PH Space Agency eyes satellite internet for remote areas

Jasmin Romero, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 13 2021 12:03 AM

DOST personnel look at the receiving antenna of the Philippine Earth Data Resource Observation Center in Quezon City. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News/File
DOST personnel look at the receiving antenna of the Philippine Earth Data Resource Observation Center in Quezon City. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA - The Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA) has launched a program to help the country achieve more robust internet connectivity, particularly in remote and far-flung areas.

During the launching of the INCENTIVISE (Introducing Non-geostationary Satellite Constellations Test Deployments for Improved Internet Service) program, the PhilSA on Tuesday called on new satellite internet operators (SIO) to conduct test deployments and trials in the Philippines. 

It said it will facilitate these "test deployments”.

“This initiative is intended to help expand internet accessibility.. in hard-to-reach areas through satellite broadband,” said PhilSA chief project development officer Agnes May Bantigue.

“We are targeting companies that operate satellites in so-called non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) for providing internet access. Examples of such NGSO SIOs, include One Web of UK and Starlink of Elon Musk," she said.

As of date, there are no known local companies with NGSO technologies.

Citing a World Bank study, Bantigue said “only 46.88% of the population in the Philippines had access to the Internet, making it the country to have the third-lowest penetration rate in the ASEAN region.”

The Bangsamoro Region has the lowest internet accessibility, with internet access in just 4.5% of its households. 

In Regions 9 and 10, 93% of households do not have internet connectivity, while 92% of households in Regions 4-B and 5 also cannot access the internet, Bantigue noted.

“So, for these regions, we can perhaps turn to satellites as a means for connecting—for achieving connectivity,” she said.

SATELLITE INTERNET

Bantigue said satellite internet will “bridge the digital divide”, which is cost-effective in areas where “terrestrial networks can be uneconomical and logistically difficult.”

“Moreover, satellites can provide urgent communications during disasters and emergencies when terrestrial infrastructure may be disruptive,” she said.

But PhilSA could not say how cost-effective the technology would be yet.

“Definitely every infrastructure investment entails capital outlay. So, in terms of affordability, we really need to assess this against the benefits that it will bring to the community. Perhaps in terms of the uses of the internet such as maybe being able to bring education to far-flung areas or being able to conduct TELE-help in far-flung areas, also, financial inclusion,” Bantigue said.

ADVANTAGES OF NGSO

Bantigue said the new satellite systems located in lower altitudes can cover unserved or underserved areas and can complement traditional geostationary orbit satellites (GEOs) already being used by the Philippine government for internet connection.

“So, because they are closer in proximity to earth, they entail shorter return trip time of the signal and therefore there is a latency or delay that is significantly less. So, because it’s significantly less, it can better support delay-sensitive applications such as video teleconferencing like this one,” Bantigue added, referring to the virtual presser.

For example, based on PhilSA’s calculations, Elon Musk’s Starlink has 99.1% total availability or satellites passing over.

This means that for areas like Tawi-Tawi, that could mean “23.98 hours of 24 hours in a day” satellite availability. This depends on the results of PhilSA’s tests, if it can determine that this would translate to actual internet connectivity.

“INCENTIVISE will help us assess their performance in the Philippines and determine their performance in the local setting or under local conditions,” Bantigue explained.

The project can also further transfer technology and open opportunities for the Philippines to be part of the space technology’s “supply chain" since these satellites need to be replaced more often, she said.

“We can pursue further discussions or negotiations on capacity building through know-how transfer and retention and even local design and manufacturing which promote local SSDA industry development."

PhilSA is now accepting proposals until the end of this month and will take evaluate and decide which satellite internet operators will be assigned to certain sites for trials.

“While the tests are ongoing, we will also be conducting the assessment and preparing the reports, which we intend to complete and present and share with relevant government agencies by early quarter two of 2022,” Bantigue said.

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