Part of Orange Silicon Valley’s mission to look forward also involves looking up as part of our New Space program. Emerging technologies and new players in the satellite world have compelling visions for the future of Earth’s orbit, and some of those visions have implications for communications back on Earth’s surface. (Just look at what SpaceX was up to in February, launching the first of its broadband satellites.)
The 5G era of high-speed connectivity is just around the corner, and as connected cars (or even flying cars) arrive to the marketplace, questions about the speed and reliability of their communications are important. Hugo Wagner leads the New Space program’s efforts at Orange Silicon Valley, and he sat down for a short discussion about what’s on the horizon for satellites, 5G, and companies like SpaceX that are making headlines with their efforts.
Orange Silicon Valley: As the world of 5G gets closer, what’s happening in the satellite industry? And is it going to be helpful or competitive with traditional terrestrial communications?
Hugo Wagner: 5G is a still a big word, and I think the keyword here — for both the terrestrial industry and the satellite industry — is harmonization. When we talk about 5G, we need to talk about regulations and spectrum policy. We’re going to see a lot of convergence; 5G is going to bring a lot of convergence as far as the technology goes, but also as far as the regulations go. The way terrestrial wireless carriers have been portrayed in the past has mostly been as an enemy of the satellite industry, with bellicose interactions really embodied at several international conferences, such as the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), held every 3-4 years.
OSV: When is the next one coming up?
HW: The last one was in 2015. The next one is in 2019. That’s where pretty much all the fences are set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is an UN entity. If you’re emitting any kind of spectrum, basically the WRC is where the ITU decides who gets what spectrum — both on the ground and in the sky.
OSV: So is the satellite industry a new player in this conversation? Has it been an active part for a long time? How would you characterize that history?
HW: It has been a legacy player. What’s been interesting to witness lately is the kind of arguments being made on both sides to grasp as much spectrum as possible for 5G applications. Both industries lobby hard to get as much spectrum as they can. And 5G is going to be very strategic. Why? Because everyone is after the same type of market. Telcos are going after connecting fleets of connected cars, for example, and so are satellite industry players.
OSV: I wanted to ask you about this topic, because it relates to questions likely to come up at that next meeting. What is on the table for 2019?
HW: There have been a lot of unresolved issues that were discussed at the last WRC in 2015. What’s going to be very crucial as part of the discussions is spectrum interference, because we’re seeing fleets of satellites being launched up there in different orbits. You have satellites competing with each other on similar frequencies. You have the satellites in GEO orbit you have the ones in low-earth orbit. And right now if you look at the architectures proposed by new entrants in that space, they tend to compete with terrestrial services on the ground.
OSV: Is there any historical context you would point to that helps to understand where these new entrants’ interests intersect with traditional communications in the discussion about spectrum?
HW: Sure, to give you an example, prior to the WRC held in 2007, there was a part of the C-band spectrum that used to be exclusively allocated to the satellite operators. After the WRC discussions, they had to open parts of the spectrum to wireless players. And it’s part of this war that’s been waging between the two industries. Telcos are all trying to connect the world on as many applications as they can — you can think of IoT as major topic of convergence. That’s why I think we’re going to need further efforts toward better harmonization. And I think some leaders in the wireless and satellite industries need to start working hand-in-hand toward those goals.
OSV: Who are some examples of the new entrants who are a part of this discussion?
HW: For the past few years we’ve seen interesting disruption, risks, and opportunities from these new entrants. Today’s interview is quite timely, actually, because SpaceX just launched their first two prototypes for their upcoming broadband constellation of more than 11,000 satellites. Those plans actually exist right now, and the FCC has already approved quite a few — like OneWeb and Telesat. There have been a dozen filings with the FCC and the ITU to use different bands — to put thousands of “birds” up there to connect everyone. There’s going to be synergy and opportunities for telcos in general, because these new entrants are going to rely on backbone, even though they’re trying to eat chunks of it. But they’ll rely on the terrestrial assets on the ground. That will be crucial for them to operate.
OSV: What are these companies doing? SpaceX is one example you named.
HW: We need to probably differentiate the big players like the ones I mentioned, SpaceX and OneWeb, let’s say — funded with billions of dollars — and smaller players; we can call them the “new space” players who are trying to raise money to work toward proof of concept and show that their innovative projects work. To cite a few examples, in the domain of machine-to-machine or IoT, we have talked to a lot of people who have been trying to put constellations of small satellites — nano-satellites — up there, to connect remote assets, to connect sensors, agricultural sensors, to connect smart devices — that don’t really need a huge constellation, and that are OK with low latency and low speeds.
OSV: To conclude, could you highlight some examples of use cases and where these technologies could potentially show up in the near future?
HW: People we’re talking to nowadays envision architectures that would allow for anyone to use their current smartphone — through just a firmware upgrade and no additional hardware — and these people would be able to use their patents to connect your smartphone to a satellite directly. There are are many things to say; we didn’t touch on the data-collection aspect of some satellites. People should also be aware of what’s happening on the remote sensing side. These are just a few examples, but the bottom line is that new products and services are emerging on the Earth’s surface that will rely on satellite connections, and satellite operators are actively pursuing the means to own them.