Innovation and collaborative partnership to address the digital inclusion in APAC: Solving the connectivity gap using LEO satellites
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical nature of the digital infrastructure to the economy and communities of every nation. Lockdowns and quarantine measures across the world in the wake of COVID-19 are creating an increasing gulf: it has accelerated adoption of home working, digital health care, fintech and remote education for the connected population. However, the same jobs, education, and public services are not accessible to the unconnected. As a result, the wealth prospect difference is growing larger the longer the pandemic lasts.
Connectivity gaps are especially serious in rural areas. Recent ITU statistics  showed that in APAC, only 36% of households in rural areas has access to the Internet at home, almost twice less than in urban areas (70%). Luckily many countries, developed and developing, realise this danger of growing gap and have put rural connectivity on top of their digital agenda. Technologists, and policy makers have looked at many solutions, from terrestrial mobile to satellites and from balloons to drones, yet no single technology can solve this issue on its own, as the challenge to provide connectivity in remote areas is an economic rather than a technological one.
For example, mobile devices became the most popular and often the only mean of accessing internet in APAC markets. However, network coverage in rural areas is seriously lacking especially in Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States. A closer look to the network coverage exposes the economic issues: a base station in a remote and sparsely populated area does not generate as much revenue as the same base station in the city for the operator; yet, the cost of establishing a rural site, and laying down the necessary infrastructure to connect it to the core network is much higher, and most of the cost premium comes from backhaul. Fibre backhauls can cost around five to ten thousand USD per kilometre and is just not viable over long distance. Microwave links can sometimes be an alternative, but uneven topography and the presence of impediments such as mountains and forests mean they are not always possible.
In contrast, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellite network services such as the one offered by OneWeb can be accessed wherever there is direct line of sight to the sky above, and unlike terrestrial backhaul solutions, distance to the gateway is irrelevant to the roll out cost. Our satellite backhaul solution integrates seamlessly with any last mile technology such as LTE, 5G or Wi-Fi solutions to create low latency, high throughput, and secure internet access for the currently unconnected community. Particularly, OneWeb will be working hand in hand with our telecom partners who will use our cost effective, fibre like connectivity solution to further their networks’ reach. In addition, in the case of national mobile operators’ customers, they will likely pay the similar cost-effective fees as their counterparts in the cities. Successful partnerships such as these can enable remote communities to finally rack in the benefits of truly inclusive connected societies, unlock digital opportunities and spur economic growth.
However, in order for citizens in need of connectivity to experience these benefits sooner, regulators and policy makers of each APAC country should strive to streamline their satellite licensing frameworks and remove unnecessary regulatory hurdles to speed up introduction of LEO services into their respective markets.
OneWeb is the world’s second biggest satellite operator. As a global communications company powered from Low Earth Orbit (LEO), OneWeb is building an advanced satellite constellation to connect businesses, telecom, and governments with high speed, low-latency, internet connectivity. OneWeb brings secure, resilient connectivity, through a network of distribution partners, from pole to pole, across oceans and continents. OneWeb is committed to the responsible use of Space and sustainable practices on Earth, to bridge the digital divide and to serve communities currently denied schooling, health, and online government services.