Satellite cellular backhaul initially covered rural areas and provided 2G voice connectivity through macro cells in C band. With time, newer technology allowed for increasing data service, higher speeds and all-IP infrastructures. Nowadays, the explosion of smartphones and social media has radically changed usage habits, and satellite cellular backhaul coverage has expanded to sub-urban areas.
Semir Hassanaly, Market Director Cellular Backhaul and Trunking at Newtec, says that while satellite backhaul was primarily destined for emerging countries, it is now addressing industrialised lands thanks to small cells, 4G LTE, High Throughput Satellites (HTS) and increasingly advanced technology.
Jean Philippe Gillet, VP of Sales, EMEA at Intelsat, says the satellite backhaul market continues to be a vibrant vertical, with the majority of growth coming from Africa as well as Asia and Latin America, according to reports by Euroconsult.
Hassanaly adds that there are also a few deployments in the US, where wide distances and mountainous regions are suited for satellite backhaul. Furthermore, there are newer business opportunities arising in Western Europe and Asia where customers want to provide affordable bandwidth in spot areas through small cells and HTS.
With so much data being exchanged, the backhaul industry is in a phase of evolution, where more information is being delivered to many more devices. The fact is that the demand for a lot more capacity doesn’t seem to be levelling off, in fact it’s quite the opposite.
According to iGR Research, in 2012, smartphones and other mobile devices generated 899,000 terabytes of data, a
massive volume that defies easy comparison. Data volumes are expected to grow 11 times, to 10.3 million terabytes by 2017.
The GSMA also describes, in its report titled, “Arab States Mobile Observatory”, that growing smartphone penetration and mobile broadband is forecast to exceed 20% in most Arab states by 2016, with rates as high as 70% in Saudi Arabia.
Gillet says: “Mobile networks that provided basic voice and text service have evolved into ones that deliver a rapidly growing amount of data and video to end users regardless of location, including the most remote areas. Many of these are multimedia services, such as mobile Internet and video, require large amounts of bandwidth, meaning cellular providers are expanding and upgrading their networks to handle the greater amount of data being exchanged.
“Satellite backhaul services are evolving to meet this need by providing the throughput and coverage needed to serve end users, particularly in remote areas where terrestrial infrastructure is unavailable,” adds Gillet.
Kai Honetschläger, Director, Sales and Marketing at Quintech says he is seeing an increasing activity in consolidation in the cellular market worldwide.
“Not only do mobile operators merge across the continents but multi-national players also expand their footprint into new geographical areas. This geographical span and growing demand in emerging markets in combination with the increasing consumption of mobile data is leading to a higher need for reliable backhaul availability via satellite.”
Gillet says that the satellite industry is diving head first to service mobile operators, and provide them with an adequate solution.
He says: “We think wireless operators are trying to solve three imperatives: capability, reliability and flexibility. Given this surge in demand, mobile network operators (MNOs) need to be able to capture new subscribers, manage the increase in traffic and ensure service reliability to both new and existing subscribers. The satellite sector has responded by delivering improved coverage, throughput and power. This enables MNOs to use more efficient equipment at the base stations, meaning they can be set up quickly and easily, and by cutting the amount of power required for operations, including developing solar-powered options.”
He continues by saying this will help increase reliability, while cost will be reduced. The simplified hardware and installation also means that if the station is not meeting expected revenue forecasts, the equipment can be relocated to another site with minimal cost and labour.
Honetschläger says that with growing bandwidth demands, the customer’s expectation too has changed dramatically over the last two to five years.
“As data driven applications such as video services are used on mobile handsets on a daily basis, also latencies and reduced quality of service are not tolerated anymore by end users. Providers of mobile backhaul via satellite have to address these issues and have to make sure to deliver top quality to their customers,” he adds.
So how can the satellite community solve this conundrum?
According to Hassanaly, there are many challenges in satellite backhaul which must be addressed, and each of them require a specific set of solutions to be effective.
There are a large variety of projects types such as Universal Service Obligation (USO), small cells, backup, trunking. Each of these have different objectives (low CAPEX, architecture, throughput etc.), which require different features and capabilities. There are also different mobile architectures involving TDM circuit-switch, ATM, 3G iub, HSPA with varying interfaces, 4G LTE, VoLTE. Hassanaly explains each of these have different behaviours and characteristics, which must be taken into account.
