Evolution of satellite communications

Satellites now play a significant role in broadband communications, in-flight connectivity, IoT and disaster communications.
High throughput satellites, In flight connectivity, Intelsat, M2M, Mission critical communications, New use of satellite communications, Satellite operators, Satellite services, Satellites, SES, Yahsat


Fifty five years ago, on July 23, 1962, history was created as the millions of viewers managed to watch a press conference live due to AT&T’s satellite, Telsar 1. Satellite communication has come quite a long way since then, encompassing various innovative use cases. We have seen more change in the satellite industry in the past several years than in the first five decades after its inception.

“Satellite in the past few years has seen a shift towards being more affordable. Accessibility is certainly widespread around the world. A lot of other technological changes have also touched base with satellite. It hasn’t been only fixed network or mobile, but satellite also has seen its fair share,” says Najat Abdulrahman, executive director – business development, Yahsat.

Hussein Oteifa, GM at SES Middle East believes that the mobility sector is driving a substantial satellite connectivity growth in the Middle East.  “The global demand for mobility applications and solutions maritime and aeronautical will grow at a rate of 40% CARG between 2016  and 2025, according to Euroconsult. We see a lot from this growth coming from the Middle East due to its strategic location between Europe and AsiaPacific.”

The need for government services via satellite is also increasing, and especially more so in underconnected and rural areas.  In remote areas, satellite remains the most reliable source of infrastructure to provide mobile backhaul and ensure that everyone is connected. “Satellite architecture is instrumental in enabling businesses to connect with remote communities that terrestrial infrastructure – fibre optic or cable networks –is unable to reach,” says Deepak Mathur, senior vice president, commercial at SES for Asia­Pacific and the Middle East. He further adds how over the recent years, operators have developed more capable and effective satellite solutions to fulfil the growing data demands.

One such innovation is the development of high­throughput satellite HTS which features concentrated spot beams over a smaller surface area over the earth, but are powerful enough to transmit up to 20 times more data than traditional wide­beam satellites.

Another development is hybrid satellite­terrestrial solutions   that tap existing terrestrial infrastructure and augment it with a satellite network. One such solution is to divert heavy download traffic over satellite instead of a terrestrial network. Moreover, combined strengths of GEOand MEO satellite network have created versatile and scalable satellite­enabled solutions for businesses.

Anticipating rapidly increasing demand for fast, reliable connectivity, Intelsat’s high throughput satellite platform, Intelsat EpicNG, was conceived to deliver high-performance data services, in combination with attractive economic models and simplified access to its satellite network for customers. “Our strategic investments in antenna technology developed by companies like Kymeta and Phasor are more than just ticks in the box: they optimise performance and facilitate access to Intelsat connectivity,” says Jean-Philippe Gillet, vice president and general manager, broadband, Intelsat . “For example, antennas are a key enabler in the connected car market and other IoT applications.  Satellites are the ideal technology to fully realise the data-heavy aspects of connected vehicles, such as the assured broadcast of software and map updates.”

As M2M communications become more common, satellite connectivity plays a critical role to support users who currently lack the connectivity where they need it; not only for remotely monitored and managed devices, or maintenance optimisation of hardware components such as engines, but also managed truck-fleets and vehicles. Jean-Philippe adds that more efficient, smaller and cost-effective antennas are needed to capture these emerging opportunities. “Hence, Intelsat’s has been an active investor in ground equipment innovations that will address this requirement. For instance, Kymeta’s flat-panel antennas, used for multiple applications including maritime and connected cars, will accelerate market adoption, optimising the use of the satellite and delivering real economic advantages.”

Another exciting application of satellite communications is in the field of in-flight connectivity. SES has global capacity deals with the leading IFC service providers, Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE), Gogo, Panasonic and Thales, who are supporting in some way at least 90% of all connected airplanes in service today. Airline passengers increasingly expect to connect inflight to high-speed Wi-Fi, stream video entertainment, text, and catch-up on email and social media. The availability and quality of inflight Wi-Fi has become a deciding factor for passengers booking flights. Additionally, more bandwidth to the plane is enabling airlines to more effectively manage, transmit and store each passenger’s inflight preferences and selections, ultimately providing a far more personalised travel experience.

In May this year, the SES-15 satellite was successfully launched. SES-15 carries a hybrid payload, comprising Ku-band wide beams and Ku-band High Throughput Satellite (HTS) capability, with connectivity to gateways in Ka-band. SES-15’s high throughput payload will deliver optimised and flexible coverage for major global inflight connectivity and entertainment (IFC/IFE) service providers. The satellite will also enable VSAT networks and other traffic intensive data applications in the government and maritime sectors.

