Low Earth Orbit Satellites (LEOs)

© Mercury Communications Ltd - October 1992

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Global personal communications using small hand-held terminals has always formed a firm part of science-fiction folklore. Until a couple of years ago, that is where the concept stayed, but recently several proposals have been announced to set up just such a system. Terrestrial-based analogue cellular networks already exist in various parts of the world and there is a general consensus to upgrade these to digital-based systems in coming years. However, the consensus does not extend to agreeing a common world standard and even in Europe there are several competing digital approaches including Groupe Spéciale Mobile, GSM, Digital Cellular Service - DCS 1800, based on GSM, CT2, CT3; and Digital European Cordless Telecommunications, DECT, standards.

The low Earth orbit, LEO, satellite concept complements these terrestrial cellular standards and is based on the use of small, low-cost, satellites orbiting near to the Earth. To cover the whole of the Earth's surface requires many satellites, each supporting a large number of overlapping cells as shown in Figure 1. Because of the low orbit, users are able to communicate with the nearest satellite using only a small handset. Big LEOs, defined later, communicate directly with each other at millimetric wavelengths to provide backbone links for the network.

Mobile Satellite Services

Personal communication via satellite for maritime users or land-based users with no access to terrestrial systems is not new. For example, driven principally by the maritime mobile user community, Inmarsat consists of a consortium of 65 nations. Originally, serving maritime users, Inmarsat is now authorised to provide aeronautical services. In the future, Inmarsat is likely to be authorised to offer land-based services and has already put forward a proposal for a LEO network called Project-21.

However, Inmarsat is based on geo-stationary satellite technology which, because of satellite height, requires high-power terrestrial terminals and highly directional dish antennae which must be accurately pointed to the satellite at all times. In contrast, new satellite designs in low Earth orbit can supply services to low-power hand-held terminals using small, unobtrusive, omni-directional antennae.

Figure 1 - LEO Satellite Cell Structure

The reduced path length (the distance between a terminal and a LEO) of a geo-stationary compared to a LEO satellite is the prime reason LEO systems can get away with smaller terrestrial equipment. A geo-stationary satellite is positioned at a fixed distance from the Earth of 36,000km, while LEOs orbit at an altitude of less than 900km. The path loss is reduced by between 22 and 28dB, so that a signal reaching a LEO satellite is over 100 times stronger than that received by a geo-stationary satellite, assuming comparable transmission power by the terrestrial equipment. It is therefore possible to reduce the power of the terrestrial transmitter and use an antenna of much lower gain while still achieving good received signal strength at the LEO satellite.

Terrestrial cellular operators can only expand their coverage areas on the basis that it is cost-competitive to do so. This forces operators to use cost competitive technologies (of course, this will apply to LEO operators as well!) and to look closely at the revenue that can be generated from each new cell. As a typical cell might be only 20 miles in diameter it is unlikely that a seamless, ubiquitous, coverage of a country is achievable, let alone the whole globe.

Benefits of the LEO concept

  • LEOs can offer a communications infrastructure to areas where there is insufficient population to justify a terrestrial based cellular network. This not only includes many developing countries but 80% of the US as well. This explains why most of the initiatives for LEOs has come from the USA.
  • Many developing countries are interested in LEO systems as an alternative to investing in an very expensive terrestrial tele-communications infrastructure.
  • Communication via LEOs does not suffer from the objectionably long transmission delays associated with geosynchronous systems.
  • User equipment does not require high-power transmitters or highly directional antennae that need to be continually pointed to the satellite. In practice, transmit powers can be much lower than 1 watt.
  • LEO satellites, are technically much simpler and more robust than geo-synchronous satellites and are less likely to suffer catastrophic failure during deployment or during the satellite lifetime.

Big & Little LEOs

Pushed by several US based consortia and the US delegation at this year's World Administrative Radio Conference, WARC-92, held in Torremolinos, Spain in February, proposals were made for two types of low Earth orbiting systems: little LEOs and big LEOs. Both have in common global coverage through the use of a number of satellites in a low orbit in the range of 700 to 12,000km as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 - LEOs in Relationship to Geo-Stationary Satellites

Little LEOs

Little LEOs are a small, low-cost, class of satellites weighing between 50 and 100 kilograms. These have been allocated the bands of 137-138MHz and 400.15-401MHz for space-to-Earth downlinks, and 148-149.9MHz for Earth-to-space uplinks.

