Lately, it’s hard to go a week without a new satellite announcement aimed at the IoT. There are already plenty of companies using satellite connectivity to connect to LoRaWAN gateways on the ground, or to satellites themselves to send data directly from a device to the web. And with OQ Technology there’s a company trying to use satellites as a means to expand existing cellular NB-IoT networks to corners of the Earth where cell towers are scarce.
As Omar Qaise, founder and CEO of OQ Technology, explained to me, the differentiating factor for OQ’s satellites is that to a device, they look like a traditional cell tower capable of using the NB-IoT or LTE-M standard. This is a pretty novel claim, because even with the low Earth orbit satellites that OQ is deploying, signals from satellites must travel further than signals from terrestrial cell towers, and because satellites are always moving, their signals get distorted by the movement, much in the same way sound waves get distorted as a siren moves away from you.
Qaise said the only reason it can offer cellular signals from space is that the company’s engineers figured out ways to mathematically account for the Doppler effect as the satellites move and the signal distorts. For firms that use the OQ service, the cellular waveforms also provide a source of savings because they don’t need specialized modems to transfer the satellite signals; a traditional NB-IoT or LTE-M modem will work on the device side. Using traditional modems cuts down on battery power and on costs for the device.
Currently, OQ has two satellites in low Earth orbit as well as partnerships with other satellite providers that have satellites higher up in space. It provides a satellite-to-Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) service using its own satellites — NB-IoT is good for sending small bits of data a few times a day — but thanks to its partnerships with other satellite providers and a gateway product it sells, it can also provide a satellite-to-cellular service for NB-IoT and LTE-M. LTE-M supports a couple of megabytes of data for use cases where images or larger files might need to be transferred.
Qaise said OQ currently uses others’ satellites to provide its connectivity service, but he’s adamant that the ability to launch satellites will be a large differentiator for the business and help OQ control its own destiny. In the meantime, in the last few months, we have seen several companies that have been offering satellite IoT services decide to get out of launching satellites and use existing constellations instead. Though as far as Qaise is concerned, “[C]onstellations-as-a-service aren’t a mature business yet.”
But focusing on building out a network of satellites owned by the company has implications. A satellite can only cover a specific segment of the ground as it orbits the Earth, which means that to get global coverage, a company needs to have constellations of satellites that are spaced to provide coverage in both the northern and southern hemispheres and provide coverage all of the time. The more satellites that are circling, the more often you can send data to them.
With only two birds orbiting the earth and some belonging to partners, customers using the OQ network will only have the chance to transfer data four to five times a day. That number will increase as more satellites are launched. Qaise said he expects the next launch later this year, but admitted that the company is a bit behind on launching satellites it plans to have and that in order to continue flinging them into space, it will need to raise more funding. OQ has raised about $10 million since its founding in 2016.
It launched its first satellite in 2019, and is currently working with customers in the mining, oil and gas, and agriculture verticals. They, along with shipping companies, are typical satellite customers as they tend to need to track items and data in remote parts of the world where wired broadband and even cellular broadband is hard to find. But I think the tech is interesting because, at the right point, it might make sense to build trackers or other sensors using traditional NB-IoT modems and just have the option to fail over to the satellite network when needed. Which could push more companies to use satellite services and make cellular dead zones a thing of the past for both industrial and enterprise data customers.