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Written by Catrin Jones, Marketing & PR Executive – Radical Moves PR

As a new member to the Radical Moves team, the two-day SIG workshop at the end of last month was my first satellite industry event. Helen explained that SIG workshops are a great opportunity for satellite service providers to discuss the operational challenges facing the industry. There was a great turnout with people from all sectors within the industry participating in the debates. Airbus, a SIG member, hosted the event at its Space & Defence facilities in Portsmouth, UK. We were given an opportunity to tour the facilities which gave all attendees an insight into Airbus’s work within the space industry. 

Sharing space with your competitors

The first resounding message noted from the event was the importance of sharing space responsibly. From the previous sixty years of space exploration and satellite launches, many lessons have been learnt in respecting the space environment to prevent future problems. Space debris is an issue in space; fragments of old satellites run the risk of colliding with operational satellites, potentially causing severe damage which could impact on service provision. As told by Alex Cacioni of the Space Data Association, one collision in the GEO belt will affect the whole belt within 24hours. Described as the plastic pollution problem of space, everyone agreed that steps must be taken to mitigate space debris.

What about Lower Earth Orbit mega constellations?

An agenda topic which stoked a lot of discussion in the room was the potential launch of satellite mega constellations in Lower Earth Orbit. With OneWeb looking at launching approximately 700 satellites and SpaceX hoping to launch over 4000, it’s unsurprising that questions were raised as to how this could impact operationally on existing structures in GEO and MEO. How will the satellites be managed once in orbit? How will satellite providers manage progressive replacement and churn without contributing to space debris and congestion? The resounding message is that there needs to be forward thinking prior to launch to pre-empt any issues that could impact on all space users, not only in LEO but in the further reaching orbits. As mentioned during the workshop, technology is outstripping regulation; satellite operators must cooperate to use space responsibly.

RF interference and spectrum sharing

RF interference has been a long-standing challenge for satellite operators with simple operational errors causing expensive downtime to services and undermining the reliability of the technology. With space becoming ever more available and relatively cheap to access, it’s vital to stress the importance of using quality products to help mitigate RF interference. The industry has never seen such a sudden and drastic increase in satellites as it will do once the LEO mega constellations have launched. Developing innovative solutions to combat RF interference remains a high priority within the industry, especially with LEO’s changing landscape.

Following Cath Westcott’s presentation explaining the importance of spectrum in journalistic broadcasting, the usage of C-band was up for debate. With many satellite broadcasters relying on the robust spectrum to transmit data, there have been concerns raised due to the mobile telecom industry requesting to share C-band for its 5G services. Once again, importance was placed on in-depth research prior to the agreement of spectrum sharing. There is potential that the sharing of C-band could result in limited access or poorer quality services if it is rushed or done poorly. SIG Executive Director, Martin Coleman, placed emphasis on the need for new technologies and called for at least 3 or 4 strategies to be implemented prior to the possibility of sharing C-band with the telecom industry.

Is innovation the answer to avoiding these problems?

It was clear that everyone in the room has the same aim: to keep operations running efficiently without error. Many speakers explained the latest satellite technologies being developed by their companies to promote seamless services for the end-customer. Lance Hayward of SES highlighted the importance of promoting growth within the satellite industry at a time when OTT is disrupting the satellite ecosystem. As long as the connectivity is affordable, reliable and seamless consumers don’t care where their connectivity is coming from, hence the need for satellite services to remain efficient, cost-effective and robust through innovative technologies.

SIG Director, Andreas Voigt, explained the potential that AI has to improve efficiencies in space traffic management, therefore improving service quality through reducing the risk of unintentional interference and collisions. Although the potential for AI is vast, it was agreed that it is important for it to be used appropriately – AI will only work if high quality data is submitted and positive feedback is provided to the machine. Miguel Angel Vázquez of CTTC highlighted the work that the technology centre is doing to improve industry understanding of AI use in managing RF interference.

What I took away from the workshop

With consumer needs shifting, it is a time of change within the satellite industry. Consumers want reliable and cost-effective connectivity and aren’t too concerned with how they achieve it. Satellite has a lot to offer – satellite connectivity is wide ranging and hugely important in many day-to-day tasks. One of the larger challenges is managing space to ensure that all satellite providers are able to operate without having a negative impact on one another; whether this is space debris, interference, space congestion or spectrum sharing. Without cooperation, the industry would not be able to work as efficiently as it needs to in order to keep consumers happy. I was impressed by the problem-solving attitude adopted by attendees at the SIG workshop – people worked together to debate how best to resolve issues with the collaborative aim of keeping the satellite industry at the forefront of connectivity.