The importance of satellite communications can’t be emphasised enough in disaster scenarios. Unlike terrestrial networks, satellite is not affected by the vast majority of disasters, making it possible to quickly and efficiently establish emergency communications. “Traditionally, when a disaster strikes, the first thing that comes to mind is food, water, shelter, medical supplies, which is the still the norm. But over the course of past few years, communications is on the top of that list,” Abdulrahman says.

She further goes on to explain that though satellite as a communication tool has always been a part of the disaster communications, it hasn’t always been that easy. Traditionally, satellites were associated with enormous sizes, and huge costs.

But then there was evolution with the introduction of L-band by operators like Thuraya as a result of which, irrespective of the geographical location across the globe, one could have access to immediate communications. However, it’s not easily accessible to everybody and is quite costly. “But because of the developments within the industry, we at Yahsat today work through high-throughput satellites and most specifically through the Ka-band frequency,” Abdulrahman says. “With that, we have achieved economy of scale in terms of frequency utilisation, cost savings, smaller size of dishes, easier transportation and logistics. In addition, we facilitate a broadband connection, hence making the parameters of addressing and managing situations in a remote area a lot more accessible.”

Yahsat has been closely working with governments, disaster relief agencies like NGOs and other people who partake in synchronisation of the efforts. For such scenarios, Yahsat operates through service partners, who are on the ground and manage the operational side of the initiatives. The other part that the operator has been getting involved in is negotiations and exchange of ideas with a number of organisations, some of the well-known ones being UNHCR, world food programme, UNICEF, and Red Cross.

The ESOA (association for all satellite operators for EMEA) has brokered discussions with the OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC). Essentially these organisations reached out to the satellite community and asked whether the operators would be willing to support. All the members who have signed into this charter will provide services and support on pro-bono basis to lessen the hindrance of access and support.  Yahsat is a party to that as well as the ETC. By 2020, the ETC in partnership with leading edge technology companies and local telecomm providers, aims to create an environment for emergency response which allows humanitarian responders, citizens and governments to have a seamless, resilient and principled communications experience in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Using its existing network, Yahclick is already supporting humanitarian efforts in several global crisis zones, including South Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen. Beyond crisis communications, Yahsat is also engaged in crisis management support and preparedness. It focusses on providing education and health facilities to crises affected communities using its satellite technologies.

The satellite-enabled communications solution managed by SES Networks, the Rapid Response Vehicle (RRV), is the first mobile platform to offer collaborative communications technologies over multiple frequencies, including X-band, military Ka-, commercial Ka- and Ku- bands. The RRV systems can access Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) wide beams and high-throughput narrow beams, or deliver fibre-like Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) connectivity. The versatile RRV is designed to enable resilient communications anywhere, to support applications such as high-definition video surveillance, voice over IP, mobile backhaul, high-speed broadband, and super-fast large data file transfers in locations where ground infrastructure is non-existent or destroyed.

Earlier this year in January, Thuraya Telecommunications Company donated new emergency equipment supplies to the ITU under the Emergency Telecommunications support arrangement. The satellite equipment is aimed at enhancing the scale at which the ITU can deploy mobile communications to assist countries affected by disasters, strengthening response, relief and recovery interventions.

“We remain deeply committed to continuing our involvement in emergency communications programmes, and to strengthening our partnership with the ITU,” said Thuraya’s chief commercial officer Bilal Hamoui. “At Thuraya, we strongly believe in our purpose to save and improve lives, and we also believe that if we continue to get our technology into more of the right hands at the right time, we can save even more lives.” Hamoui emphasised that Thuraya’s contributions go beyond handset and terminal donations, including providing additional capacity over disaster-affected areas, as well as technical training support to make sure the devices are used effectively. “Giving people equipment they don’t know how to use or cannot afford defeats the purpose of the donation,” Hamoui added.

ITU chief, projects and knowledge management department, Dr. Cosmas Zavazava said: “We thank Thuraya for their generous contribution and continuous support. The role of telecommunications in disaster risk reduction, and response is critical in order to improve preparedness, and the timely flow of crucial information needed for appropriate assistance to be delivered before, during and after a disaster occurs.

“For this reason, we are vigorously forging partnerships with the private sector to organise activities related to disaster mitigation with the aim of saving lives. We are working to help countries to preserve and save human life, as well as create a better life for their citizens. ITU is also supporting countries by ensuring that technology helps in environmental protection, climate change mitigation, and e-waste management. Resilient partnerships such as the one we have with Thuraya help us get results.”

Satellites are being used for many other applications as well, which include broadcasting, and maritime connectivity among others. As the importance and evolution of the satellite industry continues, Jean-Philippe stresses that satellite operators must continue to introduce better performing services, with attractive economic models and provide far easier access to their satellite networks than before, or they will miss the opportunity to retain their place in the rapidly evolving telecommunications landscape.

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