Moreover, usage is changing. Firstly from voice centric, where latency and jitter matter extremely, to data/video/P2P and mobile broadband from rural and extremely rural to semi-urban. All this, he says, has a consequence on traffic patterns, which are also changing from symmetric to asymmetric, with more data and more bursts.
Lastly, the Industry has traditionally been entangled in the SCPC/TDMA return technology battle for several years.
“The industry has addressed these challenges by providing a wide product offering from several vendors, which address low CAPEX/low requirements equipment to highly efficient and performing platforms. Specific solutions have been developed around the satellite offering to take care of the efficiency, of the TCP latency, and of mobile user experience.
“Newtec’s patented Mx-DMA for instance is a market solution which is really tailored for low-to-high throughput backhaul traffic requirements, for voice and data, for High Throughput Satellite (HTS) and C/Ku/Ka band.The solutions are therefore totally different from the early 2G centric to today’s 4G,” says Hassanaly.
Can HTS calm the storm?
Honetschläger explains HTS can provide the required high throughput, while also reducing significantly the cost per bit, which is one of the key criteria for mobile operators in order to provide services in an economical way.
As satellite communication systems do not rely on existing communication infrastructures, like electrical or optical cable networks, basically all regions of the world can be reached independent of their specific geographical location.
The challenges, however, he points out, are when using Ka-Band.
“This is highly sensitive to bad weather conditions and conventional fade margin approaches are not applicable. Consequently, suitable system architectures are deployed to provide uninterrupted services,” says Honetschläger.
Gillet says with the introduction of Intelsat EpicNG satellites, the operator will deliver additional throughput to enable the expansion of 4G networks and faster speeds to the end user.
“Intelsat EpicNG, which is backwards compatible, future-proofs wireless infrastructure with extension solutions that can be upgraded seamlessly as HTS capacity comes into service as an overlay to our existing infrastructure, providing MNOs with greater throughput per site, flexibility, coverage and choice. By reducing the capital expenditures often required with expansion via terrestrial infrastructure, MNOs can focus on introducing new connectivity services.
“In combination with our recent initiatives with ground and antenna technology providers, Intelsat EpicNG delivers higher performance, better economics and simplified access, providing the opportunity for profitable revenue growth and a return on their investment. In the second half of 2016, Intelsat 33e, the second of our Intelsat EpicNG satellites, is scheduled to be launched, and once in service, will deliver the benefits of HTS throughout Africa and the Middle East,” says Gillet.
However he also warns that for MNOs, the challenge is balancing network expansion with profitable growth. Satellite, due to its ability to provide ubiquitous service with impressive throughput and efficiency, remains one of the most cost-effective ways to bring mobile communications to all of Africa and the Middle East.
“Intelsat enables network operators to economically expand to remote locations that previously could not even be considered due to the high cost of terrestrial infrastructure. By enabling the use of solar-powered base stations that are significantly smaller than today’s base station set-up, satellite connectivity enables the use of equipment that consumes less power and is quicker and easier to deploy. This enables the expansion of networks and the ability to address new markets, and in the end, profitable growth for the MNO,” says Gillet.
Hassanly is of the opinion that HTS is a key player in driving down the cost of satellite bandwidth and make this technology ubiquitously available worldwide. While satellite quality of service and user experience has improved significantly over the years, the main issue related to OPEX is still being seen as a show stopper.
He says: “The HTS, small cells and Mx-DMA combination provides an optimised CAPEX/OPEX/QoS which is now extremely appealing to mobile operators and mobility markets.
“HTS deployments rely on the satellite launches and the ability for satellite operators to demonstrate the benefits to the end customers. As projects in this space traditionally require a very long cycle, some delay has affected the availability of the promised services. However the needs are ever demanding in terms of bandwidth and costs: HTS is poised to succeed!”
“On the technical side, wideband capacity, multiple beams, high throughput and Ka band operation require relevant features and agility to provide seamless service with top QoS and subscriber satisfaction. The technology is here: it is now a matter of time to reap the fruits of the HTS promise,” concludes Hassanly.