By Charles F Moreira
Remember Veveonah Mosibin, a Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) student from Sapatalang village in Pitas district, Sabah, who posted a video about herself having to climb a tree in June 2020 to be able take her exams online due to lack of Internet connectivity in her village?
It was world news and on 3 September 2020, Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Zahidi Zainul Abidin apologised for accusing Veveonah of “lying in order to become popular for entertainment”.
The following day (4 September 2020), Free Malaysia Today reported the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) as saying that Veveonah’s village would have 4G service by the middle of this year (2021). What! Nine months later!
To help Malaysian and Asia-Pacific countries solve such problems, Luxembourg-based satellite and terrestrial telecommunications network provider SES S.A. is working with the MCMC, Indonesia’s Telecommunication and Information Accessibility Agency (BAKTI), the Department of Information and Communications (DICT) in the Philippines to drive digital inclusion across the region.
“Capacity demand in Malaysia is growing exponentially, such as growing demand for 4G sites and enterprise LTE networks, and these will need major upgrades to the end-of-line terrestrial networks, especially in East Malaysia where deployment of fibre or high-capacity fibre backhaul is either uneconomical or will take too long to deploy in time”, Harsh Verma, SES Networks Sales Director, Asia for Fixed Data told a virtual media conference on 21 September 2021.
The MCMC has mandated that each village will be provided with at least 30Mbps of bandwidth connectivity and their mission is to connect 98% of Malaysia’s population by 2023, and the use of high-speed satellite backhaul is a solution.
That same day, SES unveiled its O3b mPower constellation of 11 Boeing 702X satellites from Boeing Satellite Systems in El Segundo, just south of Los Angeles International Airport.
The O3b mPower satellites are scheduled to be be launched in sets of three atop Space X Falcon 9 rockets this 4th quarter 2021 and in Q1 2022, and the first six are expected to begin service in Q3 2022.
Meanwhile, three more satellites are scheduled for launch in the second half of 2022, with the last two scheduled for launch in second half of 2024. SES expects to have nine satellites in service in the second quarter of 2023 and all 11 satellites in service in the second quarter of 2025.
SES’ O3b mPower satellites are the second-generation of its O3b non-geostationary orbit, medium earth orbit (NGSO-MEO) satellites first launched in 2014.
GEO, LEO, MEO!! ????
Valvanera Moreno, SES Senior Manager, Programme Integration explained the key advantages of NGSO-MEO satellites such as the Ob3 mPower over their geostationary (or geosynchronous) and NGSO-LEO (low-earth orbit) counterparts. She also is a satellite engineer currently working on the development integration of the O3b mPower satellites with SES’ ground infrastructure.
Geostationary (GEO) satellites such the SES-12, Inmarsat and Measat satellites orbit the earth at a height of 36.000 km and they circle the earth in exactly the same time as the earth rotates, so they effectively are stationary above the same point on the earth’s surface.
Their key advantage is than the height of their orbit enables just three geostationary satellites to provide global coverage, and they need one gateway (ground station) on each continent for high-throughput satellite (HTS) data rates. However, they have a rather high latency (delay) of around 700 milliseconds and they typically support around 100 Mbps per customer edge terminal.
On the other hand are NGSO-LEO satellites which orbit at a height of around 1,000km and they move pretty fast relative to the earth’s surface.
Their advantage is their very low latency of around 50 milliseconds but their downside is that each of them cover a small part of the earth’s surface, so require hundreds or even thousands of them to provide global coverage and many local gateways on the ground.
Also, since they move relatively fast relative to the earth’s surface, each one is within view of the local gateways for about 10 minutes, so they have to frequently handoff communication to the next satellite. NGSO-LEO satellite systems typically support around 100 Mbps capacity per terminal.
NGSO-MEO satellites such as the SES O3b and O3b mPower satellites provide a happy compromise between GEO and NGSO-LEO.
Their latency is typically low at around 150 milliseconds, they typically orbit at a height of around 8,000 km above the earth’s surface and only six of them are required to provide global coverage, they require regional ground gateways for high throughput, they move slower relative to the earths surface, so handoff to the next satellite about every hour and most importantly, they can provide multiple gigabits per second per ground terminal.
