The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and its members have come up with 'Connect 2030’- a strategy and accountability framework that aims to connect the world. The 'Connect 2030 Agenda for Global Telecommunication/ICT Development' focuses on how technological advances will contribute to accelerating the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
One of its primary objectives is to enable and foster access to and increase use of telecommunications/ICT in support of the digital economy and society. Among other targets, one of its top priorities is to cover 65% of households worldwide with internet access and enable 70% of individuals to use the internet on their devices by 2023.
Owing to this massive responsibility to get humans on the planet connected, the telecommunications industry has to think ahead and get ready to venture into new technological spheres with well-thought-out investments in disruptive technologies to survive in an ever-changing digital world. One such industry is the space industry, growing day by day – the global SpaceTech economy was valued at $380 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to $10 trillion by 2030.
It is leveraging technologies like 5G, advanced satellite systems, 3D printing, big data, and quantum technology to bring reformation in its activities and operations in space. Given the developments in advanced space technology, critical services like weather forecast, remote sensing, satellite television and long-distance communication are relying heavily on space infrastructure.
Enhancing advanced communication
Modern space communications have gone beyond their reliance on transmitters and receivers alone. Recent developments in space communication include high capacity antennae, ground stations and low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The growing constellation LEO satellites planned and being deployed by the likes of SpaceX, OneWeb, StarLink and others have triggered renewed interest in this sector. LEO satellites are expected to fuel the availability of high-speed broadband access at potentially reduced costs compared to conventional geostationary satellite systems. In addition, the satellite will complement terrestrial networks, such as broadband connectivity to home, remotely located office, or to enterprise sites as a backup.
Enabling backhaul connectivity
Cellular backhaul over satellite will have a tremendous role to play for mobile network operators (MNOs). Wireless satellite connectivity promises lower latency, reliability and cost-efficiency. Satellite backhaul can provide ubiquitous coverage as well as a worldwide network for faster deployment of voice and data services where fiber connectivity is absent. It can also bring broadband connectivity to remotes or user equipment (UEs) on the move, such as airplanes, trains, vehicles, or maritime vessels. Moreover, mobile network operators can complement their 5G services with satellite connectivity to offload their terrestrial networks on a wide scale. They can leverage a satellite’s in-built multicasting/broadcast functionality for new use cases, such as connected cars while preserving a high-value wireless spectrum for latency-sensitive services.
Critical communication in emergencies
Natural disasters and technical glitches can badly affect the consistent communications capabilities of terrestrial networks, such as land mobile radios (LMR) and cellular long-term evolution (LTE) services to assist victims and support operations during emergencies. Telecom operators can add more resilience to their networks by incorporating seamless satellite capabilities to LMR and LTE. Moreover, terrestrial networks do not cover entire geographies, especially in rural areas, and are limited to the LMR- or cellular-network footprint. Satellite communications can provide a ready option during such scenarios. An interoperable vehicular network system (VNS) with satellite-enabled push-to-talk (PTT) can combine LMR/LTE connectivity with a seamless and complementary path that allows satcom to supplement terrestrial cellular connectivity when such coverage is unavailable or inadequate.
Monitoring space data with technology
Furthermore, LEO satellites and multi-satellite constellations are collecting enormous data, including communication data, content and other information. Owing to the critical aspects of space data, tech companies need to process, treat and properly analyze them using disruptive technologies like AI, blockchain, and big data. Space data can be leveraged for precision tracking and monitoring for logistics and mobility sector requirements, especially in the light of the growth in the adoption of the internet of things (IoT), remote surveillance and tracking.
The need to clean the ‘space mess’
Although the promise of satellite communication in helping the world connect in a better way is appealing in many ways, the reality of the situation is not as heartening. Years of sending rockets and carriers into space by humans have resulted in the accumulation of ‘space debris’ consisting of about 3000 dead satellites, 34000 pieces of space junk larger than 10 centimeters (stray bolts and paint chips, solid rocket motor slag, scattered fragments, etc). For now, this issue of ‘space debris’ does not pose a threat to humankind; however, there remains an impending danger of the aimlessly floating debris hitting and damaging the functioning spacecraft, which are at the moment 2000 in number.
Highlighting this issue during the CABSAT2021, Steven Doiron, executive vice president, regulatory & spectrum affairs at Yahsat, the Abu Dhabi-based multi-mission satellite services company, urged governments and satellite operators to work together internationally to improve space situational awareness (SSA) that allows for effective regulatory implementation and monitoring.
“We need everybody to participate by the same set of rules,” he said. “Governments should support research and development efforts both nationally and internationally to improve space situational awareness.” Doiron further said that regulatory frameworks governing commercial and non-commercial missions should incorporate space debris mitigation requirements to proactively mitigate risks while giving operators flexibility on meeting the requirements.
There is no doubt that the combined capabilities of space technology and telecom will push forward the reach of digital services to remote areas and lead to a more connected world with wider business operations and greater human inclusion. Moreover, the two sectors can explore opportunities for cooperation in areas such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and the fourth industrial revolution-related operations. The time has come whereby satellite can no longer be a separate, standalone network. It must converge as a standard radio interface within the multi-radio network architecture of 5G. However, to realize that future, industry players must take out time to study global best practices in areas such as spectrum management and come up with suggestions that would contribute towards the formulation of policies that will improve the efficiency of satellite services. Industry-standard bodies need to ensure that future solutions are compatible with the evolving 5G standards to accommodate satellite technology. Research organization, academia, startups, manufacturers, service organisations must come up with recommendations for governments and policy makers to formulate sector specific policies for seamless interoperability as we usher into a new development era driven by increasing digital demand.