June 16, 2020

Preparing for Unprecedented Events: 7 Key Questions and Answers

Defense and Government

Recent events and ongoing challenges in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic were the inspiration and backdrop for ST Engineering iDirect’s highly successful webinar: Preparing for Unprecedented Events, held in collaboration with NSR. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone that registered and attended the event. It was tremendously insightful.

The past few months have presented challenges we could never have anticipated, and it has made us question many things, particularly whether we are prepared for the completely unexpected.

Communications have been the lynchpin during this difficult time, as they are during any type of emergency event, whether that is an earthquake, a flood, a conflict – or a global pandemic. We’ve realized that the ability to adapt and change to any situation is incredibly important because our lives can turn on a sixpence, leaving our governmental institutions, organizations, businesses and homes in turmoil.

What was very evident during our webinar was that satellite networks are an essential part of any emergency communications portfolio and that the solutions are out there and available to assure that communications will stay in place in every scenario.

These include:

Multi-service Crisis Management Networks that enable emergency response workers to cater for a wide range of services, applications and terminals (fixed, OTM, OTP) using a single centrally managed satellite platform.

Pooling and Sharing Networks that allow network operators to pool satellite capacity as well as satellite services and ground segment infrastructure and share these amongst government and defense agencies to provide secure and guaranteed access to satcom for a wide range applications.

Smart Nation Networks is a convergence of the latest communication technologies (IoT, M2M, 5G etc.) and utilize sensors and smart systems that communicate with each other, enabling nations to improve quality of life for their citizens, to provide more effective and efficient government services and to make their country a safer place. An integral application for these networks will be the support of emergency services with satellite in a back-up role in cities or suburbs and primary role in rural areas.

The discussions prompted some excellent questions from the audience and here are just a few of the highlights that we’d like to share with you:

Question 1: Will the crisis reinforce the trend pushing governments towards comsatcom players for their military needs? 

Brad Grady (NSR): Satcom demand was already on a growth trajectory but, in the future, I think this is set to continue and there are two factors driving this growth. The first is that we’re going to see a lot more introduction of remote capabilities in terms of remote video applications that enable groups to be kept separate but still able to communicate. So, for example, you can bring commanders together over a secure video link rather than physically bringing them together in the same room. This can be carried out over complementary SATCOM or via military assets, depending on the security levels are.  The remote collaboration experience is going to accelerate because the situation demands it and we will not see people traveling from place to place. It will be applications that allow this kind of collaboration that are going to start driving that growth.                    

Question 2: What are the impacts of the new types of architecture, such as multi-service networks, having on the ground segment? 

Koen Willems (ST Engineering iDirect): Everything is becoming IP-based, modular and more flexible, so it’s easier to provide different types of services. Of course, you need to allocate a specific quality of service for each of these different applications and IP streams. You don’t need to add a lot of hub infrastructure to cater for extra services. Basically, you have one VSAT platform, one or multiple geographically distributed hubs connected to a single NMS depending on how your network is being distributed. If you want to run a broadband service next to a hospital or educational network, that’s all possible whether it’s voice, video, or data-driven or multicasting. For the platform itself, it really doesn’t matter. We are able to run all of these on one single platform. The platform approach directly results in a huge CAPEX and OPEX saving, certainly when they are combined with the latest innovative satcom technology and waveforms.

Question 3: How ready is the industry to supply VSAT solutions that can support multi constellation, multi orbit? 

Koen Willems: On the commercial side of the satcom business you can already find both iDirect and Newtec-branded VSAT networks that connect aero, maritime or even enterprise satcom applications across the globe based on a single VSAT platform. Service providers will typically mix and match satellite capacity from different satellite providers in order to offer the end-user with a competitive service package for global connectivity at the highest possible SLA. Equally so, government agencies, humanitarian or defense network operators will seek the best possible solution to service their dispersed operations across the world and to connect their applications on-the-move, on-the-pause or in fixed locations. Typically, they will have a mixed portfolio of military, government and commercial capacity that they want to manage in the most efficient manner and again, from a single VSAT platform. In these global network designs, also multiple satellite orbits are considered that need to be able to connect to a single VSAT platform, such as GEO, MEO, LEO, HEO or HAPS. 

Question 4: Can mobile backhaul (eg. LTE, 5G) be integrated as part of a multi-network platform with other services? How do you see 5G coming into the government market? Is that an opportunity for satellite? 

