries it serves. The company is moving quickly to cash in on them, however. Swarm already lists six use cases on its Energy webpage and five seem well-suited for the electric power industry — equipment monitoring, smart meters, crew safety, failure detection and asset tracking.

Consumers also want in on the action. Spangelo told TechCrunch that people have approached Swarm about buying a Swarm Tile and using it with a smart phone app to provide basic emergency connectivity for hiking. She said Swarm doesn’t have such a product available but is working on one. If it can be developed, it also would be useful to the electric power industry, which often has workers in remote locations.

Enabling such workers to remain in touch with their employers has long been the strength of traditional satellite communications providers such as Inmarsat, whose satellite is pictured above. But it has moved well beyond those types of services into ones that help electric power companies make their operations smarter, such as helping utilities backhaul data from advanced metering infrastructure collector points that can’t be reached by traditional cellular networks and providing terminals that allow utilities to automate the monitoring and control of reclosers, switches and other distribution network devices.

Just because it doesn’t have LEO satellites, however, doesn’t mean Inmarsat isn’t interested in the services they can provide. The company announced in January that it and wireless and broadband technology provider Addvalue have entered into a collaborative partnership with Analytical Space (ASI) to support ASI’s rollout of an LEO remote sensing platform.

The burgeoning [LEO] satellite market has opened up opportunities for far more prolific access to satellite imagery for the government and commercial sectors,” said Inmarsat Global Government President Todd McDonell.


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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 9, 2021

I hope we're still keeping track and planning ahead for the future issue of 'space junk'-- though our collective treatment of landfills and trash islands gives me not much reason to think we're being proactive about that..

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