With the rapid rollout of multi–constellation satellites in lower orbits, the time has come for an industry long living in the shadow of terrestrial communications to finally emerge and shine as a primary enabler of connectivity. That is, if we can get out of our own way.

The endgame is clear: satellite terminals that are as easy to use as current cell phones, and satellites that are able to talk to each other without human intervention. What multi–constellation roaming gives you is resilience: the strength of leveraging different orbits to provide enhanced connectivity.  

Enabling multi-constellation roaming with the ability to switch terminals seamlessly across satellites and orbits would allow us, as an industry, to do something our cellular siblings can’t: deliver on-demand connectivity wherever it’s needed, whether it be to soldiers in battle, frequent flyers who can’t afford to lose productivity while traveling, families on road trips who don’t want to miss their favorite streaming show, or simply loved ones staying in touch.

The new reality

The industry has begun to pivot toward this new reality. Manufacturers are pursuing a new class of agile, phased array ground terminals; global satellite operators are consolidating to support this multi-orbit vision and industry associations, from the Satellite Innovations Group and the Global Satellite Operators Association to the Digital IF Interoperability Consortium, forming working groups and discussing what needs to occur to align the industry for the future. The WAVE Consortium is one of the latest associations to form as it looks to create open standards at the chipmaker level.  

I’ve been part of these discussions and planning exercises but, so far, it’s been a lot of talk and minimal progress. Let’s face it: revolutionizing an industry isn’t easy. The infrastructure and cooperation required to build a unified space and ground segment is a herculean task, especially for an industry not prone to share information over competitive considerations. We don’t have an overall strategy with buy-in from regulators, government, antenna and satellite manufacturers and satellite operators. 

On a global basis, operators face operational complexity from orbital congestion and interference to frequency-band challenges. How does scheduling come together seamlessly without any human interaction? What happens if a satellite goes down? How do you manage your network in high-demand spots? What happens if your Ka-band terminal in one area finds itself in an area where Ka is problematic? How does your terminal know where it’s operating and when to switch? Multi-orbit connectivity fundamentally depends on an agile mobile ground segment to ensure continued service — and that requires operators to manage their multi-orbit constellations in a single network, with the ability to operate in a hybrid capacity between satellite and terrestrial infrastructure as customer roaming needs dictate. Yet there’s no agreement between all the operators of what that should look like, only the general view that satellite terminals must be able to roam seamlessly like cell phones today. 

Terminals today are very vanilla — they can operate on a single frequency but are fixed with no ability to switch to other frequencies or orbital regimes. The next-generation Electronically Steerable Antennas will require innovative testing approaches. Once they are widely deployed, these smart antennas will drive costs down and help satellites make it into the connectivity mainstream. 

The missing piece

Looking across the ground and space segment, what’s missing is a single overarching vision to unify the satellite industry around a common game plan. And without that big-picture vision, we risk spinning our wheels, falling into silos and losing the momentum that Starlink has awakened in the industry — for satellites to earn their place in the mainstream of always-on connectivity.  We need a fresh infusion of visionary leaders working on the high-level plan — not just the ground terminal piece, the satellite piece, or the network piece — so we can formalize all the current thinking into an organized, over-the-top strategy. This unified vision, once articulated, should accomplish five main goals: It should communicate the vision and end goal for the industry, commit to a common set of guiding principles, lay out a process for bringing together disparate activities, define perimeters for success and include a timeline and stakeholders to get us there.

Lessons from the cellular industry

We can learn from the cellular industry’s interoperability journey. Twenty years ago, I was in the United Kingdom and, if I had to travel overseas, I had to get another cell phone. There were discreet networks in the United States, Europe and Japan. We evolved from there into using a dual SIM phone that would operate in two regions. The cell phone company would send a bill to the cell phone carrier in the other region, and I would receive a consolidated bill a month later. That lag time is gone; now it’s instantaneous. The cellular industry got to where it is today by taking small steps and through acquisition.

The satellite industry will be no different. In fact, we’re already seeing consolidations at the operator level to realize global multi-orbit capabilities. Consider Viasat’s acquisition of Inmarsat, Eutelsat acquiring OneWeb and SES‘s agreement to finally acquire Intelsat as three examples.

To conclude, achieving the satellite industry’s multi-orbit future is within reach — if we lean into the lessons and experience of the cellular industry, and develop a single vision for the industry. We must set aside siloed and competitive thinking to bring our best ideas forward. The pieces of the puzzle are there; we just need an anchoring vision to complete it. There’s a lot of work going on across the industry; let’s take the time to think about the big picture and get everyone on the same page for the greater goal.

Mark Steel, EVP of Product & Services for Reticulate Micro and CTO for Reticulate Space, has over 35 years’ experience in the communications sector. Mark previously served as vice president of Product Development & Strategy for Inmarsat, as well as holding key technical roles at Cobham Satcom – Land Systems, SWE-DISH and Micro-Ant. A U.K. native, Mark spent 15 years in the Royal Air Force, where he specialized in terrestrial microwave links and airfield navigation. He is a current member of the board for the Satcoms Innovation Group and the WAVE (Waveform Architecture for Virtualized Ecosystems) Consortium.

Mark Steel, EVP of Product & Services for Reticulate Micro and CTO for Reticulate Space, has over 35 years’ experience in the communications sector. Mark previously served as vice president of Product Development & Strategy for Inmarsat, as...