What roles are satellite operators playing during the current COVID-19 pandemic?
These are exceptional times. With the world in the throes of a lockdown, teleworking has become the new norm. We are seeing a corresponding increase in the usage of voice and packet services that has resulted in unprecedented spikes of traffic on mobile networks for continued periods of time. Some companies are reporting surges of up to 300 per cent, leading to frequent disruptions and even non-availability of communication services.
The role of satellite networks to ensure speed and capacity has become ever more critical. There is an urgent requirement for cost-effective mobile backhaul over satellite communication networks to relieve congestion. Satellite operators like Yahsat are adding secondary paths at base stations so that voice and signalling can be routed over high availability terrestrial or C/Ku band routes, while the packet service runs over HTS. As a result, mobile operators able to achieve greater efficiency, mitigate latency delays and ensure always-on service availability.
Besides backhauling, Yahsat is providing roaming services though our subsidiary, Thuraya, to the subscribers of nearly 400 mobile network operators worldwide, whereby they use roam services over Thuraya’s satellite network in order to remain connected on their local numbers when out of GSM coverage, or terrestrial roaming charges are steep.
How can satellite operators help operators deliver services in hard to reach and rural areas that enables MNOs to quickly and cost effectively deploy their 2G/3G/4G network infrastructure into areas once considered unreachable?
Traditionally, MNOs have faced business and geographic challenges when looking to extend their coverage across hundreds of sites located in regions outside cities and suburban areas. Satellite operators provide high-performing, space-based cellular backhaul solutions that offer MNOs end-to-end connectivity service from any Radio Access Network (RAN) site to the MNO Core, eliminating the need for additional investments in any space or ground infrastructure. This enables MNOs to close their business case and make reliable, quality coverage available to more remote communities throughout the world. It is now universally acknowledged that space-based platforms are essential to closing the digital divide. Satellite operators help MNOs demonstrate to governments and regulators that they can close the coverage gaps and attain their Universal Service obligations.
Satellites can also provide managed backup services for existing MNO networks. This means MNOs can immediately restore network connectivity to subscribers when terrestrial backhaul hardware is damaged or severed. As the restoration of terrestrial services can sometimes take days or weeks, satellite networks can guarantee revenue assurance and help MNOs maintain customer satisfaction and loyalty during challenging periods.
What scope is there for satellite operators to play a role in 5G - particularly with regard to backhaul?
Fixed satellites today provide backhaul services to cellular in C, Ku and Ka bands, and also services to moving fixed terminals on vehicles in C-, Ku-, X- and Ka-bands. Holding out the promise of global coverage, satellite communication solutions are essential to provide the 5G service everywhere including remote areas, on board vessels, aircraft (in-flight services) and trains in a reliable manner.
Satellite systems can contribute to extend the 5G service coverage by providing backhaul or direct access service.
On the one hand, satellites provide backhauling to interconnect a local area network made of base stations or access points:
- The LAN may be deployed in an isolated area or on-board aircraft, vessels or even trains. Hence, the cells of the local area network may either be isolated or may roam across other cells (e.g. Trains) Satellite can offload the terrestrial backhaul and/or offer backup in cases of temporary need of extra-capacity
On the other hand, satellite can deliver 5G service through direct access, provided that the terminal device can operate in the satellite network and frequency bands.
To provide a seamless service delivery to the 5G end-users while they roam between terrestrial and satellite backhauled cells, it is necessary to:
- Ensure that the network protocols can cope with different latencies
- Support vertical hand-overs between the networks to enable terminals to always pick up the best access technology available
- Define schemes that mitigate possible interference issues between satellite and terrestrial networks
- Address SLA agreement issues between terrestrial and satellite service providers
- Investigate possible satellite and terrestrial network dual mode integration in 5G devices
- Application dependent connection selection (in the access point)
- Business models for the access points (private, shared)
What are your predictions for the industry over the next 12-18 months?
At Yahsat, we foresee the emergence of high-throughput technologies that offer more capacity and the ability to better control where that capacity goes. Flexible communication satellites that can adjust the power, shape and position of their beams will be the new benchmarks, as market requirements evolve. When assessing future additions to our fleet, Yahsat attaches great importance to flexibility.
We also expect pricing to stabilise in 2020 and 2021 as there would be a temporary hiatus in on-orbit capacity growth. The slowdown in supply growth has helped the market regain a certain degree of equilibrium with demand growth also contributing to the stabilisation of pricing conditions underway today. But this is likely to be short-lived for data-oriented applications as a massive volume of attractively priced supply from new constellations that are currently under construction would start service by the end of 2022. According to the latest figures released by Euroconsult, High Throughput Satellite (HTS) revenue is expected to reach $15 billion by 2028 with aggregate capacity leasing revenue over the 10-year period reaching $85 billion by 2028. Supply is expected to rise by 12 times between 2019 and 2024. Demand will mostly be driven by vertical markets such as Consumer Broadband, Rural Connectivity, Civil Government, Corporate Networks and Energy, Military Communications, Cellular Backhaul and Trunking, Aero In-Flight Connectivity and Maritime Communications.
What do you see as being the biggest opportunity for Satellite companies in the 'new normal', post lockdown world?
Now, more than ever, there is a greater need for robust and reliable information and communication technologies. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted why we must continue to work hard to close the digital divide. According to ITU, some 3.6 billion people remain offline today, unable to access online education, employment or critical health and sanitation advice.
As we adjust to a new life amid the COVID-19 crisis, digital technologies and other ICTs have been instrumental to keeping economies and societies connected. They are helping school children stay in school through e-learning tools. ICTs are helping keep food chain infrastructure moving through intelligent shipping networks. Across the world, they are helping people access critical medical services through telemedicine and other technology-led solutions.
In the UAE, Yahsat is providing free satellite internet services to support remote schooling programs by the Ministry of Education (MoE) and Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK). Thuraya is working closely with International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) to provide critical connectivity to medical missions in the remote regions of the world.
Reliance on ICTs will certainly grow in the post lockdown, ‘new normal’ world. As the demand goes up, it would be very challenging to deliver these technologies to all. MNOs lack the capacity and the infrastructure to address the evolving needs. So, in the future, we are going to see greater cooperation between MNOs and satellite operators. Satellite is going to have a greater say in how communications are handled across the globe.