Intelsat Looks To Close Digital Divide In U.S.

Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission announced plans to establish a 5G Fund, making $9 billion available to help mobile network operators (MNOs) deploy 4G and 5G mobile wireless services in hard-to-reach rural America. Some call these areas with sparse populations and/or rugged terrain the last 5 percent of the digital divide.

Looking to support this effort, Intelsat has launched an end-to-end managed service called CellBackhaul that uses V-Sat and dynamically allocated technology. To date the dominant technologies for doing this are fiber-optics lines and microwave, but they become expensive and impractical in the harshest environments.

“We think one of the major impediments to getting rollout of 4G/5G services into rural areas is the backhaul link to enable interactivity,” said Gerry Collins, Director of Product Management for Networks at satellite bandwidth services provider Intelsat. “We’re looking to make a major contribution to the FCC’s effort to close the digital divide.”

The company’s stated goal is to lower the barriers to entry for smaller tier-2 and -3 operators, using its satellite and fully managed terrestrial infrastructure services, while helping them easily bring broadband into unserved communities.

CellBackhaul leverages one of the company’s wide-beam satellites and V-Sat technology from Comtech on the ground.

CellBackhaul leverages one of the company’s wide-beam satellites and V-Sat technology from Comtech on the ground.

For example, if an operator has a site in Montana, they can call Intelsat and tell them to send a Category B terminal with a user-selectable price plan. An Intelsat crew will show up in matter of days, install the satellite dish, link it back to the hub and then connect back into the customer’s core network. This way their data traffic gets routed back to their switching centers.

Leveraging one of the company’s wide-beam satellites, CellBackhaul uses V-Sat technology from Comtech Telecommunications Corp. (modems, etc.) on the ground that allow MNO subscribers to dynamically share capacity across a wide number of cell sites. So a site in Wisconsin can be using the megabit capacity in one second and a couple of milliseconds later that capacity can be used in upstate NY or wherever the operator maintains cell sites.

Data rates for service start at lower levels, but the technology can deliver up to 100 Mbps per terminal, depending upon the service plan required to target the last five percent of the U.S. without reliable broadband service.

The service operates within the KU band, so it protects against rain fade to a certain extent. It also uses adaptive co-modulation to spread the signal less widely to reduce the modulation and reduce the throughput necessary to ensure a good user experience. Doing this, however, reduces the data rate, resulting in better signal penetration. Collins said they can deliver a 99.5 percent-type of availability anywhere in the world.

“If an individual site has very low levels of traffic, you can shift the capacity dynamically and very quickly across different sites and still deliver an experience of 30-40 Mbps,” he said. “Of course, when traffic spikes, the data rate decreases accordingly. But for that last 5 percent, this works very well.”

Several operators across the country have begun testing the service and Collins expects to sign up new clients very quickly. The company is now working with a large customer in Japan that’s building out over 4,000 sites. They’re using a couple of different satellite beams to share a large amount of capacity across the entire country. And there are many extremely rural sites with no existing infrastructure.

As a second phase of the CellBackhaul service, Intelsat hopes to employ Network Densification, that is, adding capacity in urban areas by connecting a lot of small cells to improve coverage. The company will also offer satellite antenna and modem, plus additional equipment installation and maintenance options and guaranteed Service Level Agreements (SLAs).

Intelsat is also looking to expand into underdeveloped countries like Africa, connecting the last 15 percent of untapped broadband availability as demand for Intelsat’s traditional services decline in other parts of the world.

“This service will enable U.S. mobile network operators to cost-effectively expand their coverage and bring connectivity into unserved and underserved areas, including many previously considered unreachable or unprofitable,” Collins said. “It might take weeks or months for a fiber line to be installed in the ground. We’re saying, if you can see the sky, we’ll put a dish in and you can get the service up and running pretty quickly.”

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