These bands have been used for meteorological satellite, space research, and mobile and fixed services. They will now also be shared by little LEO systems for use with slow data-communications, paging, store-and-forward, and messaging services. Small LEOs exclude voice services. These systems are an order of magnitude cheaper and do not seem to carry the technological and commercial risks of big LEOs.

Little LEO proposals include ORBCOMM, Starsys, and VITA amongst others. Volunteers in Technical Assistance, VITA, is a private non-profit making organisation aiming to improve the environment, health, education in developing countries. In January 1992, VITA was the first to be awarded status 'pioneer preference' for its LEO proposal by the Federal Communications Commission, FCC.

Big LEOs

Big LEO systems, with satellites in the 350 to 500 kilogram class, are aimed at data communications and real-time voice into hand-held units. At WARC-92 the US proposed a new allocation of spectrum between 1610 and 1626.5MHz currently used by aeronautical radio navigation services and the Radio Determination Satellite Service , RDSS in Europe. Big LEOs can carry voice and high-speed data services, unlike little LEOs. Also, big LEOs will use new, untried, technologies in the form of on-board processing and inter-satellite backbone linking at millimetric (30GHz) frequencies making them a much more risky technology.

Big LEO proposals have so far been put forward by six companies: Iridium (66 satellites), a consortium comprising Motorola, Lockheed, BAe, Deutsche Aerospace, and Matra-Marconi; Globalstar (48 satellites), comprising Loral Space Systems, Qualcomm, Alcatel, and Aerospaciale; Project-P from Inmarsat (P for portable. The group will probably finalise technical plans in November 1992); Odyssey (12 satellites) from TRW; Aries (48 satellites) from Constellation Communications; and Ellipsat (24 Satellites), from Ellipso.


In 1989 Motorola announced a proposal to launch a series of 77 satellites in low Earth orbit starting in 1994. Iridium Inc. was formed to manage the programme, which aimed to offer world-wide mobile phone services. Although initially announced with little detail of operation, many of the gaps have since been filled in. Early in 1991, several technical and commercial points were made clear for the first time.

Firstly, Iridium announced that the design of the handsets had been simplified and now used a stripped-down version of time division multiple access, TDMA, as used in the GSM cellular standard. Simplification is possible because some of the more complex protocols are not needed. For example, there is no requirement for a highly-complex hand-off between cells. As each satellite has the capacity to control 37 cells, each of which is approximately 360 nautical miles in diameter, hand-offs will be infrequent. Clearly, the use of GSM standards will be of great benefit to European market, as the same handsets could be used to access both terrestrial and satellite GSM cellular networks. When a user makes a call with such a dual-mode handset, it will first check for a local terrestrial signal. If it is unable to find one, then it switches to Iridium mode. This raises the question of whether users would need two telephone numbers, which would not be a good situation.

It was proposed that Iridium would utilise a 10.5MHz part of the spectrum between 1616 and 1626.5MHz. Motorola gained access to this part of the spectrum by purchasing the bankrupt Geostar Inc. earlier this year. This company exclusively owned the licence for this part of the spectrum used for RDSS. This licence authorises positioning data and paging messages to be sent via satellites.

On a commercial front, Iridium plans to sign up as many operators as it can worldwide. Service would be marketed through existing cellular suppliers' networks of distributors and dealers. Indeed, it even plans to lease capacity to one of its arch rivals, Inmarsat. This proposal might be intended to deflect criticism of a single US company being granted a world-wide monopoly of a part of the radio spectrum. Motorola also announced variations on the way the satellites are to be launched. At one time, a dedicated space-craft was to be used, but now the satellites will be launched a few at a time by commercial services such as the European Arian to minimise risks. Motorola also stated that a handset would cost $3,000 and a $3 per minute tariff would be levied. Their target user would be that breed of manager who spent many days of the month globe trotting.

