Satellite innovation: Space technology to reach the unconnected

As wildfires blazed across the western coast of the North American continent last month, emergency responders often struggled to obtain a critical resource for evacuees – a stable internet connection or so-called “zero-day communications.”

But recently, the emergency response division of Washington’s state military began successfully using satellite broadband technology to connect devastated areas with unprecedented speed, CNBC reported.

Broadband connectivity is a promising use case of non-geostationary satellite orbits (non-GSO), including medium Earth orbits (MEO) and low Earth orbits (LEO), and represents an important leap forward in satellite technology innovation.

The advantages of non-GSO satellite systems include near-instant coverage across wide geographies and over any topography, as well as reliability and virtual immunity to many risks that other networks face, including accidental damage, theft, conflict areas and natural disasters such as wildfires.

The second instalment of ITU’s Satellite Webinar series explored this breakthrough in connecting the unconnected through satellite broadband, with a focus on non-GSO satellite constellations.

Reviewing non-GSO decisions from WRC-19

“Non-geostationary satellite systems play a key role in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), so it is fitting that we organize this [webinar] during World Space Week,” noted ITU Radiocommunication Bureau Director Mario Maniewicz, who opened the virtual event by welcoming hundreds of participants from all over the world.

“While economies of scale are gradually growing in this field, long-term efforts are still required for deployment,” noted Maniewicz in his opening remarks. He highlighted how the “stable regulatory framework not only in the Ku and Ka bands, but also in higher frequency bands” offers regulatory certainty to operators while leveraging the benefits of the latest space technologies.

Next came an overview of key satellite-related decisions taken at the ITU’s most recent World Radio Communication Conference, WRC-19. One of the principal decisions was defining the means for bringing a non-GSO satellite constellation into use, explained Chief of ITU Space Services Department, Alexandre Vallet.

“At least one satellite must be operational at the start of the milestone-based deployment process. This process was designed to avoid ‘spectrum warehousing’ by large non-GSO satellite filings,” added Mr. Vallet, referring to when an entity sits on a spectrum license without acting on it. Another significant WRC-19 decision was the setting of technical limits for spectrum sharing between geostationary (GSO) and non-GSO satellite systems in the 50/40 GHz frequency range, Mr. Vallet said.

Ramping up non-GSO satellite production

Non-GSO operators gave updates on the current situation of their projects, with a special focus on the benefits these systems will bring to society in the foreseeable future.

Having already deployed more than 700 satellites of a total constellation of over 4000 registered with ITU, SpaceX has reached a “cadence in manufacturing […] of about 120 [satellites] a month right now,” according to Patricia Cooper, VP for Satellite Government Affairs. “We would have liked even faster requirements for buildout, but we understand that these are enormously complicated projects,” she added.

OneWeb has deployed 74 satellites and is scheduled to resume launches of around 34 per month in December. In total, the company plans to launch 600 washing-machine-sized LEO satellites. They chose the 1200-kilometre altitude orbit to avoid other constellations, said Ruth Pritchard-Kelly, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at OneWeb.

Amazon’s Head of Regulatory Affairs Julie Zoller shared that the Project Kuiper venture plans to launch 3236 satellites over a five-phase deployment. The first 578 satellites will be deployed into the 630-kilometer-altitude orbit to provide initial service, she added. While Kuiper’s detailed schedule is under definition, Ms. Zoller noted that Amazon has committed 10 billion USD to the project and built a large R&D center outside Seattle, Washington.

While currently operating geostationary satellites, Telesat is embarking on a new project to deploy a LEO constellation of 300 satellites that will co-exist with its GSO fleet and enable “truly global connectivity,” according to International Coordination Director Mario Neri.

Inter-satellite links: Innovation on the horizon

A common question put to the expert panel was the usefulness and necessity of inter-satellite links (ISLs): hardware that would enable satellites to talk directly to one another. Most panellists agreed that while ISLs are not essential, they are certainly a feature of which we can expect to see more in upcoming non-GSO satellite iterations.

According to Ms. Cooper, SpaceX has planned optical inter-satellite links “since the beginning” and is currently conducting early tests with very high-volume transfer between satellites in orbit.

“I would not say [inter-satellite links] are essential,” said Ms. Cooper. “But definitely an upgrade for network management that is on the horizon. There are parts of world where it’s difficult to find a gateway nearby: the middle of ocean, remote areas. ISLs can help with managing traffic from point to point, but also to reach locations where the gateway construct doesn’t work.”

For Telesat, inter-satellite links are “a key feature for a successful constellation” for two reasons: reducing the number of gateways needed and ensuring more resilient and flexible constellations, said Mr. Neri. ISLs could indeed improve network performance over the oceans or other unpopulated geographies, he said.

While Ms. Zoller called ISLs “an important future innovation” that allows the selection of gateway [Earth] stations, which may favour fibre connectivity, Amazon is still weighing a full commitment to adding inter-satellite links on its constellation. “It’s something we are looking at very carefully,” Ms. Zoller added.

OneWeb Global Ltd. decided to forgo ISLs on its first-generation constellation despite acknowledging inter-satellite links as “an obvious solution to improve latency and efficiency”, said Ms. Pritchard-Kelly.

A future of sharing and ITU’s role

According to Suzanne Malloy, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at SES, broadband delivery through non-GSOs and other satellite technologies “are going to be ubiquitous services.” In the future, we will see more sharing [of spectrum] in a multi-NGSO environment, she added. Ms. Pritchard-Kelly agreed, noting that non-GSO satellites will likely “be the backbone” of universal connectivity.

Webinar attendees seemed to agree in another live poll conducted during the session. The main challenge for satellite operators planning to deploy non-geostationary satellite constellations sustainably is coordination with other non-GSO satellite systems, according to 35 per cent of poll participants. “Operator-to-operator talks are the right path to ensure spectrum efficiency, which is the way that you get more services to citizens,” highlighted Ms. Cooper.

Panellists agreed that the harmonization of regulatory frameworks across regions and globally is paramount when it comes to the most important policy decisions national regulators can take to facilitate the deployment of satellite constellations. “Countries not harmonizing and going their own way presents a big difficulty,” noted Ms. Pritchard-Kelly. “Flexibility to recognize some regulations might need to be reworded to enable new technologies is needed,” she added.

When it comes to coordinating all manner of satellites, ITU plays “a very important role in a process that is tried-and-true,” said Ms. Malloy. “For us, the ITU process is the very best way to manage the [spectrum-sharing] process globally,” she added.

Missed the first ITU Satellite webinars? You can view the recordings or download the presentations from Episodes 1 and 2 here.

Be sure to join Episode 3 of the ITU Satellite webinar series on 11 November 2020, entitled Geostationary Satellite Systems: A world of innovations 36,000 km high.