Space for change: satellites in the service of digital transformation

Digital World 2021 Highlights September

Space for change: satellites in the service of digital transformation

Advances in satellite technology, changing business models and growing demand for services are making satellites more relevant than ever. At this Forum session, moderated by ITU’s Alexandre Vallet, Chief, Space Services Department, ITU’s Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R), a lively panel from government, international organizations and across the industry shared perspectives on the role of satellite within the ICT ecosystem, and how best to fully realize its promise.

Stressing the importance of broadband connectivity to connect the 3.8bn unconnected in his opening keynote, Mohammed Alotaibi, Deputy Governor for Radio Spectrum, Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), Saudi Arabia, explained how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sees satellite connectivity as a vital tool for bridging the digital divide. Setting the scene for the discussions that followed, he outlined how satellite connectivity has been reflected in the Kingdom’s 2020-2025 National Spectrum Strategy, including a commitment to new applications, ways of integrating satellite within the 5G ecosystem, a new spectrum award and further commitment to strengthen public private partnerships. Highlighting the importance of “multi-stakeholderism” -which also lies at the heart of ITU working methods, processes and events- he called upon the international community to drive collaboration, ensure fair and open access, be attentive to the risk of collisions and pollution carried by de-orbiting satellites and space debris, and strengthen public-private partnerships towards ensuring equitable access and space sustainability. “The satellite sector is well placed to drive truly global digital transformation, but this ‘gift to society’ must be managed in a sustainable manner,” he told delegates.

Satellite-enabled future

Panellists were clear that satellite technologies complementing existing terrestrial infrastructure will be key to providing extended broadband services in the future, and this ability to extend coverage to previously unreached areas is ultimately what constitutes the unique value proposition of satellite technologies.

For Arman Biturganov, Head of Division, Ministry of Digital Development, Innovations and Aerospace Industry of the Republic of Kazakhstan, traditional geostationary broadcasting and communications satellites will continue to be used for broadcasting and government services, with new non-geostationary satellites and high throughput geostationary ones increasingly providing reliable broadband connectivity. Citing his own experience in Kazakhstan, he explained that for rural areas it is “economically feasible to use satellite technologies, as they have certain advantages over terrestrial networks.”

Although satellites may not necessarily bring new services, according to Yulia Kulikova, Head of Regulatory Affairs, Astrocast, they can “bring existing services to areas where we don’t have connectivity.” Herein lies their unique value. According to Biturganov, satellite will work in complement- in a “pivotal role” -with terrestrial networks, especially to increase traffic.

Luke Ibbetsen, Head of R&D, Vodafone, agreed that the potential of satellite lies not so much in the new services but in its capability to extend existing services “whether they are in reach of where it is profitable to build terrestrial networks or not.” Often looking to build sites in off-grid locations, sometimes with no power or requiring fossil fuels, having the “ability to blend terrestrial and satellite to provide a more sustainable solution that covers everywhere on the planet has a great deal of merits,” he explained.

Providing a geostationary operator’s perspective, Kevin Choi, CTO, KTSAT, explained his goal was to provide sustainable and universal communications infrastructure, applying the “ESG principle” (environment, social and corporate governance). Crucially – in a view echoed by others – terrestrial and satellite networks should co-exist, and satellite providers such as KTSAT fill the gaps where there is no terrestrial infrastructure. This includes services from broadcasting or internet access to disaster monitoring, in complement to existing terrestrial networks.

The “convergence of cost-effectiveness, quality, connectivity and flexibility,” is where the value proposition of new low earth orbit satellites such as Amazon’s Kuiper lies, enabling greater flexibility to deploy terminals, explained Julie Zoller, Head of Global Regulatory Affairs, Project Kuiper, Amazon. Low latency broadband systems have potential to power a number of different cases “for which satellite is uniquely suited,” including real time communications allowing businesses to deploy connectivity exactly where it is needed, and providing backhaul connectivity to expand wireless and mobile networks to new regions.

