The completely intangible reality of virtual earth stations

The satellite communications industry is on a mission to virtualize every possible piece of terrestrial infrastructure to keep pace with the age of cloud-based networking.

Turning hardware into software that is installed and managed remotely via third-party data centers gives satellite operators more flexibility on their networks and speeds up response times to customer requests.

The industry may be only years away from being able to take advantage of virtual earth stations that will not need physical modems and cables. However, several technical challenges remain to be resolved.

In September, satellite equipment maker ST Engineering iDirect and cloud giant Microsoft Azure said they had demonstrated an important success: the ability of a virtual modem to extract information from a high-speed satellite signal.

Modems are an important part of the terrestrial segment. They are used in teleportation and at customer locations to translate satellite signals received by the antenna and convert them for transmission over other networks.

From within the cloud, their virtual modem can also receive satellite signals digitally via an ethernet cable. Signals from satellites today are traditionally linked to physical modems via analog cables that are not directly compatible with cloud-based networks.

These are major breakthroughs, according to ST Engineering iDirect CTO Frederick Simmons, as they pave the way for virtual modems running on third-party cloud infrastructure to replace their physical counterparts.

“There will be no need for specific satellite hardware anymore,” he said, because data traffic can “go from a cloud environment through the digital interface directly to the antennas” that connect to the spacecraft.

Right now, if a satellite customer like a cruise line wants a new service, their provider has to go to them and the satellite portal to actually install the equipment.

In the future, this could be done remotely without purchasing and installing satellite modems—although physical antennas, amplifiers, and frequency converters will still be required to communicate with satellites.

“Virtualization doesn’t mean teleporters can pull down their antennas and throw away their high-powered amplifiers,” says Robert Bell, CEO of the Global Teleportation Federation.

“But they offer significant cost gains in addition to reducing process complexity and expanding markets.”

Bell said that digitizing the signals as close as possible to the downlink antenna and converting them to analog as close to the uplink as possible, rather than shunting the analog signals on interconnect links, gives operators “more opportunities” to improve the flexibility of their services.

However, it may not always be possible to fully implement network virtualization solutions at customer site even when they become available, at least in the near term.

For most remote customer terminals, “there won’t be a useful data center standing in the back to host a virtual modem,” Bell said.

new services

For companies like iDirect, moving to software will enable them to offer their communications technology via a service model.

Instead of buying network equipment from iDirect under some kind of “one-time” deal, the satellite service provider can get the capacity through a subscription and only pay for what it needs and when.

A marine satellite provider that only needs to cover the Caribbean in summer and the Mediterranean during other seasons, for example, can respond to changes in demand remotely with a few clicks in the cloud.

Today, you will need to install physical modems and a higher level of infrastructure in both areas with the ability to handle extreme traffic loads.

“I think it’s going to revolutionize the industry,” said SES CEO Steve Kollar, “It’s something that’s been a goal for a while, but we now believe it’s within reach.”

SES and Microsoft recently formed an initiative they call Satellite Communications Virtualization Software to help turn satellite hardware from iDirect, Gilat, and others into software.

Large public cloud networks from companies including Microsoft, Amazon and Google are seen as key enablers for integrating space networks with terrestrial communications, which will help satellite operators capture more of the telecom market.

The satellite industry generated about $279 billion in revenue in 2021, according to a recent report by BryceTech, while the global communications market is measured in trillions of dollars.

Their smart, cloud-compliant networks also come amid a broader industry shift toward more flexible — if sometimes shorter term — customer contracts to compete in the industry.

Solve the problem of chicken and eggs

SES and Microsoft plan to issue a request for proposals before the end of this year for those looking to join the virtualization program, which they say will be a blueprint for aligning cloud and satellite architectures.

The program also seeks to accelerate the adoption of standards to replace customer antennas with standard, non-proprietary devices.

SES is one of many satellite operators seeking greater integration with cloud networks, although some, such as Viasat and Hughes Network Systems, have built businesses around proprietary antenna technology.

Still, Tawk believes it will likely be years before the satellite industry realizes its virtual teleportation ambitions.

“We can start offering some services in 12 to 18 months that are completely cloud-based and not hardware-dependent,” he said, “but are somewhat dependent on engaging industry.”

Some parts of the ground segment are easier to move to the public cloud than others.

The first step for iDirect will be to offload operations already virtualized within a private cloud, including network management systems, to the public cloud.

Migrating other processes that are currently running on dedicated hardware is “much more difficult,” Simwins said.

Virtualization of this device must go hand in hand with the complete digitization of how it interacts with antennas, amplifiers and frequency converters.

There is a lot of work to be done to reach the level of standardization that these interfaces will need for widespread adoption.

“If we cloud everything on the modem side, but there are no antennas or amplifiers that can speak digital, let’s say, then, of course, we can’t create all-digital teleportation,” Simwins said.

Overall, he predicts, it will take about three to five years to piece together all of these pieces of the puzzle.

However, as public cloud providers bring new software tools to help virtualize the terrestrial sector, they will also need to develop sustainable pricing models to make this a reality.

Simwins said the cloud will work very well for occasional use cases and those applications that require a lot of regional flexibility. However, it remains quite expensive for services that need to operate 24/7.

Designing cloud business models for different space applications is one area that SES and Microsoft are keen to address.

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of SpaceNews.

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