The satellite communications industry is on a mission to virtualize all possible terrestrial infrastructure to catch up with the era of cloud-based networks.
Converting hardware to software installed and managed remotely through third-party data centers would give satellite operators more flexibility over their networks and accelerate the speed with which they can respond to customer demands.
The industry could be just a few years away from being able to access virtual ground stations that would not require physical modems and their cabling. However, many technical challenges still need to be resolved.
In September, satellite communications equipment maker ST Engineering iDirect and cloud giant Microsoft Azure said they had successfully demonstrated a milestone: the ability of a virtual modem to extract information from a high-speed satellite signal. debit.
Modems are an essential part of the ground segment. They are used in teleports and at customer sites to translate satellite signals received by an antenna and convert them for transmission via other networks.
From inside the cloud, their virtual modem could also receive satellite signals digitally via an Ethernet cable. Satellite signals today are traditionally connected to physical modems via analog cables that are not directly compatible with cloud-based networks.
These are significant breakthroughs, according to Frederik Simoens, CTO of ST Engineering iDirect, as they pave the way for virtual modems running on third-party cloud infrastructure to replace their physical counterparts.
There would be “no longer a need for specific satellite hardware”, he said, as data traffic could “flow from a cloud environment through the digital interface directly to antennas” that connect to spacecraft.
Currently, if a satcoms customer like a cruise line wants a new service, their provider must come to them and the satellite gateway to physically install the equipment.
In the future, this could be done remotely without buying or installing satellite modem hardware – although physical antennas, amplifiers and frequency converters are still needed to communicate with satellites.
“Virtualization doesn’t mean teleport operators can tear down their antennas and throw away their high-powered amplifiers,” said Robert Bell, executive director of the World Teleport Association.
“But it offers big cost savings while reducing complexity of operations and expanding markets.”
Bell said that digitizing signals as close to the downlink antenna as possible and converting them to analog as close to the uplink as possible, rather than moving analog signals over inter-facility links, gives operators ” more possibilities” to improve the flexibility of their services.
However, it is not always possible to fully implement virtualized network solutions at a customer’s site, even when they become available, at least in the short term.
For most remote endpoints, “there won’t be a convenient data center to house a virtual modem,” Bell said.
For companies like iDirect, moving to software would allow it to offer its communications technology through a service model.
Instead of purchasing network equipment from iDirect in a “one-time” type of agreement, a satcom provider could get the capacity with a subscription and only pay for what it needs and when. .
A maritime satcom provider that only needs coverage over the Caribbean in summer and the Mediterranean in other seasons, for example, could respond to changes in demand remotely with just a few clicks in the cloud.
Today, it would need to have installed physical modems and a greater level of infrastructure in both regions with the capacity to handle peak traffic loads.
“I think this is going to revolutionize the industry,” said SES CEO Steve Collar, “it’s something that’s been a goal for a while, but now we think it’s within reach.”
SES and Microsoft recently launched an initiative they call the Satellite Communications Virtualization Program to help convert satcom hardware from iDirect, Gilat and others into software.
Large public cloud networks from companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and Google are seen as key enablers for the integration of space networks with terrestrial communications, which would help satellite operators capture a greater share of the telecommunications market.
The satellite industry earned around $279 billion in revenue in 2021, according to a recent report by BryceTech, while the global telecommunications market is measured in the trillions of dollars.
Their increasingly agile and cloud-enabled networks are also part of a broader industry shift towards more flexible – albeit sometimes shorter-term – customer contracts to compete in this industry. .
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SES and Microsoft plan to issue a request for proposals before the end of this year for those interested in joining its virtualization program, which they say will be a model for aligning cloud and satellite network architectures.
The program also aims to accelerate the adoption of standards to replace customer antennas with standardized, non-proprietary equipment.
SES is one of many satellite operators seeking greater integration with cloud networks, although some, like Viasat and Hughes Network Systems, have built businesses around proprietary antenna technology.
Still, Collar thinks it will likely be years before the satcom industry realizes its virtual teleportation ambitions.
“We can start delivering some services in 12 to 18 months that are completely cloud-based and not hardware-based,” he said, “but that kind of depends on the involvement of the industry.”
Some parts of the Ground Segment are easier to transfer to the public cloud than others.
The first step for iDirect will be to offload processes that have already been virtualized under a private cloud network, including network management systems, to the public cloud.
Migrating other processes that currently run on dedicated hardware is “trickier,” Simoens said.
Virtualizing this hardware must go hand in hand with completely digitizing how it interfaces with antennas, amplifiers and frequency converters.
There is a lot of work to be done to achieve the level of standardization that these interfaces will need to be widely adopted.
“If we darken everything on the modem side, but there are no antennas or amplifiers that can speak the digital language, say, then, of course, we can’t fully create a digital teleport” , said Simoens.
Overall, he expects it will take around three to five years to put all of these pieces of the puzzle together.
However, as public cloud providers bring new software tools to facilitate the virtual transformation of the ground segment, they will also need to develop sustainable pricing models to make it a reality.
The cloud would work great for casual use cases and applications that require a lot of regional flexibility, Simoens said. Still, it’s still expensive for services that need to run 24/7.
Defining cloud business models for different space applications is one area SES and Microsoft want to address.
This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
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