But the story is changing. Advancements in cloud computing and improvements in connectivity are bringing satellites to stage, with new use cases like for industrial applications and improving cruise ship connectivity proving an ideal application.
This is the message that Ashesh Mishra, Chief Architect, Network Strategy at satellite giant SES, feels the market needs to hear. He tells The Network how satellite connectivity is powering connectivity across the ecosystem.
Ashesh, which factors are driving the change in connectivity requirements?
One of the biggest factors is that businesses are becoming . Customers increasingly want to connect to a workload in the cloud, so satellite is now often a means to complete the cloud-transformation journey of companies with remote or mobile assets. Even five years ago, our main connectivity model for data services was connecting to the Internet in a remote location, which was simple, as most of the time the user was trying to access a website. This is no longer the case. Companies around the world are going through digital transformations and are moving their IT systems to the cloud.
Use cases such as oil production, mining, cruise and maritime, and government are where new requirements for low-latency, high-bandwidth connections are being driven. Lots of remote or rural locations that are very valuable to companies now require cloud connectivity, and this is driving investment in the industry.
Then there is the angle of 5G and related application sets, and how these impacts critical business functions. A lot of new use cases, cars, require the same sort of connectivity in mobile and remote that you get when you are in a fixed location.
You mention the opportunities in the oil industry. Which other areas are seeing the benefits of the satellite industry’s new offerings?
Cruise ships are a big one – they are practically large floating hotels, sometimes with over 5,000 people on board. I joined SES through the acquisition of O3b Networks, which was the first company in the world to fly high-throughput communication satellites in the MEO orbit - close enough to the earth to get low-latency and high-bandwidth connection to cruise ships.
Before we came along, the standard connection was lower than 50 MB/s for a ship with 5,000 people. the link was only used for critical connections from the crew, crew welfare, or for business customers who would pay to access their email. This is the case for many cruise ships even today.
Because of their high orbits, the traditional GEO satellites (even the new high-throughput versions) are ideal for reach and reliability. This connectivity, however, does not lend itself to the great live and real-time social experience that passengers increasingly value.
Now we are flying satellites 8,000 km away from the Earth instead of 36,000 km, we get much higher bandwidth – it’s even possible to land a 1.5 GB/s connection on a ship, while ensuring latency comparable to continental terrestrial transit (less than 150ms). Larger cruise ships can use 500-600 MB/s without choking capacity, and this allows the passengers to use Netflix HD, FaceTime – everything they would have on land.
Of course, the ultra-low-latency applications are more challenging to service – even with the new LEO orbit satellites (SpaceX’s Starlink, , and the planned Telesat and Amazon Kuiper constellations) that are a few hundred high. While you can cover the satellite leg quickly, lower orbits mean greater need to traverse longer terrestrial routes that add latency, and more concerning - jitter. But this is where edge computing comes in and there are some great use-cases from the cloud players of enabling intelligent edge capabilities to complement the native cloud services. These still require satellite connectivity to reach the rest of the world but allow seamless and unconstrained cloud-native environment for their workloads from the edge of the world to rest of the world.
Which leads us back to oil rigs, mines and other industrial applications?
Yes. A lot of oil and mining companies have started using augmented reality, machine learning and artificial intelligence for critical applications such as preventive maintenance and closed-loop automated adaptive drilling. These require latencies of under a few milliseconds. There is no standard connection that will satisfy this (even in terrestrial world unless the mine is close to a ), so you need a system on the edge dealing with the tactical requirements of the drill working in tandem with a low-latency supply to the rig – and this is where satellites come in. These use cases were not possible three years ago, as the intelligent edge computing and cloud connection just wasn’t there.
These are just a few examples of the new use cases being developed based on cloud computing. If you talk to Microsoft or Amazon, there is significant and growing investment towards connecting people to the cloud, and a whole host of services enabling them to do so. These new use cases being so sensitive to connectivity is a big reason for that.
How have customer requirements adapted to the changing landscape?
A lot of different factors are converging. Some customers do come to us directly and say ‘we have seen this use case, how do we do it?’, but often they engage the cloud platform first, and the cloud provider would then come to us. Of course, there were leading indicators of items emerging in the cloud transformation journey from terrestrial enterprises that we knew would eventually proliferate into our use cases as well. We, at SES, experienced this during our own cloud transformation journey and took a lot of the learnings from that program into our network strategy.
In the past, satellites were seen as either backup or for remote connectivity. Now, there’s an argument that satellite should be the primary connectivity as it provides higher availability – even the price points are starting to converge with fibre in some of the markets that we operate in. It remains to be seen if satellite connectivity will ever be cheaper overall, but there are some places on the planet where it’s more cost-efficient to get satellite connectivity than fibre.
What is the level of cooperation across the ecosystem to make this happen?
It’s very contextual. On the satellite front, a lot of the technologies that SES and other satellite operators use are at the very bleeding edge – and as a result, often bespoke – a more flattering term for proprietary. So, on that front, it is difficult to standardise much of the satellite network domain because of the innovation aspect in the competitive dynamic. On the other hand, SES is committed to delivering a standardised connectivity experience that is in line with the networking industry standards, IETF, MEF, etc. This is specifically with the intention of simplifying the consumption and integration of satellite connectivity for our customers and partners. In that way, we have strong cooperation with our partner ecosystem that provides complementary services as part of the value chain, or delivers end-to-end integrated services to customers using SES’s satellite connectivity as a piece of the puzzle.
Another wave that almost necessitated this pivot is the emergence of cloud-centric ecosystems. There was a time when there was a push for large, vertically-integrated solutions for the customer which lasted for a few years, but now it’s gone back to a situation where the customer doesn’t choose a SES or even a Verizon – the question is “I’m on an AWS/Google Cloud Platform/Azure journey, who can connect me to that?” For the customer, these platforms are the anchor, and once they have chosen one, they then see what the supporting ecosystem is.
In the end, satellite will be one of many pieces that will come into play, so it’s important that we create partnerships and areas for collaboration.
This brings us nicely the Layer123 World Congress in The Hague this October. Why have you decided to take part?
Satellites have always been known for their superpower of reach. But SES, along with other satellite players, is adding to that superpower by also delivering high-quality and cost-efficient fibre-like connectivity. There needs to be a greater understanding outside of the traditional satellite ecosystem about the changes that are happening in this ecosystem and how we can help new markets and industries leverage these new capabilities to derive great outcomes for their operations and even their customers. Right now, in the satellite space, we suffer from lack of visibility, as we are growing out of our marketplaces somewhat. Two years ago there was no concept of a satellite connection being able to deliver a 10 GB/s low-latency connection – but this is coming, and it’s coming soon with SES’s O3b mPOWER constellation. SpaceX’s Starlink has already launched over 300 satellites to deliver high speed broadband internet by the end of 2020. And there are many more such satellite-enabled applications that will directly or indirectly affect how over half of the world’s population consumes content and data.
Basically, we want to get the word out. We have spent the past 30 years focusing on our capabilities against our competitors – now it’s a scenario where the world is a lot bigger for satellites, so this is an opportunity for us to show our future partners what we can offer.
Hear Ashesh Mishra speak at the Layer123 World Congress in The Hague this October – get your delegate pass here.