TAMPA, Fla. — More industry partnerships will be key for cutting costs and giving users a terrestrial-like experience with satellite broadband, according to connectivity executives speaking Sept. 8 at the Satellite 2021 conference.

Steve Collar, the CEO of satellite operator SES who video called the panel from Luxembourg because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, said “probably no one is able to invest enough capital to have the perfect system.

“And what that means is we have to learn lessons from telco, and we have to learn lessons from what [happened] when the mobile operators went out and started deploying capital in a major way” along with fiber and other telecoms companies.

Mobile operators’ first instinct was to spend their way through independent deployments, Collar noted, before pivoting in recent years toward sharing network infrastructure to expand services more efficiently.

“And I think, in satellite, we haven’t really learnt from that. I think there have been some attempts, certainly I would say we at SES are being quite thoughtful about that.”

Collar said SES seeks to avoid being “locked into any particular technology” so that its architecture is as open as possible, which he said paves the way for being part of a larger telecoms ecosystem.

“And I think satellite has been an island for too long, and cloud is an incredibly important enabling-technology … the more we can make ourselves look like, you know, an extension of cloud for a bunch of our customers — that’s a good thing.”

SES is part of a Digital Interface Standards (DIS) working group that published an open letter Sept. 1, calling for an interoperability standard for the interface between satellite modems and outdoor units. 

Satellite network equipment specialist ST Engineering iDirect also signed that letter, and its CEO Kevin Steen joined the panel.

According to Steen, interoperability will be critical for delivering satellite-enabled cloud services to the endpoints of all networks.

“It’s critical to figure out that digital interface, if you will, to make sure that then you don’t block that cloud-enablement to deliver services and orchestration to the endpoint,” he said. 

“That’s a perfect example. Yes, it will be an investment. Yes, it’ll change our architecture, but you need to join those and be part of it, and adopt those and adopt it in the way that everyone should for interoperability — so that you’re not proprietary, you’re not closed — so that you can enable those services and participate in a much larger ecosystem than you could ever participate in if you don’t do it. 

“So that’s the way things should go and will go.”

If the satellite industry does not come together to be more interoperable, Steen said, terrestrial telcos and other customers in the connectivity ecosystem “will pick someone else or they’ll figure out how to do it themselves.”

Open standards

Disaggregated technologies and open source platforms will be key for driving the satellite industry forward, added Brian Barritt, project lead at Facebook Connectivity, who also pointed to a need to follow how mobile companies achieved interoperability and standards across their market.

There still is no true interoperability between digital video broadcasting (DVB) and baseband vendors, noted Barritt.

“And that problem is being compounded with non-geostationary constellations, because everyone is modifying DVB, or inventing their own protocols and custom ways,” he said.

He added: “But there’s an opportunity here to actually leverage the much larger investments of the mobile telecom industry, by trying to align to a lot of the standards and open technologies they’re using.”

Important 5G standards, Release 17 and 18, will be released around the middle of 2023, including native support for non-terrestrial networking and the next-generation cellular services.

“That’s going to create opportunities for this industry,” Barritt continued. 

“If we emerge the vendor ecosystem and operator adoption of these technologies, to really leverage a lot of the open-source cellular cores, open technology, dis-aggregated [radio access networks] — all of the big investments that are being made by mobile telecoms.”

He said Facebook, SES, British satellite operator Inmarsat and others plan to announce a new project group this week “to drive and help foster the emergence of the vendor and operator ecosystem for the adoption of these technologies, based on these new 5G standards” head of their release.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...