Can nanosatellites help reach the unreachable?

A nanosatellite. Photo by: tacophish05 / CC BY

CANBERRA — For Meir Moalem, CEO of Australian-listed Sky and Space Global, 2019 will be the year the company disrupts global telecommunications for the benefit of lower-income countries. This year, it begins launching 200 nanosatellites to create a global network of reliable and affordable internet and telecommunications services, helping to reach the unreachable.

Satellites for Sustainability

Over the past year, Devex has explored three humanitarian and development projects harnessing satellite communications technology for impact — from disaster response to digital health and sustainable fishing. Revisit our coverage in this visual feature.

“It will take until 2020 to provide all of our services including telecommunications available 24/7, but starting from the end of this year, you will already be able to use our service in the Equatorial region in the developing world, but also Northern Australia, off the coast of Singapore, or wherever you are in the world when the satellites come into range,” Moalem told Devex.

The entire satellite system, when operational, is expected to cost around $150 million —  significantly less than traditional satellite telecommunication services — enabling Sky and Space Global to sell their capabilities to service providers at an affordable rate. Moalem spoke to Devex about what this means for global connectivity efforts.

What are nanosatellites?

“Nanosatellites themselves have been around for some time,” Moalem explained. “Basically it’s exactly the same as any other technology where we see things become smaller.”

As technology has evolved, smaller guidance systems, altitude controls, computers, sensors, and solar panels have all been developed — with satellites benefiting.

“Everything became smaller until a point about 10-12 years ago, where students were challenged with putting into space a 10-centimeter cube to perform as a fully operational satellite. And that challenge opened the door for what we call the new space revolution,” Moalem said.

Sky and Space Global has taken advantage of this improved technology to endow compact satellites with the same capabilities that, until a few years ago, were only available on large, expensive satellites. Until now, nanosatellites have predominantly been used for affordable remote sensing. Moalem’s company is the first to test the benefits for wider communications.

The network of 200 is the “magic number” that enables a reliable network 24/7, Moalem explained. At an estimated cost of 1 million Australian dollars ($0.71 million) each to manufacture, launch, and operate, their total price tag is more affordable than a single large satellite with a limited range. Both the size and price mean that the cost of repairs is lower and the possibility of expanding the network is easier.

With low cost comes low charge

The benefit of lower costs in the creation and maintenance of the network is that Sky and Space Global can become a sector disruptor — passing lower costs on to customers.

“In the end, the whole idea behind the business model is to be affordable.”

— Meir Moalem, CEO, Sky and Space Global

“Charges at the moment [for satellite communication services] could be between $60-$100 per month,” Moalem said. “This is not exactly something you could afford if you live in the developing world. We aim to provide affordable rates.”

The services are sold wholesale to telecommunication service providers that resell capability to their customers. And while Moalem believes economy should triumph — if people cannot afford a service, companies cannot sell it — there are controls over the final price to ensure it is affordable.

“We have the suggested retail price which our customer cannot exceed,” he said. “If we are saying the price per minute is 50 cents, they cannot sell it for more than that ... In the end, the whole idea behind the business model is to be affordable. If it is not affordable, we cannot bring on board the high number of customers we want and the business model collapses.”

Opportunities for philanthropy

While Sky and Space Global is a listed company designed to make profit for its shareholders, Moalem said he sees huge potential benefits for lower-income countries to improve economic opportunities, communication, education, and more through nanosatellites.

In industrialized countries, “we do not really understand what it means to drive for two hours just to send a text message, to not be able to make an emergency call because there is no signal, to have an infirmary without any contact to the outside world or a school without a phone line, let alone internet connectivity,” he said. “All of these things we take for granted.”

Coverage and affordable services will have a big impact. But beyond that, there are plans for philanthropic efforts, offering zero-profit services to NGOs, multilaterals, and other organizations that support development initiatives.

They just have to find these partners.

“When we make revenue we can allocate resources for pro-bono services,” Moalem said. “At the stage we are at today, we are looking for potential partners who can support these services, like the World Bank or the United Nations. We don’t require funding, just help to deploy 100 devices to where they can make an impact. We have struggled so far — NGOs you would think would be highly supportive of these activities take forever to make a decision. We can see the benefit, but need others to see it too.”

Moving to 2020 and beyond

Part of the network will launch this year with funding being sought to support the full network, which it is hoped will be accessible from 2020. But Sky and Space Global is already progressing with the selling of services. So far, it has announced 30 contracts and agreements, including one with a small company in Nigeria called BeepTool — a startup providing connectivity to citizens living in rural areas without connection.

“It’s really exciting to see the benefits we can bring,” Moalem said.

About the author

  • %25257b6eb61a8f df39 4ae1 bb29 9056d33aa739%25257d

    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.