Satcom for the Future: Autonomous Connectivity Any Place, Anywhere, Anytime
Satellite communications (satcom) in Europe is soon to be lifted (or lowered!) to a new level as the bloc is taking a uniform approach to a future low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation. This constellation is set to deliver and offer dual-use services to commercial, government and defence purposes, and avoids the need to rely on foreign allies. In the post-pandemic world, the reliance on connectivity in remote areas is ever-growing and as such, mobility connectivity remains a vital part of satcom.
When it comes to existing LEO communication megaconstellations, there are two organisations that jump to mind. With approximately over 4,500 satellites in LEO, SpaceX’s Starlink is one of the providers that have changed the game for satellite communications. The other one being OneWeb, with approximately just over 600 active satellites.
In the US, we have seen a shift from the US Space Force to move from large satellites to smaller satellites, due to their faster production time, cheaper manufacturing process and reduce vulnerability of in-space assets.
Currently, the European bloc doesn’t have access to its own satellite constellation but will change this through the implementation of its Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite (also known as IRIS²) constellation. The flagship project was given the final go-ahead in March 2023, aiming to reduce the necessity to rely on Starlink, OneWeb and other satellite service providers.
The main objective of the satellite constellation is to “answer to pressing challenge of tomorrow, offering enhanced communication capacities to governmental users, businesses, while ensuring high-speed internet broadband to cope with connectivity dead zones.” With the constellation being dual-use serving both government and commercial customers. The constellation is promising to provide solutions for many of the challenges the satellite communications sector is facing at the moment, which will be addressed during the Mobility Connectivity Conference at Space Tech Expo Europe.
One of the key requirements for people is their need to be connected anywhere, anytime – be that on land, at sea or in the air. For those living in urban areas, it is hard to imagine that there are places across the European continent where fibre and satellite connectivity networks don’t reach, making it hard for those areas to link up with emergency services, healthcare, telemedicine, education and so many more services. Serving remote areas is a part where the satellite industry can provide tremendous opportunity as mobile network operators do not serve such areas.
Existing satellite networks, LEO satellite constellations and improved and affordable ground stations offer tremendous opportunity given their intersatellite network capabilities. With the next-generation satellites currently becoming operational, a lot of attention is devoted to intersatellite links and optical communications. These capabilities allow for data to be shared across various satellites and share large amounts of data with ground stations on Earth. This improves the amount of data that can be shared with customers on the ground.
Optical communications increase a satellite link’s security if it is paired with quantum-encryption, known as quantum key distribution (QKD). While QKD is in its infancy, many organisations are currently working on implementing this in future satellites. Quantum encryption will also be a big part of the IRIS² satellite constellation’s security.
Meanwhile, there are upgrades taking places regarding ground stations and terminals. Ground stations are now deployed across the world and, as we have seen with the Starlink terminals in Ukraine, can provide satcom for those who need it most. Other key areas of developments are Earth stations in motion (ESIM), providing connectivity services for maritime and aviation customers, as well as other mobility services requiring satellite communication in remote areas.
Another key part of development is the ongoing discussion of the integration of satellite into terrestrial networks. With the 3GPP release-19 update, there is increasing focus on the integration of these two separate networks to become a stronger unified network for its users. Combining terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks has been an ongoing point of discussion for MNOs and satellite operators alike. While full integration seems to be a way off, both parties are slowly closing in on agreements, through help of organisations like the International Telecommunications Union. It is important the conversation continues to take place.
Taking it back to IRIS², there is a lot of potential for the European space industry. IRIS² is the most ambitious plan in Europe ever established when it comes to it developing its sovereignty and security in space. The project is expected to be a main driver for the European space technology supply chain and touches upon key challenging areas of industry, including standards and spectrum development.
The Mobility Connectivity Conference at Space Tech Expo Europe will cover the above topics and will also addresses many other satellite and mobility connectivity related challenges, opportunities and innovations.
Space Tech Expo Europe takes place on 14-16 November in Bremen, Germany. Alongside the three-day Mobility Connectivity Conference, the event also hosts the Smallsats Conference and the Industry Conference. To secure your seat, please register here.