It seems that the threat of sabotage to European subsea communications lines may have become a reality.

Just six months ago Irish defence forces became alarmed by the presence of Russian ships above high-speed, subsea communications cables connecting the EU to the USA.

Now, the severing of the telecoms cable belonging to Elisa and a second belonging to a Swedish operator should serve as a sobering wake-up call for us all.

A couple of cables down is an inconvenience, but imagine the repercussions if multiple cables were to be severed. Finland’s data connectivity could collapse, disrupting financial services, government operations, and everyday life.

Finland is something of a geopolitical island, with only northern land-borders to friendly countries . We argue that Finland needs its own geostationary telecommunications satellite strategy to preserve core communications under all circumstances.

Before you tune out, dismissing this as an overpriced venture into the heavens, allow us to break down why this is not only possible but prudent.

Satellite Shortcomings: the affordability gap

Satellites solve three classes of problems. (1) Navigation and time-keeping (e.g. GPS and the time-keeping services vital for bank transfers ); (2) Earth observation (e.g. monitoring temperature and land change); and (3) Communications (e.g. providing broadcast TV, internet, and telecom).

Geostationary satellites orbit in a manner synchronised with Earth’s rotation around the equator, in any “slot” maintaining a fixed position relative to a viewer on the ground. Leveraging this remarkable property, early satellites promised a global blanket of broadcast connectivity.

However they were prohibitively expensive for national use in smaller countries, conservatively €300-500 million per satellite in today’s currency. The “Nationsat” was only a dream except for the most affluent countries.
Conventional geostationary communications satellites have become even more complex and expensive, while still often failing to meet concentrated demand around urban centres.

Many readers have experienced painfully slow in-flight connectivity. This is a satellite congestion issue that reflects the gap between demand and supply.

The EU aims to provide satellite capacity to its member state’s government agencies through the GOVSATCOM and IRIS² programmes. However the projected capacity falls far short of even government agency needs, let alone corporate, financial, and personal communication needs. The IRIS² project may provide secure and reliable communications – however, it appears to be held hostage by slow-moving major European defence industrials and operators bickering over their shares of the cake.

The bottom line is neither of these EU programmes present a viable path to timely and adequate satellite communications to meet Finland’s needs in a crisis.

New “micro-GEO” startups promise high throughput, but the price is not exactly micro and none have been deployed as yet. The “Nationsat” is still a dream for most countries.

Is Low Earth Orbit the answer?

Thanks primarily to SpaceX and industrialisation of “rideshare” launches, the cost/Kg of launch has dropped to 20% of its historic levels. This has enabled a new era of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites.

LEO satellites are not geostationary, orbit at a much lower altitude, circling the earth every 90 minutes.

LEO constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink’s offer low latency because the Earth-satellite distance is radically shorter, and terminal sizes are correspondingly small. However, since any individual satellite is only in view of a user for a few minutes, hundreds or thousands of satellites are needed for continuous service.

Thus, LEO constellations are the product of enormous capital and operational expenditure. Starlink’s capital investment to date is already in excess of $10B, despite having launched only 5,000 of their planned 40,000 satellite constellation.

LEO constellations can only be justified if they serve many countries/users. Starlink brings telecom and data services to much of the world, including Finland.

Finland (as a nation or through its telcos) could purchase capacity on the Starlink constellation. However this is not a sovereign solution – access is under the control of a California company. The war in Ukraine has dramatised the role private satellite ownership can play in restricting access.

Needed: A frugal nationsat solution

As it happens we’re in a new era of ‘frugal innovation’ in geostationary communications satellite technology that enables progress we did not imagine possible.

There is a trend to the design of smaller, leaner, more efficient geostationary satellites, using advanced technologies and highly directive beams to deliver high data throughput, at a much lower cost.

From a 15o geostationary location a targeted beam can serve Finland.

This slot could be populated with one or two smaller, targeted satellites that direct capacity precisely where there is demand.

Further, new designs include a “trunking” beam to cover Finland and a second “steerable” beam able to communicate with a teleport in any other European country with high connectivity.

These mini-satellites are less expensive to build and much cheaper to launch, reducing both investment and operational risks.

So in a hypothetical situation in which Finland lost its undersea cable connections, we would maintain core communication, while maintaining sovereignty of the infrastructure.

The cost/throughput change is dramatic. Ten years ago, a satellite with 10 gigabit per second throughput, built, launched and insured, would cost €200M. Today, the comparable number is as low as €35M.

What Could This Mean for Finland?

Geostationary nationsats provide an uninterrupted communication channel, ensuring both individuals, businesses, and government agencies stay connected.

Let’s be clear: No satellites can replace more than 250TB of sub-sea cable capacity. Finland at peak usage would need all of this and more. However the important thing is that the society can always run critical services, not subject to the approval of any other country.

We propose discussion of this issue. Our example is a network of low cost, targeted geostationary satellites over Nordic countries. This provision could serve as a robust backup to undersea cables, offering countries in the region a hedge against incidents like the recent Baltic cable-cuts.

Their geostationary nature ensures a steady signal source, unlike the more complex low Earth orbit constellations. Their affordability facilitates an incremental deployment and scaling, allowing even budget-constrained nations to have a reliable backup.

A Nordic network composed of sovereign satellites sharing a Nordic covenant is agile and modular, allowing operators to tweak the fleet as user distribution and throughput demand evolve. The network can be deployed incrementally, offering operators in Nordic countries the flexibility they need to make the best use of spectrum and power resources.

It’s time Finland considers a sovereign satellite strategy as a cornerstone for ensuring data security and operational sovereignty.

We’ve been given a wake-up call; let’s not snooze the alarm.