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July 2018

Low Earth Orbit Satellites set to Rocket into Telecom’s Mainstream for 5G & IoT

Low Earth Orbit Satellites set to Rocket into Telecom’s Mainstream for 5G & IoT

Will Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos make any real money shooting rockets into space. . . or putting astronauts on Mars?

At first glance, the new “Space Race” looks like a rich man’s game.  The Space billionaires get to launch their interplanetary “Ferraris” while the rest of us are stuck with toy drones from Best Buy.

So yes, I’ve been pretty skeptical of Space as a new profit center.  But that’s before I attended ITW in Chicago and got briefed on Iristel’s recent launch of its first Low Earth Orbit (LEO) comms satellite.

At Iristel’s exhibit booth, I sat next to a one-to-one size model of the satellite in orbit.  It wasn’t much to look at: just a 5 kilogram computer box with a few antennas and solar panels sticking out of it.

But I learned: the telecom opportunities this humble spacecraft will deliver are impressive — as explained in my talk with Samer Bishay, CEO of Iristel, the satellite’s commercial champion and one of Canada’s most successful telecom entrepreneurs.

Dan Baker, Editor, Top Operator: Samer, a while back when you briefed me on Iristel’s business, you explained how satellite telephony in Africa was a nifty business in your early days before you shifted into Canadian wholesale ventures, such as national CLEC, MVNO, and VoIP enabling of incumbents.  So what brought you back into the satellite biz?

Samer Bishay: Thanks, Dan.  Yes, it’s actually great to be back in the satellite business, but this is a far more exciting business opportunity than sats were back then.

The space rack in front of you was made by Kepler Communications, a small satellite building shop in Toronto.  I’m one of the co-founders and we launched it into orbit on January 19th.

The sat is orbiting right now in low earth orbit, at an altitude of 570 kilometers, and the idea is to create a constellation of 140 satellites that make up a real-time system.

This is a very low cost, affordable technology because everything is miniaturized.  We need three years of flying time for each of these LEO sats to achieve an ROI.  And that compares to the traditional geocentric orbit sats that require 20 years to pay their investment back.

The other advantage we have with these LEO sats is we get to refresh the technology more often.  Imagine an iPhone that’s 20 years old versus a 3 year old iPhone.  Technology refresh is crucial today.  And to be able to refresh quickly is the difference between night and day.

Now this first generation sat can communicate at 500 Mbits per second, providing service anywhere on the globe.  Now 500 Mbits is not an exciting speed if you’re in the city of Toronto.  But if you drive, say, only two hours north of Toronto, you’re disconnected from fast communications.

So this is very useful when you think about all the sensors you can connect to using Machine-to-Machine sensors for CCTV, seismic activity and weather monitoring — whatever you want to track.  So now you can deploy these sensors globally.  It’s limitless now.

How far along is Iristel to getting an actual service up and running?

Well we’ve only launched one sat so far.  We need many more satellites to achieve real-time communication.

Today it uses a store-and-forward approach.  It batches the data, stores it, then when it flies over the Earth downlink station, it forwards the data.

Once we have a constellation of sats, it becomes more versatile.  A total of 50 sats provides real-time coverage on latitudes of 60 degrees and higher.  Then, as we go down to the equator, you need 140 sats to achieve real-time service.

Isn’t it expensive to launch these low-orbit satellites?

It’s getting cheaper all the time as more advanced rockets are developed.  Last year I saw a YouTube video of an Indian rocket deploying 101 satellites — and they pop out one after another.

The satellites are built on a standard 3U electronic rack form factor.  The satellites sit folded in spring-loaded boxes on the rocket.  And of course, once in orbit, their solar panels flip out and start powering the device.

Now if you look at this satellite, there are no thrusters on it at all.  So it orients itself by gravity.  If you were to lower the orbit distance, then we would need thrusters to stay in orbit longer.  And that’s exactly what happens on the Space Station: every so often, it needs to fire its thrusters to maintain its altitude.

But this small low-orbit sat will keep flying for 10 years before it burns up in the atmosphere as it spirals into the earth.  There’s no fuel onboard.  So it’s basically continues to slowly fall — for 10 years.

OK, beyond remote monitoring of sensors in unpopulated areas, what other applications do you foresee?

Think of security in a world of converging technologies.  If you had a catastrophe, for example, what happens when you lose your fiber?  How do you communicate at low latency to support all the new 5G devices that are coming?

Now traditional satellites can’t support that because they fly too high: 36,000 kilometers.  At that altitude, latency is too high, about 650 milliseconds to go up or down.

But the Kepler LEO sats bridge the gap to support any type of natural disasters — with 5G-friendliness.  And that’s because of their low-earth orbit. 550 Kilometers is a comparatively short distance — it’s the distance between Toronto and Montreal. 

So we’ll now have an ecosystem that will provide that extra layer of safety, security, 5G support, and convergence towards a bigger mesh network — irrelevant to the media it’s travelling on.

Convergence is critical for the future.  Today, the standards are scattered across LTE, fiber, broadband, satellite, etc.  But where we’re all going, that all converges into one big pipe.

SD-WAN, software-defined makes it all work.  Increasingly it won’t matter what media you come in on.  So this is the new generation in satellite communications.  And it has to be low Earth orbit because latency and high throughputs demand it.

Now our first generation is only 500 Megabits, but we’re already working on our 2 Gigabit version.  And before long we’ll introduce a 10 Gigabit sat.  So we’re designing all this at the Kepler company in Toronto — and our engineers are there.

