Satellite industry experts told Mobile World Live operators will remain a key element in the communications puzzle as non-terrestrial options take off, with collaboration tipped to be the best path to commercial success.

In a unique online discussion, experts from Intelsat, Viavi Solutions, Kratos and GSMA Intelligence broadly agreed working in conjunction with MNOs offers better opportunities to deliver satellite services to businesses and consumers than going it alone.

Gerry Collins, director of product management, mobile networks with Intelsat, explained the satellite service provider configured its network to complement mobile operators’ infrastructure to smooth the path to partnerships he argues are essential to delivering ubiquitous coverage.

The Intelsat expert noted the interest MNOs are showing in satellite is breaking a belief that multiple technologies are needed to provide universal coverage and connectivity.

As a result, Collins believes the industry is now at a point “where you get this hybrid network, which will bring those ubiquity and universality values to customers”.

Collins argued this is “an enormous opportunity for MNOs, but it’s one that comes by partnership” with satellite service providers regardless of whether the use case is direct-to-device, 5G or a new generation of terminals, “because one technology alone is not going to solve the problem and bring value to customers”.

There was much talk of creating an ecosystem combining terrestrial and non-terrestrial connectivity options.

Greg Quiggle, SVP of product management with satellite communications technology company Kratos, explained 5G NTN standards are among various developments helping to create a more open marketplace in which satellite and mobile service providers can collaborate.

SDN is a key element: Quiggle noted many terrestrial 5G networks are “built on the promise of a virtualised RAN”, which broadens the options for employing independent software players.

He said Kratos opted to include satellite as an established element of the connectivity set-up when developing a 5G NTN use case, rather than viewing orbital options as “different or special”.

Tackling the set-up in a more traditional way has resulted in Kratos winning more business with terrestrial players than satellite. Quiggle said minds had been opened “on both sides” about how MNOs and orbital communications companies can “work together towards not only advancing the standards, but making space a more prevalent part of a 5G system”.

Quiggle explained 3GPP standards and related APIs are another important element in helping to affect a shift from bespoke systems and dedicated hardware by enabling the industry to work with “a larger list of players that have proven scale in their systems”.

He said mobile standards do more than just open the door to scale and interoperability. The shift “actually forces the satellite player to drive different workflows in their back office” covering, for example management of terminals, subscribers and services, all of which are handled “through a 5G core”.

The shift does require “a pretty significant investment” by satellite operators as they configure back-office systems to “look more like an MNO”, Quiggle said, highlighting that revenue generation is another important element in the overall NTN connectivity equation.

Tim Hatt, head of research and consulting with GSMA Intelligence, noted the revenue model for satellite connectivity is yet to be proven and implementation challenges remain.

The analyst was bullish on the potential, however, noting satellite and MNO collaborations so far provide coverage of more than 2 billion people, and strong interest from both sides of the connectivity equation in how collaborations could work in practice.

Hatt noted many MNOs will “partner with multiple satellite companies” to achieve global coverage, with talk today now turning more towards use cases and “some regulatory questions”.

He believes there is a degree of pragmatism to current partnership discussions, noting that regardless of whether the goal is to close coverage gaps, provide service to IoT devices “or providing emergency response, this is really the most economic solution where land base stations cannot reach”.

Randhir Choony, chief engineer with Viavi Solutions, noted the cost of launching satellites remains high as he argued testing is a vital element in providing non-terrestrial connectivity.

Network testing company Viavi Solutions expects “lots of standardisations” will ensue to help guide the growing number of companies involved in providing satellite connectivity, with an increasing drive towards an open RAN-style model and, of course, a larger opportunity to provide its services for what would effectively be a disaggregated network.

Openness enables “multiple flexible functional” splits in the central unit (CU) and distributed unit (DU), “so we’re looking at providing a solution at all the different APIs so we can test every single component”.

Choony noted some challenges in terms of preparing test suites for further IoT use cases along with mobile broadband. Viavi Solutions is also seeking ways to employ AI, for example for optimising “certain operations like the management”. Other technologies already on the company’s radar include 6G, in particular how digital twins could help deliver harmonised terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks.

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