Koen Willems: 5G is an umbrella term for a lot of new technologies from virtualization to orchestration to edge cloud computing and many more. Through edge cloud computing the network performance can be increased as well as reducing latency as local processing of data is enabled rather than sending all the messages across satellite. It creates these local networks, local hotspots that enable first responders to talk to each other in the emergency area without the double hop over to satellite (e.g. for Tetra networks). Moreover, 5G increases the reliability of first responder networks by creating hybrid networks. That’s a type of initiative that we already see happening with 4G/LTE and equally 5G initiatives.

Of course, 5G will be part of government communications. I think the key question is about security and resilience. So, how secure is 5G, not only in terms of encryption but also with respect to reliability against jamming or interference. 

Brad Grady: I think the big thing about 5G and satellite is not about the throughput, it’s not about the lower latency or any of the kind of technical specs. It’s really about the fundamental change of making satellite integrate in a frictionless way into other larger networks. It’s being able to have software-defined features that the terrestrial networks already experience, and bringing that into the satellite space and creating the same kind of dashboard that that network operators are used to dealing with. You just point, click, drag and drop and all of a sudden you’re using a satellite network, instead of having this in depth RF experience and the technical requirements that associate with using a satellite. It’s really about reducing the friction involved in ingesting satellite capacity into network designs. 

Question 5: What is the potential or interest for dual band terminals? Say Ku/Ka, X/Ka, LTE/Satcom 

Koen Willems: This is about resilience and reliability. Whenever you have interference with a satellite or if the terrestrial network is down or congested due to a disaster, you still want continuation of services. It’s good to have a terminal that can be quickly repointed to another satellite or to another network, even if it is in a different frequency. Lately, a lot of attention is going towards setting up ‘network of layers’ architectures deploying multi-frequency and multi-network type of roaming terminals because they create more reliable networks with a mixed bag of satellite connectivity from different satellite providers or satellite frequencies. Adding LTE to a satcom terminal also adds to the reliability and creates local mobile hotspots for first responders. 

Brad Grady: Just to echo that one point, having the capabilities of being able to use all of this routing and leveraging what assets are available when they are available does have positive impacts on price. Just because the terminals themselves are more expensive, doesn’t necessarily mean that the total cost of ownership, the holistic design of that network to run and manage that network, isn’t lower. You can imagine if you have an X-band and a Mil-Ka and a civilian-Ka terminal, being able to segment all that crew welfare or MWR traffic off to a commercial traffic provider, which may be lower than your proprietary assets or enable your proprietary assets to enable more mission-critical needs, provides tremendous cost advantages.    

Question 6: For military welfare and other applications, are governments more likely to increase their leased capacity or further rely on proprietary capacity? 

Koen Willems: It really depends on the nation and the sensitivity of the application. Some nations have their military infrastructure and nothing else can touch that infrastructure and they will use it for their national assets. Whereas other nations will use pooling and sharing initiatives that use one VSAT platform that can connect to different satellites – whether that’s a military satellite, commercial satellite, or government satellite. For us, on a VSAT platform, technically, we don’t care. We are quite independent in terms of how you want to connect to all of this capacity. It’s more about looking at the concept of operations or how things are run on the government side.  We provide the capability to do all of these things whether it’s leased, proprietary, or both. All of these scenarios are possible. 

Question 7: How long does NSR believe the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will last? 

Brad Grady: It’s a great question. When we did our survey, we did ask that question and the majority of responses were 12 plus months. I believe that was around 60% of the respondents with various respondents beyond that in the 18 months-plus category. This may not be a long-term disruption, but it most definitely is in the near term. We’re expecting to see some impacts and this gets to the real question which is whether this signifies a reset of our priorities in terms of spending and network design in terms of being able to enable this flexibility and to enable other types of infrastructural changes that need to happen in order to respond more economically, more efficiently.

In the future, and looking at past events, we can say that the answer is probably yes. It seems that we were migrating from dedicated, purposeful networks towards more flexible interfaces towards completely configurable network designs. If you look at U.S. Space Force, EDA programs, and other bleeding edge network designs that are coming out of the government and military procurement activities, they are all focused on having this flexible infrastructure to be able to respond to instances like this.

To access the webinar recording and additional resources, please visit our Defense & Government Content Hub.