What’s the wholesale opportunity here?

Well, Dan, quite an investment is required in the satellite business, and other operators who need this capability would rather not take the risk of building it themselves.  So they’ll end up buying bulk data from us.

There’s also access on a service base.  Maybe they need an application layer to monitor seismic activity in the middle of nowhere where they have a sensor.

We’re also getting ready to sell professional services so a customer can put their own payload inside the satellite to do something very specific.

The baseline capability will always be telecommunication, but we left room to customize one area of the sat to do infrared monitoring of the Earth’s surface, for example.

Can you diverge a moment and get an update on the outlook for Canada’s telecom industry?  What’s happening there?  I met AJ Byers of ROOT Data Centers who’s doing well building wholesale carrier hotels out of Montreal.

In telecom, I’d say we’re 10 years behind the US, though lots of good things are happening.

One of the challengers is, if you want to launch a mobile phone company, you need to get approvals from two different government agencies.  For instance, spectrum and telecom competitive law are managed from two separate agencies, so regulations from one side can contradict the other.

The government is thinking of changing the Telecommunications Act, or at least updating it with a fresh look.  The last major change was in 2004 so the Act is quite antiquated now.

There’s no issue with traditional services like wireline and mobile telephony/data from an incumbent, but people have a hard time understanding things that are virtual and digital.

And Iristel, as one of the few competitive operators in the country, is one of the factors in the change.

Now Canada is a hub for AI technology and lots of research, but we don’t lay the foundation for the digital highway, we could be left out for generations to come.  We’ve already lost out on the aerospace industry, for example.  And the Blackberry and Nortel story is well known.

We’re now getting ready to serve our large carrier customers with this new satellite technology and our M2M/IoT play — both of which are going to be explosive.  And then there’s the whole 5G sphere which is about low latency, high-throughput communication.

Well, we actually don’t yet have a 5G network policy in Canada.  Now I recognize that 5G is still in beta mode, but other countries at least have an approach to the problem.  In Canada we’re still trying to divvy up the future between the major stakeholders who are all still trying to compete on spectrum.

So call it what you want: creative disruption or real challenger competition — we’re not there yet, and the only way forward is regulatory change.

Let’s talk about 5G and IoT a bit.  One of chief challenges is the high expense of deploying small cells and connectivity boxes, especially in a large city.

There are really two types of IoT.  One uses small bursts of data.  You put up one antenna and it spreads across a 30 mile radius.

Now if you’re only getting bursts of data from a sensor you don’t really need low latency, high throughput.  So IoT applications like that are easy to deploy — and wouldn’t take very much to deliver.

But as soon as you get into IoT for autonomous vehicles and quick decision making, that’s where the trouble comes in because you have a very small range and you need to use high frequencies to push higher data capacity.

It’s all about a distributed architecture.  It’s about small cells and edge computing where everything happens.  A car should have a super-computer onboard to obviate the need to ping all the time.

Samer Bishay and Satellite

Samer Bishay, CEO of Iristel and co-founder of Kepler Communications

How do you see IoT wireless networks being cost effectively deployed for these high-throughput/low latency apps?

Well since you can no longer rely on a single macro tower to deliver across 30 kilometers, I think the idea of self-organizing networks is a compelling one.

Now we haven’t seen these appear yet, but that’s because we haven’t actually tackled the problem of building such a complex network.

Self-organizing networks will be enabled by working with, say, a few businesses who have a stake in seeing next gen wireless networks get built successfully.

And these business will use SD-WAN and block chain technology to keep the project transparent, distributed, and of high QoS.

The beauty of this approach is everybody involved can monetize off of it.  Cellphone companies make deals with building landlords all the time and say, “I’m going to pay you rent of $1,000 a month to get access to your roof.”

Well imagine a telco has similar relationships with enterprises and consumers, who become the “landlords” of the network being built.  And they have a vested interest to keep this cell site up and running because they are making money on it.

For instance, every time a car pings their small cell, they make some money out of that using block chain technology, which wasn’t there before.

Look at Uber.  They created a global taxi network practically overnight, yet Uber owns no cars.

So I think this is a way to move from linear growth to exponential growth — without suffering QoS and coverage problems.  You split the big problem into lots of little problems and delegate who’s going to help you fix it — with some sort of app.

Spoken like a true wholesale entrepreneur.  Why limit yourself to physical networks when virtual infrastructure and middleware can get you there much faster.  Congratulations on pioneering this satellite technology.  It is exciting.
Kepler satellite

Copyright 2018 Top Operator Journal


About the Experts

Samer Bishay

Samer Bishay

Samer Bishay is President and CEO of Iristel & Ice Wireless, a leading provider of wireless and wireline IP services in Canada.  As Iristel’s founder, Samer led the company from  small startup to an international telecom service provider with domestic infrastructure licenses on three continents (North America, Europe & Africa).

Samer oversees global and domestic strategies for both Iristel and Ice Wireless.  He actively participates in public forums that help shape Canada’s telecom broadband policy.  Of particular interest to Samer is the further advancing and development of rural broadband.

Samer is the recipient of Profit Magazine’s Young Entrepreneur Award as the youngest CEO among the Top Profit 100 companies in Canada.

Prior to founding Iristel, Samer was a lead systems engineer in the Radarsat program at the Canadian Space Agency.  He  graduated from the Space & Communications program at York University, and receive an Honours Bachelor of Science Degree.   Contact Samer via

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