In August 1992, Iridium announced enhancements to the system. There were two major changes: firstly, an Iridium LEO satellite will now illuminate 48 areas on the Earth's surface, an increase of 11 over the original design. Secondly, because of this increase in the number of discrete beams, only 66 satellites are now required (they did not mention anything about changing the name to Dysprosium! ). These will be deployed in six planes with eleven satellites in each plane. The total cost of the project remains the same at US$3,370 million.

News Flash!

In September 1992, the FCC turned down Motorola's bid to build the Iridium network. The FCC's view was that none of the plans for the proposed LEO systems was sufficiently advanced to justify awarding a priority "pioneer's license", intended to lead to a full operating licence within two years. Motorola replied that it was still planning to launch five experimental satellites in the 1996 time frame.


The Globalstar proposal is from Loral Qualcomm Satellite Services Corporation, LQSS. Heavily backed by French interests, including Aerospaciale, Alcatel, and Alenia, LQSS will initially launch 24 satellites to initially provide an optimised service to continental USA. International operations will follow, after deployment of an additional 24 satellites.

Each satellite should cover an area of 400 miles in diameter. Two kinds of user equipment have been envisaged. The first, a vehicle mounted terminal based on a car radio design, will be easily removable and easy to operate. The second is a handheld terminal that the user can take anywhere. Globalstar will probably be based on CDMA spread spectrum technology as discussed in TW #1. This enables the average transmit power for a terminal to be less that 1 watt and the use of unobtrusive antennas.

Like Iridium, LQSS plans to provide transmission services to organisations which will resell capacity to other resellers or end-users. Globalstar is intended to operate in conjunction with existing terrestrial networks through gateways. These consist of equipment which interface signals from a Globalstar user to a local cellular network. The cost of this equipment is projected to be in the order of one additional cellular telephone site.

Figure 3 - Globalstar Terrestrial Service Interaction

Globalstar claim that they will be offering a single world-wide communications solution for voice and data. Digital data can be transmitted up to 2,400bit/s and position location services with better than 300 metre accuracy should be available nearly everywhere. Other services will include global paging, messaging, and international roaming.


The Orbcomm X is a little LEO experimental satellite built by Orbital Sciences Corp. that claims it will offer affordable satellite communications. The satellite will be used for low-speed data communications and will not handle transmissions of high-speed data, video or voice signals. Orbcomm X will weigh 35 pounds and will orbit the Earth at an altitude of 48 miles. It will cost less than $1.5 million. Orbital Sciences filed an application with the FCC to implement service by 1994.

Some Issues

  • All the proposals are American in inspiration and vary considerably in their technical parameters, investment costs, services, and prices. It is extremely difficult to judge their viability, strengths and weaknesses compared to alternative terrestrial cellular services.
  • Any decision by the FCC on spectrum allocation could present a fait-accompli to the rest of the world for a considerable time to come.
  • The initial spectrum availability is very narrow (in the region of 10 to 20MHz) and it has not yet been decided how many LEO systems could co-exist in a competitive environment. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the first system deployed could create monopolisation of the allocated band which goes against the International Telecommunications Union's policy of equitable band sharing.
  • Although success could almost be guaranteed for partial implementation addressing the US continent, success of a project of this scale at the international level will need an unprecedented amount of co-operation from PTTs around the world.
  • The reported investment cost of big LEOs, in the range of 1 to 4 billion US $, leads to a good deal of scepticism about the real commercial feasibility of such projects.
  • The European space industry has been very slow to get involved in these systems, leading to the possibility of dominance by US equipment manufacturers.
  • It is not clear at present what the exact roles of system owners, service providers, satellite operators, are to be.
  • The announced Iridium handset cost and tariffs would seem to limit usage to users who are not concerned with costs. This would severely limit market growth.

Big LEO projects encompass a great deal of vision and possibly represent the ultimate in personal communications. Although originally beset by crowds of doubters, the Iridium project in particular has begun to make progress and achieve some credibility.

Many questions still remain to be answered concerning the practicality of some of the technical proposals, commercial viability, and how LEO systems will co-exist with terrestrial systems. It will also be very interesting to see the results of the meetings between LEO operators and the FCC that are due to take place between November and March 1993 to set the rules that will govern the operation of LEOs

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