Back to blog
Inmarsat IoT & M2M Iridium

April 21, 2023

Exploring the different types of satellite IoT: from LEO to GEO

The Internet of Things (IoT) has revolutionized industry by providing unprecedented levels of connectivity, data collection, and analysis. By enabling devices to connect and communicate with each other, IoT has facilitated smarter, faster business decisions across almost every sector. In 2021, a reported 77% of companies had implemented at least one IoT project, while the remaining 23% were either testing a project or planning to do so within the next two years.

IoT projects offer three main benefits: improved operational efficiency, enhanced customer experience, and new revenue streams. Consulting firm McKinsey predicts that IoT could create $5.5 to $12.6 trillion of value globally by 2030. However, 75% of businesses reported experiencing connectivity issues when testing IoT projects, and 91% believe that satellite connectivity is crucial for improving the effectiveness of IoT solutions.

What is satellite IoT?

IoT refers to a system of interconnected devices, including those that are connected to the internet. Satellite IoT, on the other hand, describes systems and networks, or assets within a network, that are connected via satellite. This can include a range of devices such as sensors, trackers, and other smart devices, often situated in remote or hard-to-reach areas where cellular coverage is unreliable or unavailable, and where building the appropriate infrastructure to support fiber connectivity would not be financially feasible.

Satellite-enabled devices collect data, which is then transmitted to a satellite within the chosen network. The satellite then relays the data to a ground station, from where it is sent to the application endpoint for processing and analysis. This enables real-time monitoring and control of devices and applications, even in remote locations, making it an ideal solution for industries such as oil and gas, agriculture, and utilities.

Exploring the different types of satellite IoT networks

Satellite networks are critical in supporting remote IoT connectivity, and they can be categorized into three types based on their orbit heights: Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and Geostationary (GEO).

LEO is the closest orbit to the Earth’s surface, ranging from 160-2,000 km (99-1243 miles). MEO is a relatively rare orbit, with only 10% of satellites orbiting between 10,000-20,000 km from the Earth’s surface. The furthest orbit is GEO at 35,786 km (22,236 miles).

Satellite networks also differ based on their deployment location and ground coverage area, which makes them more suitable for specific IoT use cases. For instance, cross-linked LEO satellite constellations offer low latency and global coverage, making them ideal for mobile applications like asset tracking. MEO satellites, with broader coverage areas, are used for global navigation and timing services. GEO satellites offer a stable and reliable connection that’s ideal for higher data rates in static use cases, such as monitoring oil and gas pipelines.

Choosing the right satellite network for your IoT use case requires an understanding of the different types of networks available and their unique capabilities.


LEO satellite connectivity for IoT

Satellites in LEO, which orbit closest to the Earth, move quickly and take only 90 minutes to circle the planet. They are much smaller than MEO and GEO satellites and provide coverage to a relatively small area of the planet’s surface as they travel overhead. Three ways are commonly used to maximize coverage for LEO satellites.

Some satellite operators, such as Iridium, create a mesh network to ensure reliable connectivity. Satellites within a mesh network can communicate with one another, passing data from one satellite to another until the final destination is reached. Antennas communicating with a mesh network don’t need to be pointed towards a single satellite, making these networks ideal for mobile IoT applications like weather balloons or data buoys.

Another option is to have fewer satellites but more ground stations, which allows for more bespoke local service provisions such as local network access. This is used by Globalstar and Orbcomm.

Newer entrant satellite operators, such as Swarm, have opted for a relatively large number of very small satellites called cubesats. The sheer quantity of satellites means there is almost always one overhead, so antennas don’t need to be pointed.

Cubesats are also popular for various space missions, including Earth observation, communication, and scientific research. Due to their small size and low cost, cubesats can be relatively inexpensively used to build constellations of satellites for various applications, including satellite IoT connectivity. However, their small size leads to a shorter operational life expectancy, so operators need large numbers of active and failover cubesats to ensure wide-spread and reliable coverage.

MEO satellites

MEO (Medium Earth Orbit) satellites orbit the Earth at a higher altitude than LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites, usually between 2,000 and 36,000 kilometers. Because they are larger than LEO satellites, MEO satellites can cover more ground and offer more stable connectivity. They are commonly used in aviation and maritime applications, where reliable communication is critical for safety. MEO satellites also offer higher data rates, making them well-suited for IoT applications that require the quick transmission of large amounts of data, such as video surveillance and remote sensing.

However, MEO satellites have a longer round-trip time, which can result in higher latency, and they are more expensive to launch and maintain than LEO satellites. This can make them less accessible for smaller IoT applications. SES and Galileo are examples of network operators that use MEO satellites.

Geostationary satellites

Geostationary satellite connectivity involves satellites positioned at a fixed spot above the Earth’s equator, around 36,000 kilometers away from the surface. This type of connectivity is ideal for applications requiring high bandwidth and consistent signal coverage, such as video streaming, remote surgery, and aviation communications. Each geostationary satellite can cover almost a third of the Earth’s surface, making it perfect for providing connectivity in remote or hard-to-reach areas. Because the satellite is stationary, it can provide a constant link between the IoT device and the ground station.

However, the high altitude of geostationary satellites results in higher latency of about 700 milliseconds (compared to 50 milliseconds for LEO satellites), which can affect certain applications that require real-time responses. Also, because there are only a limited number of geostationary orbital slots available, the cost of launching a new satellite and securing a slot can be prohibitively expensive.

Despite these limitations, geostationary satellite connectivity remains a valuable option for IoT applications that require high bandwidth and wide coverage. Inmarsat, Intelsat, and Eutelsat are examples of network operators that use geostationary satellites.

Choosing the right type of satellite IoT

Selecting the appropriate type of satellite IoT entails considering numerous factors. At Ground Control, we typically guide our clients through a series of questions to help them narrow down their choices, including:

  • How much data does your application consume?
  • How time-sensitive is the data you receive?
  • Where are your assets situated?
  • Are your assets stationary or in motion?
  • What degree of data security do you need?

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it should provide a good starting point for initial research.

We understand that navigating the world of satellite IoT can be challenging, which is why our team of experts is always available to answer your inquiries and help you pick the right solution for your company. Please contact us at today to learn more about how we can assist you in connecting from anywhere in the world.

Looking for a satellite connectivity partner?

We've been working with satellite network providers like Iridium and Inmarsat for more than ten years now. This means we can offer you good prices and flexible data packages.

If you're working on an IoT project and need some advice without feeling pressured, just fill out the form and one of our experts will get in touch with you.
Call or Email Us