Evolving the skies

Evolving the skies

18 October 2021 | Natalie Bannerman

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Capacity’s Natalie Bannerman speaks to Omar Qaise, founder and CEO of OQ Technology, on how the company is merging the world of cellular connectivity and satellite

You will be hard pressed to find a story about communications infrastructure that makes no mention of satellite. Once seen as too costly for widespread use, since the emergence of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites it has now become a legitimate addition to fibre connectivity – and in some cases a viable alternative.

As the world of space-based networking opens up, OQ Technology is leading the way in the world of satellite-based 5G communications, IoT and AI. With a long history in the industry, OQ’s founder and CEO, Omar Qaise, shared his thoughts on how the role of satellite communications is changing within the wider telecoms environment.

“There are two main fronts where I have seen a change. The first is moving from GEO (geosynchronous equatorial orbit) to LEO. As a result, a lot of the centralised telecommunications companies are now looking to get into LEO solutions instead of the traditional big GEO satellites.”

According to Qaise, this is mainly driven by the applications that are evolving and continue to require large bandwidth and low latency that can not be easily accommodated by GEO satellites.

LEO also presents the opportunity for spectrum sharing and orbital sharing, instead of having to have just one orbit and having to “reserve your slots”, not forgetting that, thanks to the rise of the launcher industry, these constellations are “cheaper and easier to launch”.

“The other thing is that we see is the emergence of a proximity between other terrestrial communication solutions and technologies and satellite technology. In the past everything was either siloed or proprietary technology. While we still see that, we hear more often about mobile operators, for example, trying to connect more devices and networks with satellite,” he adds.

More so than 3G or 4G, 5G has created a lot more opportunities in the satellite space, a fact that Qaise also recognises. “5G is different from the previous generations,” he says.

“In the past, the relationship between mobile and satellite has been about backhaul. Then 5G came along with very interesting services that were not there before,” he explains.

Chief among them is enhanced mobile broadband that delivers “really high data rates”, enabling such things as HD streaming, high-quality phone calls, video gaming and the “massive machine computation” part, “which is concerned with billions of devices and machines that need to connect, exchange data and automate, like industrial machines”.

The third differentiator in 5G is ultra-latency, which brings with it unique use cases such as remote telesurgery, critical alarms, automated transport and smart cards, which all require a fast reaction time.

While this will be enabled in urban areas through such things as infrastructure cell towers, satellite can fill the gap outside these locations – often enterprises have needs in more rural areas, particularly in industries such as oil, gas, logistics, mining and defence.

Global satellite operator Eutelsat launched its Eutelsat Quantum GEO satellite, built by Airbus, into orbit earlier this year, while 2020 saw the University of Science and Technology of China launch the world’s first portable ground station for sending and receiving secure quantum communications, connected to China’s Quantum Science Satellite.

Discussing OQ’s plans for the burgeoning technology, Qaise says that the company has been approached about this before.

“We did get approached by several parties asking us about this, especially with respect to quantum key distribution.”

Highly secure, quantum key distribution enables two parties to produce a random secret key that can be used to encrypt and decrypt messages. Most importantly, it enables the two communicating parties to detect the presence of any third party trying to gain knowledge of the key. Therefore, its application as an added layer of security is huge.

“The problem is we are a start-up. We are focusing on what we do best, and we don’t want to divert and try and do everything too soon. But if someone really wants it and is willing to pay for it, of course we will do it – but for now we are focused on our mission.”

Aside from the inherent security of satellite as space-based infrastructure, OQ’s approach to cybersecurity is in line with the 3G standard, which already specifies all the security layers and best standards for companies across verticals such as encryption, SIM card and authentication. “We just take it and put it on the satellite,” Qaise says.

“While other satellite operators have to build their own security layers from scratch, then validate it all, and so on, we make use of the millions of engineering hours that people have already put into mobile communications.”

In his own words there has historically been “bad blood” between the satellite community and telcos, as everyone was “worried about protecting their market”. As this relationship continues to evolve, Qaise says that it’s hard to give a “one size fits all answer”.

“The smaller mobile operators and the virtual mobile operators are looking into solutions with satellite to expand their footprint and avoid being at mercy of the big mobile operators,” he says.

The larger players in the space, while also looking into such solutions, are taking a more case-by-case approach, with some still hesitant to partner up so quickly.

Over at OQ, there is a two-fold approach: while it is a satellite operator that directly addresses users and solutions providers, it is enabling these users to expand into areas where it can combine that with terrestrial, creating new product opportunities at the same time.

In September 2021, OQ announced that it has six pending patent applications in the US and in Europe, designed to improve satellite-based IoT and M2M communications in remote locations. The applications include a “wake-up” technology for satellite IoT devices, IoT device localisation, frequency and timing synchronisation, inter-satellite link technology and satellite system design.

Shortly after the company was started, in 2016, the narrowband IoT standard was announced, addressing low-power IoT communications.

“At the time, we realised there was a need in the market for IoT over satellite, but we weren’t sure if we wanted to come up with our own proprietary technology from scratch. The NB LTE-M standard was coming out, so we started to look into that and to work on putting those capabilities into satellite.”

As no one else was really looking at this at the time, Qaise and team had to secure their work by filing the initial concept of the system, as they believed that was going to be the future standard in satellite for IoT.

Recognising the need to replicate the experience from tower-based IoT services, and the unique challenges when attempting to do the same in space, helped generate the ideas for the remaining patents.

They include things such as localisation – the ability to locate and triangulate using satellite – and paging signals to devices, telling them to wake up and sleep at certain times. “That’s another project that helps to save power and allow users to get the full 10-year battery life standard from narrowband IoT,” Qaise says.

In addition, July 2021 saw OQ launch its first commercial 5G IoT satellite, Tiger-2, aboard the SpaceX Transporter-2 rideshare mission organised by Spaceflight.

It marks the fourth European Space Agency (ESA) contract for a 5G agile network configuration via satellite, which includes the installation of a new ground station in Luxembourg and its newly established LEO constellation control centre.

Tiger-2 forms part of OQ Technology’s planned constellation, made up of more than 60 spacecraft, to offer 5G IoT services in remote and rural areas.

In order to simplify the deployment of such solutions to various global locations across its footprint, OQ has been hard at work on its own plug-and-play satellite-cellular IoT modem and tracker, which will negate the need for the massive satellite dishes of old.

“When I speak to customers, they say they don’t want to use dishes,” Qaise says. “They are difficult to move and are often damaged or stolen, so we created our own universal compact device that connects to different sensors or trackers. It is one of the ways we are removing any barriers to use.”

Beyond this, Qaise says, the first priority is to “launch as many satellites as possible to provide much-needed coverage”.

In addition, he says, as a company with a “device-based product”, OQ wants to connect existing cellular chips (semiconductors), which requires a chip partner.

“We are very close to identifying a commercial chip partner to work closely with on this,” he adds.

Alongside this, the roadmap also includes service demonstrations for “high-priority customers in very specific areas such as oil and gas, agricultural and logistics across countries such as Africa, the Middle East and Australia”. Qaise notes that Europe is already well connected and the focus is on locations where there is limited infrastructure to deliver its service.