LEO and Direct-to-Device: Why Digitization is Fundamental to Bridging the Connectivity Gap

While much of the world’s population takes mobile connectivity for granted, there are vast swaths of the planet that don’t have any mobile coverage at all or only the most basic means to communicate using mobile networks. While the communications industry works towards ubiquitous connectivity, there’s still a long bridge to cross.

This is why satellite technology has always played a vital role for global communications. Starting with TV broadcasts and basic phone calls and evolving to broadband internet and mobile backhaul, geostationary earth satellites (GEO) and mid earth orbit satellites (MEO) have been progressively filling some of the connectivity gaps in hard to reach areas not connected by traditional telecom networks.

However, given the distance these satellites operate from Earth – 36,000km for GEO – latency has always been an issue, preventing their widespread use for real-time communications.

Low earth orbit (LEO) satellites are much closer to Earth - from 300m to 1,500km – providing much lower latency then GEO satellite in the order of 20-50ms. High bandwidth can also be achieved as LEO satellites are linked together to increase capacity. The problem with LEO technology has been the cost, limiting their use in commercial networks.

Another drawback of satellite communications has been the lack of integration with mobile and IoT devices. Traditionally, dedicated satellite phones were needed to work directly with satellite networks, resulting in niche market use.  

However, with recent advances in satellite, launch and direct-to device (D2D) technologies these limitations are being resolved, opening up many new opportunities for satellite communications and deeper integration into telco networks.

The rise of LEO satellites and D2D

Recent breakthroughs in launch technology – using rockets from SpaceX and Blue Origin – have been a game changer for LEO. Multiple satellites can be launched at once at a significantly lower price than was possible before. And this together with continuous advances in satellite technology, means LEO has now become an affordable option for real-time communications with high bandwidth and low latency.

Another emerging technology innovation is the ability to connect satellites directly to regular mobile and IoT devices using D2D. In place of dedicated satellite phones, ordinary smartphones can seamlessly switch from 4G/5G mobile networks to satellite to maintain connectivity and fill coverage gaps. In the IoT market, this opens up many opportunities to keep remote sensors and tracking devices connected at all times for use in agriculture, transport, environmental monitoring and many more uses. To ensure seamless interworking with 5G, 3GPP Release 17 has incorporated a number of standards to enable 5G network, satellite networks and mobile/IoT devices to work together.

As a result, the satellite communications market is experiencing strong growth. Telcos around the globe are partnering with LEO/MEO/GEO satellite providers to complement their offers in areas that are too difficult to reach or too expensive to support. With a multi-orbit strategy, telcos can extend 5G coverage by placing 5G RAN in areas that are difficult to serve using satellite for backhaul. Fixed satellite access can address the consumer and business market in areas that are not economical for 5G or fiber. And D2D enables telcos to offer ubiquitous connectivity for consumers and many types of industries.

The new era of satellite communications requires a new IT environment

With these new innovations, satellite communications are set to play a much greater role, helping to bring advanced communications anywhere on the planet.

However, these technology advancements and new services place significant challenges on the IT environment for satellite operators that has never been designed for such highly dynamic operations, crossing multiple domains across space and Earth, and serving a complex global customer base.

These are some of the key issues:

Highly dynamic operations: LEO satellites orbit the earth approximately every 90 minutes and connect with many ground stations located all over the world. They also connect to customer user terminals that may be on the ground or located in planes and ships – so they too are moving. Building a real-time view of the service topology is extremely complicated given the many moving parts in a satellite network. And yet a real-time view is fundamental to manage and guarantee SLAs that will be essential for business customers and wholesale partners:   

Multi-domain services: Services will span the space domain (LEO, MEO, GEO or multi-orbit), terrestrial domain (ground stations and PoPs), customer domain (user terminals for customers) and the telco domain (integration with 4G/5G and fixed networks). This requires new operational systems to model, manage and orchestrate services across space and Earth.

Complex diverse global customer base: Many satellite operators are striving to be true global operators with the ability to offer services to a wide variety of customers (consumers, enterprise, wholesalers) in any country. Different business models and better engagement models will be needed to address the specific needs of different customers. And it means adhering to the specific requirements of those countries including language, currency, taxation schemes and data privacy.

Satellite operators need business systems that can accommodate different customer types and build flexible offers for each while adhering to the local needs of each country.

How Netcracker is advancing satellite communications with digital transformation

Satellite communication providers need a new way to manage, optimize and monetize their business as they prepare to offer new types of services, expand to new markets and differentiate themselves in what is becoming a highly competitive market.

Netcracker is playing a pivotal role with its recently launched Digital Satellite Solution, helping satellite communication providers, operating in any orbit, get the most value from their significant investments.

Netcracker is well known in the telco industry, with more than 30 years of leadership and experience. The company is one of the leading players in executing successful digital transformations with its flagship Digital BSS/OSS applications. Netcracker also has significant expertise in satellite communications, powering Telesat’s LEO network and Viasat’s GEO network.

Building off this experience Netcracker has created a blueprint for multi-domain satellite IT that leverages the best of its Digital BSS/OSS stack for the telco market and builds in new innovations that are specific to the stringent needs of satellite communications.

With the new solution, Netcracker is helping satellite operators to:

  1. Deliver and guarantee the highest service quality at any time – helping them address mission-critical services in highly demanding verticals and government markets

  2. Engage with their customers and partners in a more digital and API-centric way – making it easier for customers to purchase or modify services and get the support they need

  3. Easily create any type of service offer and support any customer type in any country in the world – quickly adapting to changes in the market and taking advantage of new technology innovations.

Netcracker deeply embedded AI and security into its solution to maximize service quality and optimize costs given the extremely complex operational environment, and protect sensitive customer data and unauthorized access.

The solution incorporates the most advanced real-time operations environment, with a unique way to continuously build a service topology in real-time, pulling real-time data from space and domains on the ground. It has the capability to manage multiple SLAs for the same customer service in different coverage zones as the thresholds change. It also uses a state of the art AI-Inventory and AI-Assurance together with its Service Orchestration that manages the full lifecycle of services with a single pane of glass across multiple domains.

To transform the business side, Netcracker incorporated a sophisticated, out-of-the-box BSS environment with native support for local finance and regulations from many countries and the ability to charge for services and bill customers in many flexible ways. Digital sales and care channels provide a streamlined omni-channel experience. And for large enterprise and wholesale customers, operators get access to a robust API management platform using MEF and TM Forum APIs to provide a NaaS framework to simplify and automate many processes.

With its new solution, Netcracker is helping satellite operators to expand their communication offerings, with deeper integration with telco domains, to maximize their value in this growing market and deliver differentiating communication experiences.

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