Working with telcos in major future communications projects is one of the holy grails for the satellite industry, particularly entering into the 5G era. There are already some interesting case studies involving satellite operators. One instance is taking place in the United Kingdom, where Mobile Network Operator (MNO) EE has been working on putting together an Emergency Services Network (ESN) for first responders in the U.K. alongside satellite companies Avanti Communications and Gilat Satellite Networks. It is a groundbreaking project and one that could offer a signpost for satellite’s future.
Richard Harrap is the managing director of Emergency Services Network and works for EE. He is delighted with how the collaboration is taking shape. The ESN is a critical project on behalf of the U.K. government and satellite is at front and center of this project. Harrap says that EE and the ESN have been an advocate of using satellite as part of its overall connectivity solution for several years now starting with an Avanti partnership in 2015, and satellite has become an important part of the overall solution.
“It has probably become a much bigger part than we originally anticipated. It is something we have seen as a really critical part for a long time. I think it is one thing recognizing it, and another one delivering it. It has been a really interesting journey we have been through to understand satellite properly and how we use it in varied mixed states. The performance, reliability and versatility we get from satellite is really key for us. It has been part of our design and rollout of our network and how we actually operate the network in life.”
The ESN is delivering critical national infrastructure to serve every single emergency services user in the U.K. It carries a huge responsibility as there is a need to provide reliable and high performance, as well as secure connectivity. Harrap says satellite became an obvious choice for EE to get the versatility that it needed to create a state-of-the-art infrastructure. It is one of the tools the operator uses to take it from a commercial network to critical national infrastructure.
“We use satellite in a number of different ways. We are using it to help us deploy quickly in terms of fixed infrastructure. We are using it to help us provide resilience into that infrastructure. We are also using it provide really critical in-life mitigation measures when we have outages and so forth. If you had a transmission outage on a site that had some form of fixed connectivity, that transmission outage could last weeks, but with satellite, you can bring it online in a matter of hours. This is critical when you are managing the customer base through ESN,” he says.
The demand for good quality bandwidth is critical here. Harrap says EE provides 4G services into this base with a varied use case and diverse population and the operator also has a complex ecosystem that interacts with ground networks and their networks and lots of different radio technologies that are within those networks. “Having a robust transmission solution that is really versatile is really critical. It can’t be something that performs really poorly compared to the other forms of transmission that we have had,” he says.
Harrap praises Avanti’s role in the project and says working with Avanti and Gilat has been really positive despite the complexity of the project. He says, “One of the things we have seen through this program is a willingness on the part of Avanti to be super open in how they worked with us. You would expect a project of this nature, perhaps a world first in taking satellite into your 4G network and with this type of use case to have a number of challenges and surprises along the way. But, this has been a really genuine open team effort. Everybody has worked towards the same outcome. You don’t often see it the way you have in this type of project.”
This is a complex project. So, what have been some of the key learnings? Harrap talks about how EE alongside Avanti and Gilat have done a lot to improve the software and hardware that it has been deploying, and to improve how it has been deploying technology on sites. Work to mitigate weather conditions such as wind and rain has been particularly important for a project like this.
Harrap cites how the geography and weather in the United Kingdom can showcase the needs for satellite. He talks of inhospitable conditions where it has deployed satellite in the Scottish Highlands and islands, as an example. It also has to do a lot of work to get systems working in high temperatures as well, which is often an issue for mobile sites. It has had a lot of learnings to how to really deploy to a high-performance level and have a high-performance service that can be relied upon. The job to work and refine that continues. Harrap adds. “One of the best endorsements of satellite as a solution is when you are running emergency services on a network like this, you have to have super low latency for that communication. When you press that button in an emergency situation, it needs to just work. There has been a lot of work to do that. While we can’t overcome the laws of physics with satellite, there is a lot we can do in the end-to-end chain to make sure we are optimized as much as we can. There is a lot we have done in that space.”
For Avanti, this is one of the most exciting projects it is involved in. Avanti CEO, Kyle Whitehill believes that EE is at the leading edge in the U.K. when it comes to integrating satellite and delivering that into a network.
For Avanti, this project is particularly interesting given that most of its business is in Africa. With the availability of terrestrial networks much higher in the U.K. than in most of Africa, it stands out as being somewhat unique in Avanti’s portfolio.
