What was previously niche technology for powerful governments and corporates is now accessible and even indispensable for this region’s digital development.

Digital innovations with technologies like Big Data analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) are rapidly reshaping our economies, offering immense opportunities across many sectors, from banking and retail to transportation and manufacturing.

Through the establishment of innovation labs and the roll out of pilot projects, several governments in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region are actively pushing for IoT development and exploring the potential benefits.

The Malaysian Government, for instance, has embarked on the National IoT Strategic Roadmap to create an ecosystem that uses IoT as a new source of economic growth. Governments in the region have also set aside considerable resources for AI development. For example, the Singapore government’s National AI Strategy is aimed at transforming the economy.

All these advancements—be they the push for IoT, AI, Big Data, or any digital applications—require seamless, reliable connectivity that can support the bandwidth required to function productively. This cannot be delivered by any one network alone. A ‘network of networks’ is needed, from cellular towers to local wireless networks.

In a world that increasingly relies upon smart devices for business and domestic use, it is imperative that connectivity must not fail, nor can advances in broadband just be limited to an urban elite. Currently, 3.8 billion people are without internet access and the economic benefits of bringing them online are boundless.

A key piece to this ‘network of networks’ therefore is satellite communications, without which the whole system cannot operate. The technology offers resilient coverage and high-capacity connectivity, ensuring all areas on land or at sea or in the air, no matter how remote, can be connected to enable advancements, and to strengthen the APAC region’s vision of a holistic digital economy.

High-capacity connectivity

Across the region, 62.5% of manufacturing, logistics and supply chain-related companies have already implemented and are looking to expand the use of Industrial IoT (IIoT) in their business. And businesses in APAC are also found to be ahead when it comes to the adoption of AI, with 22% already at advanced stages of machine learning compared to 7% in Europe and 11% in North America.

To ensure these digital technologies can truly make a positive impact on society, the availability of reliable, high-capacity connectivity is key. To be truly sustainable and fulfil the potential that digital technology offers, the fast-evolving digital society in the APAC region requires an agile approach and continual innovation—a key attribute of satellite communications. This is evident in the new generation of satellites and ground infrastructure that has been emerging over the past half-decade, which can now see new satellite capacity ordered, launched and in operation within just a few years. This represents a step-change in satellite technology, which previously took up to a decade to go from idea to reality. This quicker pace now matches the speed with which the landscape is changing in digitalization.

Such new satellites are also significantly more powerful and advanced, and deliver an order of magnitude greater capacity than those launched just five years ago. They help address the growing demand for reliable broadband connectivity as more businesses adopt digital applications, enabling different sectors to achieve a much higher digital potential.

Reliable coverage

Governments around the region rely on satellites to communicate across vital services from medicine to transport to defence. Much of this work is unseen but crucial to underpin the ongoing functioning of societies.

Maritime is a sector that serves as a significant contributor to the region’s economy and one that only satellite connectivity can serve seamlessly. With Asia constituting the largest trading region and their seaports recording 4.5 billion tons of goods loaded, and 6.7 billion tons unloaded in 2018, strong and reliable coverage is essential to support the high volume of goods transported, and to provide the vital link between seafarers and their families.

This is especially important as ship operators adopt various digital technologies to improve performance of tasks like monitoring the vessel’s condition—from the engine room to the bridge—or enabling their customers to track the movement of goods in real-time. And alongside this, comes the benefit of insights that this data can provide.

Satellite connectivity also serves as a key enabler for the aviation industry in APAC, a region that has been witnessing a rapid increase of inbound and outbound travel. As the sector begins to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, connectivity will be crucial to entice passengers back onboard by ensuring they can remain online. By tapping into satellite connectivity, aircraft and operators have access to real-time communications and updates on navigation and surveillance, which improves operational flight efficiency.

Real-time data can also enable predictive maintenance, so that the ground crew is able to identify the maintenance needs of the plane even before it lands, thereby reducing aircraft downtime and costs. Aside from operational uplift, the connected aircraft also offers enhanced inflight services that meet increasing passenger demand to remain connected. Such services attract new income streams for airlines and improve the overall passenger experience.

Research commissioned by Inmarsat from the London School of Economic last year demonstrated that airlines that have successfully installed connected cabins have an immediate opportunity to win US$33 billion in market share from competitors.

Satellite networks can provide reliable connectivity coverage anytime and anywhere. While an alternative may be to rely on terrestrial networks like cell towers, building just one cell tower is extremely expensive, costing anywhere between $100 – 350k; and multiple towers are needed for a large area.

Therefore, satellite connectivity, which is already in orbit, available now and which does not require infrastructure investment by government, is often the simplest to install, and the most reliable and cost-effective option. It can also be combined with a cell network and local wireless networks to deliver both maximum resilience and coverage that those other networks cannot reach economically.

A backbone of the digital economy

Satellite communications has become a thread of technology woven into the fabric of APAC’s digital economy. The rate of digitalization in the region is not slowing down, and with the emergence of new business models and start-ups, we can expect an exponential growth in demand for connectivity services from governments and businesses alike.

As we think about the revolution that next generation communication networks will bring to the digital economy, we also recognize the importance of ensuring that the connectivity needs to also be available for those left outside the connected world, such as many rural communities.

To achieve not only a digital economy, but also a digital society, satellite operators need to work in tandem with terrestrial technologies and others, to deliver the high levels of resilience, capacity, capability and coverage that facilitate an extraordinary broadband experience.

It is no longer just about one technology or another, but rather about a landscape where all communications technologies integrate seamlessly, to unlock the full potential of an inclusive digital society.