For David Goldman, Director of Satellite Policy, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), a key factor driving future satellite broadband growth is the drop in launch costs, which have significantly helped bring down barriers to entry for new services, paving the way for new innovation. This drop needs to be balanced with investment by companies in R&D, for example, but once the technology is established and economies of scale are reached, costs can be driven down.

To maximise all this potential, a real, global business case for satellite is essential, according to Sonia Jorge, Executive Director and Director of Digital Inclusion Programs, Alliance for Affordable Internet (Web Foundation). Amidst growing numbers of prospective technology solutions, “a business case for affordable and meaningful connectivity” is needed, she explained.

Coexisting, complementary technologies

For Ibbetsen, the potential of a complementary set of technologies to reach the unconnected is huge. These can “directly connect 4G, 5G smartphones from space into people’s hands,” he told delegates, as well as supporting IoT capability. Using satellite alongside terrestrial will be an “inherently complementary role,” to the extent that Vodafone is looking to be able to “share the spectrum that has traditionally been used by proprietary license holders to support terrestrial networks… to reach the maximum number of people on the planet,” he explained. Partnerships will also be key in “extending the reach beyond networks.”

Satellite can extend a telco footprint, explained Zoller, offering consumers in unserved or underserved areas a choice. Telcos themselves can be distributors of satellite, leveraging satellite solutions to serve the last and middle mile. Zoller also believes that satellites and terrestrial networks can share spectrum. “We’re both implementing capabilities to use spectrum more efficiently, have the ability to adjust resources based on real time demand and the environment, and this makes modern systems more resilient to interference and allows for greater re-use of scarce spectrum resources,” she explained.

Public and private sector roles

Good public-private sector partnerships and collaboration will help ensure satellite technologies are well placed to drive transformation. Jorge shared examples of successful partnerships which have helped boost affordable access, including in Brazil and Peru, where satellite players joined forces with governments and other players to deliver community networks. The more partnership and cohesion between players, the more end users will benefit. Governments need all players in the ecosystem to flourish, experiment and provide innovation, she explained. Different stakeholders need to coexist and the government is critical to maintaining this balance. The right governance needs to be in place to provide equitable services, agreed Choi.

Any affordable satellite solution needs a policy framework that is supportive to help it become a reality, and panellists stressed the importance of the right policy and regulatory environment. This should be one with “simplified bureaucracy,” according to Kulikova, and one that actively encourages new ideas and services.

A multi-stakeholder approach- as highlighted by CITC’s Alotaibi – is also key. Choi explained how many initiatives have failed as they were only initiated by the private sector. Deploying affordable ground terminals is a “technical and political solution” he explained.  Governments need to work with industry to help make the system affordable, he explained, calling for an “international public private partnership,” to help provide affordable services.

Concluding thoughts

As costs for development drop, it is the policies themselves which are becoming barriers to entry to new service, according to Goldman. Policy needs to provide the right incentives: “We need to be thinking about policies that drive the industry to do what the government is trying to do,” he explained.

For Ibbetsen, an open-minded, flexible regulatory climate is essential to enable satellite to drive digital transformation, as companies navigate their way around using parts of spectrum that was initially intended as terrestrial in nature.

Two elements are major drivers for satellite delivering digital transformation, according to Choi: pricing and access. With billions of devices set to be on the ground, standards should be in place to support mass production of these ground terminals, helping drive down prices. Secondly, a framework is needed for equitable access to frequencies. As a public asset, frequency should not be monopolized by a handful of players and a framework is needed to provide equitable access to all, a point also echoed by Biturganov.

Spectrum concerns must be addressed, noted Zoller, including ensuring spectrum access for satellite services, preserving existing primary allocations, avoiding rules that diminish access and allocating new spectrum for fixed satellite service use.

For Jorge, a combination of factors will enable satellite to drive transformation; a strong business case for providing affordable, meaningful connectivity and working together to create sound policy and beneficial partnerships. Progress must be made in a way that is sustainable, being mindful of the impact on the planet, she concluded.


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