“Satellite backhaul is being utilized by all of the major telcos to deliver rural, but also LTE backhaul and 4G in urban and semi-urban networks. So, for us it has been a fantastic learning experience. As soon as you want to touch a mobile operator’s network, you need to work at a very high quality at a very high level. With this network you have a terrestrial ground network, a mobile ground network and a satellite network all integrating with each other and a cell site where the hardware is significantly different as well. We found it really helpful for how we grow our own capabilities internally and then deploy that into Africa in particular,” Whitehill says.
Whitehill admits that this project was a massive challenge for Avanti. As an organization, Avanti had not been set up to deliver this type of service. The company is built to deliver consumer rural broadband across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Working on ESN has challenged how the company does business from an external and internal point of view.
“It has given us an enormous level of confidence. We were appointed as MTN’s sole Ka-band provider across Africa last year. We would never been able to do that without the experience we had working with EE on ESN. This is an important part of our DNA now, but we haven’t boosted about it publicly. This is genuinely groundbreaking globally and it has helped us mature as an organization,” Whitehill says.
While Harrap admits that satellite is still a very modest proportion of its overall mission solution for the network, it plays an important part. However, EE chose satellite because it provides greater resiliency. It is a versatile and reliable solution that is critical for this type of network. He says on-demand coverage is key, and that has been demonstrated in real-world deployments like a recent train derailment in Stonehaven which killed three people.
“Getting coverage into those difficult areas which aren’t heavily populated can be a challenge,” he says. “Being able to supplement the fixed network with mobile assets that we can deploy very quickly is really important. You need to have a flexible transmission solution and for us, that is satellite. We have seen our confidence in the technology grow to the point where we have gone beyond emergency services now. We use this also for commercial customers. It is a great solution for us.”
EE, as one of the biggest MNOs in the U.K., has already began rolling out 5G services and this could be one of the next big revolutions to hit the United Kingdom's communications market. Harrap believes that in the scheme of things, COVID-19 won’t impact 5G rollout in the U.K. He says EE’s 5G rollout is continuing at a pace. “We are not letting up in this deployment. We are actually accelerating in this deployment. We have 5G in over 100 locations now. We will continue to enhance 4G and 5G services. What COVID does is it reaffirms the importance of good quality telecoms,” he adds.
New exciting use cases are emerging, which could open up more opportunities for the satellite industry “As the world of work changes, we will see new and interesting use cases for 5G. So, things like healthcare and smart manufacturing. We have partnered with Belfast Harbour, in a U.K.-first, connecting the port through 5G connectivity, improving port operations. This is driving new opportunities. It is going to be really interesting to see how society and technology changes and evolves. Customers are starting to think creatively on what 5G means for them, which is really exciting,” says Harrap.
The future is exciting for an operator like EE as it makes the dreams of 5G a reality for customers across the U.K. Harrap says he sees satellite will always be part of a blended solution for a company like EE. He says if you think about the overall capacity that EE’s network carries in aggregate, the overall volumes are enormous, and satellite has certainly has become more important.
“I think we haven’t yet got anywhere near the exploration of what satellite can do for us as a business. We are thinking of customer solutions where we can be using satellite. It could be in other vehicle applications or about putting in tactical deployments in urban centers where it would take long to get fiber there. I think we will also start to see other use cases from around the world and how different business opportunities can use satellite as part of a new solution that we can offer into our wider commercial customer base. I don’t see it diminishing. I think it will grow,” he says.
Harrap believes a lot of the work EE has done in the U.K. could easily be transferred into other countries, and offer opportunities to satellite players. The way EE contextualizes it is that you have to think ESN as an entirely unique eco-system (separate from its own overall mobile network).
“We have had to mobilize app ecosystems, technology ecosystems, software ecosystems, etc. You have to look at very uniform performance and service levels across all of those complicated eco-systems. Satellite is part of it, but you are only as good as the end-to-end chain. We have to be agnostic. The ecosystem is so complex, you can’t have any component that is not carrying its weight. It is a really interesting use case,” he says.
Whitehill adds, “I just think the dream of all mobile operators to have as much spectrum as they possibly can to deliver as much bandwidth as they possibly can. I hope 5G accelerates as fast as it can now. Satellite is about integrating into that ecosystem, rather than being an outlier.” VS