Satellite Needs More Collaboration to Reach its Full Potential

Looking to the satellite industry’s future in a hyper-connected world, leaders see themes in collaboration, open standards, and virtualization. Executives from SES, SpaceX, Facebook, and ST Engineering iDirect agreed during the SATELLITE 2021 general session that there is a unique opportunity for satellite players to be more involved in the overall communications ecosystem — but the industry might have to think in new ways in order to achieve this.

Steve Collar, CEO of SES, believes the industry faces a number of challenges, despite its overall level of optimism. While there is a lot of demand for satellite capacity, he said fulfilling this in a coherent way is a challenge.

“We need to work together in a more collaborative way — making networks virtualized and work more in the cloud, for example. We will work with the likes of ST Engineering iDirect on this,” Collar said, joking that this could be a good topic for SATELLITE 2026.

Collar spoke about how SES sees the importance of a multi-orbit, interoperable future. “Open architecture is important. We are big on making ourselves part of bigger ecosystems. We [the satellite industry] have been on an island for too long. Things like cloud are now important. We want to be able to deliver carrier-grade services that are all about reliability and throughput. These ideas are about being as cloud native as possible in our industry. We want to see a number of large scaled coherent networks. This will drive the industry to grow,” he said.

Collar said SES wants to see more partnerships to help scale the industry. The industry is able to scale when it creates common interfaces and platforms, but “it is something we have not been good at in the past.”

New Ways of Thinking

Collar said the satellite industry could learn lessons from telcos on how they changed the mindset on collaboration for the better. “The biggest challenge is that there is a lot of capital being deployed, and the returns may not be super attractive to investors. Probably no one is able to invest enough to have the perfect system,” Collar said. “If you go back in history, telcos figured out network sharing was a good approach. They abandoned the philosophy of spending more and more to solve certain network problems. We haven’t really learned from that. We want to deliver in a sustainable way. We don’t want to invest everything ourselves. We can have people leverage our investments, and likewise we can do the same.”

Kevin Steen, CEO of ST Engineering iDirect, represented the ground segment side on the panel. He said that some of the problems companies like ST Engineering iDirect are trying to solve are far from easy, but the company is focused on enabling more terrestrial-like experiences.

“We need to be open and more collaborative. Participating in those standards discussions and being more open are just two things we can do. We need to find that balance of being open and more standards based. If we don’t make our ground network interoperable with a telecoms network, telcos won’t want to work with us. We have to focus on investments in cloud and virtualization,” he said. “Historically we have been proprietary and closed. We need to change this.”

Steen talked about how he would like to see the satellite industry more part of the discussion for 6G standards for example. With so much emphasis on the ground piece, it will be up to the likes of ST Engineering iDirect to meet these challenges.

“It is a battle we are going to win. Partnerships will be key. If you look at flat panel antennas, they can’t sit there alone. We need to integrate with them. We are getting close to not always being the long pole in the tent. We will continue to push boundaries. I think we are making good progress to push the boundaries on the terminal side,” Steen said.

Steen believes an open marketplace is the most productive environment for tech companies to thrive. He added, “If you think about some of the new technologies, the free markets are trying to solve some of those problems of bringing about low-cost connectivity. Companies like hiSky and Kymeta have great technologies, for example. We have to be careful not to disrupt free markets.”

Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink Commercial Sales for SpaceX spoke about SpaceX’s connectivity plans. The company is already serving 100,000 customers with broadband services across 15 countries. He spoke of the importance of connecting schools and community centers for example, and bringing connectivity to people who were getting left behind, even before the pandemic.

“There is a huge need for [broadband]. People are coming out of the woodwork with a need for connectivity,” he said. “It is well beyond the consumer. We are working with telcos. There is also probably better internet to be had on aircraft. You have areas like disaster recovery and education where there is a need for better connectivity. There is an infinite number of use cases. There are also a whole lot of people who don’t know about the internet. We are trying to reach them as well.”

Hofeller admitted the demand for capacity has increased rapidly. “There has been a scarcity of Mbps. We want to get into a position where there is so much capacity it will open up so many more use cases.”

Facebook Sees the Importance of Satellite

Brian Barritt, organization leader for Connectivity at Facebook admitted there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to connectivity. He said the problem is related to population density, the way people and communities are spread out. As the upgrade from 2G to 4G is underway, it is too slow, and the problem cannot be solved without satellite in rural areas, he said.

Barritt pointed to further collaboration between Facebook and the satellite sector.

“Partnerships can help with the satellite value chain. You have challenges of cost of terminals, cost of equipment etc. We need to have mechanisms to monetize these investments,” he said. “Openness is key. We need to learn the lessons of the mobile telecoms industry and bring about more interoperability.” VS

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