Paving the way for dynamic networks

11 November 2021 | Peter Hadinger

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Peter Hadinger

Blog Author |

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Peter Hadinger, chief technology officer at Inmarsat, discusses the future of satellite connectivity and the need for dynamic networks

Today, the world is more connected than ever. People, businesses and governments can connect with each other from anywhere across the globe within seconds. The past 18 months have highlighted this even more, with the people all over the world heavily relying on technology as their primary source of communication – whether that be for work, socialising or entertainment.

Satellites have had a huge role to play in providing communications networks for decades – beginning with connecting continents, then businesses, then platforms and now individuals. At the same time, the advancement of technology has dramatically lowered the barriers to space – there are currently 9,000 satellites in orbit, and this is expected to increase by 25,000 over the next four years. But as global demands increasingly require reliable connectivity from any location at any time, the satellite industry is addressing these new challenges with a shift towards dynamic hybrid networks.

Where satellite technology stands today

The evolution of satellite communications is at a similar phase to where general telephony was a decade ago. Then, there were dedicated suppliers for specific kinds of service – fixed fibre operators, fixed cable operators, mobile cellular operators, each of which worked in their own domain and geography. When users wanted to move from one to another, they had to change connections – whether a new SIM card, new Wifi node or even a different connector in the wall.
With time, however, market forces have made the telephony industry much more dynamic, pulling more into common ecosystems that make these transitions smoother – the latest improvements are in 5G.

The future lies in integration
Satellite technology is heading in the same direction. By incorporating a range of different connectivity paths, such as geosynchronous (GEO) satellite, low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite and terrestrial networks, organisations can ensure that customers receive the best and most efficient connection possible, no matter where they are. The key for end-users is that this is a seamless transition, where these different networks complement, enhance and back each other up.

It once was the case when painting your home that your choice of colours was limited to what was on the local store shelves – and that often meant accepting what had been ordered and shipped some time ago – unless you were prepared to wait for something to be created and delivered. At some point, however, it became possible to mix colours at the store – again from simple ingredients, pre-supplied. So, colours are now available in infinite variation and on demand.
Similarly, the best network for the moment is one created on demand from a palette of options, allowing the strongest network to be created for a user’s unique needs in a seamless fashion. The customer doesn’t care how you created it – only that it is exactly what they need, when they need it.

Congested hot spots and other challenges

There are naturally some challenges when using a single technology, such as satellite, to meet all needs. One of the biggest issues for satellite technology of any kind is dealing with congested geographic hot spots. Unfortunately, people and demand are far from uniformly distributed, and we have all seen how local demand peaks can overwhelm even a very focused Wifi network in a busy airport or hotel. The solution terrestrially is, usually, to build densely – with ever-smaller networks to concentrate capacity. The challenge is that this is hard to scale globally.

While global coverage may be easier, peak demand on satellites can be even more challenging to address – a hotspot such as Singapore may have hundreds of ships and planes within a small area – yet only a few hundred kilometres away to the south or west there is nothing but vast, empty ocean. For a GEO satellite, the Singapore peak means one or two intense beams out of hundreds – for a LEO it means a few intense minutes out of a day. To simply double the capacity in a hotspot such as Singapore might mean adding a new satellite, in the case of GEO, or doubling an entire global constellation in the case of LEO. Inefficient – and super-inefficient!

Historically, network operators have offered mostly monochromatic solutions – focusing purely on GEO or LEO satellites or terrestrial networks – which limits their ability to scale, both in demand and geography. This is not sustainable.

Integration of advance technologies to create dynamic networks

So how do we overcome these challenges and offer a more dynamic, reliable network?

The answer is a network that integrates all aspects of the connectivity ecosystem – GEO, LEO and terrestrial networks – communicating not just hub-and-spoke but with and through other terminals. The result is a dynamic mesh network that enables high-performance connectivity everywhere, delivering the lowest average latency and fastest average speeds with unique resilience.

This is exactly what our recently announced Orchestra communications network aims to do. It will provide dramatically expanded high-throughput services around the world that incorporate links that go beyond satellite or terrestrial. Put simply, it draws together the benefits of multiple technologies to create one cohesive solution.

In practice, airlines that are operating on a dynamic network will be able to seamlessly transition through the different networks to ensure they have the strongest connectivity available. For instance, if an aircraft is coming into a busy airport or flying through a congested air corridor, they will be able to move from a GEO to a LEO or even a terrestrial network without interruption – avoiding any drop-outs while operating in what otherwise might be an overloaded system hot spot.
But, while direct terrestrial links may address many hot spots, what about the much larger adjacent areas that may be out of reach?

This is where users will also become part of the network solution for each other. A user who is out of reach of a terrestrial connection may be within reach of another user who is connected – possibly through additional hops themselves. The beauty of this is that the places this works the best are the hotspots – where users are most dense. Of course, with users all headed their own way, the network will be constantly forming and reforming, and this must be done in a seamless fashion.

We have found that the critical factor in making such dynamic networks work well is to have super-reliable layers of global satellite coverage overlaying them. Users are always connected, no matter what happens, and having each layer do what it does best makes all the others operate at maximum efficiency.

The growing demand and need for advancements

Requirements for connectivity from mobility-based applications – at sea, on land and in the air – are only expected to increase. And as demand grows, dynamic networks will provide the best solution to the growing needs of the mobility market.

While we are already implementing dynamic networks today, we see the opportunity for far more advanced networks defining the future of the mobile connectivity market. R&D investments in this area are paying off already and will for many years to come. As in the paint store example, by anticipating the need for agility and expanding the palette of colours offered on demand, network operators will be able to satisfy customer needs as never before, while reaching new levels of efficiency in deploying capital assets.