The satellite industry has a long and fruitful innovation record, mainly focused on one particular aspect: Maximize use of the scarce satellite spectrum resource. The high cost of satellite spectrum -relative to terrestrial bandwidth – has undoubtedly modulated the evolution of VSAT systems for the past 30 years, with developments accentuated after the introduction of IP VSAT´s. While IP bandwidth efficiency will remain important, focus for the next wave of VSAT innovation might come from a very different angle.
With the global VSAT industry transitioning to high throughput satellites (HTS), with larger supply figures and lower bandwidth costs, some may think that this paradigm shift could undermine the importance of efficiency and innovation in VSAT technology and services (the “throw bandwidth at the problem” approach). A closer look, however, appears to indicate that it could be just the opposite: Innovation will possibly become even more important in the context of new GEO-HTS and LEO-HTS satellite constellations. When looking at the complexities of HTS systems with multiple spot beams, orbital frequency coordination and the needs of end users who make new uses of such networks – often with mobility nuances – the importance of VSAT innovation becomes clear.
But before exploring what could come next in terms of industry innovation, let us quickly go through some of the most recent developments in VSAT technology that have allowed the industry to reach near perfect spectral efficiency. Spectrum-saving technologies that have become standard in today´s VSAT systems include granular LDPC coding, DVB-S2X with high order modulation (16QAM, 32/64APSK), carrier canceling, MF-TDMA, dynamic SCPC, Adaptive Coding and Modulation (ACM), HTTP/TCP acceleration, beam roaming, and smart NMS systems.
Having now approached the limits of spectral efficiencies, the industry has inevitably started paying more attention to application-aware bandwidth optimization and acceleration. These can truly achieve double-digit savings but new developments tend come from expert players in distinct fields (enterprise, cell backhaul, mobility, etc.). It is tempting for VSAT ground system players to develop application-aware optimization features, but it is questionable if venturing into such highly specialized disciplines is a sustainable strategy given the diverse set of applications targeted by VSAT systems and the need to leverage core competencies around satellite network bandwidth management.
Thus, the need of a new, more cooperative innovation framework becomes obvious. Looking forward, the use of smart software for application-specific optimization and acceleration might be only the first step towards a more comprehensive transformation where software takes center stage. For the next wave of VSAT innovation the industry will need to look deeper into core IT technology and business processes to fully embrace the potential of virtualization, adopting new practices that function at the core or “cloud” network level. The traditional thinking of “hardware” and “transport pipes” will gradually give way to a “software-driven interplay” and the notion of “content pipes” .
From software-defined networks (SDN) to software-defined satellites, there will be an increasing relevance of smart software in future managed satellite services, but the ultimate consequences will be felt more in how the VSAT value chain is restructured as these changes could foster new roles and responsibilities among value chain players; possibly with more infrastructure sharing and cooperative value creation. This could indeed become the most profound implication of a VSAT 2.0 environment, how innovation can alter the traditional ecosystem.
Truth be told, the road towards software-defined satellite networks is not without challenges since the industry has been slow to jump onto the open network architecture bandwagon. Recent announcements seem to point in this direction but the industry as a whole has been historically conservative and slow to adopt practices from mainstream telecom sectors. The risk of not embracing IT disciplines more rapidly is that industry dynamics could be disrupted by new entrants. There are already initiatives, mostly around LEO-HTS constellations, that could alter VSAT dynamics drastically, maybe 3 to 8 years from now. These initiatives sure bear considerable risks but this is where Silicon Valley players are good at. In a telecom world that is changing so quickly, it may be imperative for satellite industry leaders to embrace IT-driven innovation more promptly.