Major satellite operators see 5G as an opportunity to integrate themselves more deeply into the mobile ecosystem, but one key ingredient remains missing – open standards.
Satellite companies have been targeting the mobile sector for years with services like cellular backhaul. But it’s generally been a niche play for a variety reasons, not least of which the fact that satellite doesn’t integrate seamlessly with 3G and 4G networks.
5G will be different because this time, satellite players have been directly involved with standards groups from 3GPP and ETSI to ATIS and others, says Terry Bleakley, regional VP of Asia at Intelsat.
“We’ve tried to get a lot more integrated with the bodies that are responsible for defining the standards so that they understand more about satellite, they understand more about the future of satellite, and that 5G is going to be hybrid,” he told Disruptive.Asia. “It’s going to use fiber when there’s fiber, but where there isn’t fiber, 5G will have to embrace every technology and they realize that, so satellite won’t sit on the outside.”
Eric Watko, EVP of Product, Marketing & Strategy at SES Networks concurs, adding that the standards work has paid off in the past six months in terms of establishing satellite as a credible player in 5G.
“Typically, we would be the last to be approached for things like 3G and 4G. Now, with 5G – and with the knowledge that we’re still in the 4G deployment phase, and 5G is not due to go full-scale deployment for years to come – people are already asking us what is satellite’s interest in this and our interest as a satellite service provider – what’s our role and how are we influencing it?” he says.
However, one of the key challenges for satellite is that satellite technology systems are still mainly closed, proprietary systems – which flies in the face of the rest of the telecoms sector’s march (albeit not quite enthusiastically) towards open standards and open source software.
“We need to encourage people like Hughes, Comtech EF Data and iDirect to move away from their proprietary systems and move more into standards based systems,” says Intelsat’s Bleakley. “One of our concerns is whether these guys can scale to where we need them to be? Can they scale to do millions of antennas for connected cars or IoT? They’re pretty happy in their world where they get their intellectual property and they can charge a premium for that, and they’re happy with the number of devices they produce. But we want to go to a world which is a lot bigger than this world that exists today. So to do that, you need to go standards and you need to go scale.”
One reason manufacturers resist open systems is the traditional belief that closed systems can offer the best performance, says Watko of SES, but he warns that satellite is doomed to remain a niche market if it doesn’t open up.
Watko adds that there are plenty of precedents – such as Ethernet and Wi Fi – where a technology started as a proprietary closed system, but once they became open standards, they achieved far greater scale. “The VSAT guys have to think the same way.”
Bleakley offers fax machines as another classic example. “When facsimile opened up the standards and then a Xerox could talk to a Canon, the facsimile world just bloomed. When a Canon can only speak to a Canon, it stifles growth. This is what happens in satellite. You might follow a general standard, but you can’t talk to other persons’ equipment.”
That’s why it’s up to big players like Intelsat to drive the vendors into accepting open standards, he adds. “The interfaces we use in satellite need to be interfaces that are seamless in 5G networks going forward.”
SES has been doing that as well – last week, the operator participated in a satellite/5G integration demo from the Sat5G consortium with iDirect, Broadpeak, i2CAT and the University of Surrey.
“Part of that demo was to show that we have a VSAT partner opening up their APIs, and their systems are becoming interoperable and standards based, and we will continue to work with other vendors to do the same,” Watko said.
That will take time, of course – luckily, says Bleakley, time is something satellite operators have plenty of.
“There’s going to be time – 5G is not [happening] in the next six months, you know what I mean?” he says. “We still have a lot of work to do with LTE implementation. If you look at various reports, in 2020, 63% of the world will have LTE, but only 37% of the land mass, and that’s important because 5G is not just about connecting phones, but connecting devices – robots, cars, the IoT. So that’s where coverage of those areas becoming more important and satellite has a role to play too.”