Also, SES use of phase array antenna technology which enables its satellites to electronically steer beams to provide spot coverage of sites. This also makes it more economical to deploy smaller and more economical ground antennas on ships, planes, oil & gas installations, mines, cellular base stations, government facilities and so forth.
Still in negotiations
Meanwhile, SES has no Malaysian mobile network operator partners for O3b mPower just yet, but it currently works with the Telenor group in Myanmar and Pakistan on connectivity to their 4G sites.
Also, it currently is in negotiations with Axiata which has a presence across nine countries in ASEAN, and SES is also negotiating with Maxis, Celcom and Digi as well.
“They are already using our SES-12 geostationary satellite and are currently evaluating O3b mPower in a more holistic way”, said Harsh, who hopes to conclude partnership agreements with them by the end of this year but more realistically expects these to be concluded in the first half of 2022 after they have completed their evaluation.
“On our part, SES has partnered with key service providers in Malaysia to build SES-12 high-throughput gateways (satellite ground stations) in Kuala Lumpur and are working to deploy sites in East Malaysia”, Harsh added.
And, across the Asia-Pacific region
SES-12 is SES’ geo-stationary communications satellite, first launched on 4 June 2018 and provides direct-to-home (DTH) broadcasting, very-small-aperture terminal (VSAT), mobility, and high-throughput satellite (HTS) data connectivity services across the Asia-Pacific region, including in rapidly growing markets such as India and Indonesia.
In 2019, SES won a project on Phase 1 of BAKTI’s project to provide 4Gbps connectivity to over 1,200 locations across Indonesia and have built the high-throughput gateways for our SES-12 satellite with its partner PT Indo Pratama Teleglobal and another partner DWI Tunggal Putra (DTP).
Teleglobal will use the SES-12 satellite and SES Networks’ managed data services to provide internet access and mobile backhaul services to 150,000 remote sites, whilst DTP is an Internet service provider, data centre operator and provides VSAT connectivity to mines, oil & gas facilities, agribusinesses, enterprises, resorts, government and other industries. Under Phase 2, BAKTI is currently adding an additional 2Gbps capacity to its projects this year.
“Whilst BAKTI’s projects have increased Indonesia’s nationwide Internet penetration, however the unequal Internet access between urban and rural subscribers still exists and 4G has not reached over 12,000 villages across Indonesia”, said Harsh.
“Industry estimates project that Indonesia’s economy could triple by 2025 and this is hugely attributed to Internet penetration and infrastructure growth in Indonesia, and bridging the digital divide in a true manner will help accelerate this growth and will help bring more equitable economic growth to rural communities across Indonesia.
“We are also working on a similar project with DICT in the Philippines, where we are delivering community WiFi and remote health units connectivity through our satellites, working with a local satellite service provider”, Harsh added.
Besides that, SES’ earlier generation O3b NGSO-MEO satellite backhaul connectivity has enabled mobile network operator partners in Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and other pacific islands to more widely expand their cellular customer base, and SES is currently in negotiations with a pacific islands major operator to deliver 2G, 3G, 4G and later 5G services over its O3b mPower satellites.
SES’ first telco customer is the France-based cellular operator Orange, which serves subscribers in 18 countries across Africa and West Asia. Orange, plans to adopt the O3b mPower solutions to expand its services to enterprises and consumers, beginning with the landlocked Central African Republic, where O3b mPower can help Orange expand its customer base.
One of SES’s early customer segments are cruise ships which heavily rely on satellite connectivity for their communications, as well as the communication needs of their passengers, especially now when passengers want the same standard of mobile connectivity to cloud services, video streaming, social media and even to gaming, just as they have at home, and this is where SES steerable beam technology enables its satellites to more energy-efficiently provide spot coverage to follow ships in real time as they move through the oceans.
One of SES’ major customers in Asia is the cruise line Dream Cruises owned by Genting Hong Kong, whose whole fleet of cruise ships are served by the existing O3b MEO satellite system. Other major customers are the Miami, Florida-based Carnival Cruise Line and the Plantation, Florida-based Virgin Voyages, both of which have signed up for O3b mPower services.
Princess Cruises, a leading brand of Carnival Corporation will be the first fleet of global cruise ships which has announced their next-generation of connectivity services over O3b mPower satellites to offer Princess Medallion-class services to their customers, which provide land-line connectivity-standard in terms of speed and reliability of connection to cloud services on board.
According to John Padgett, Carnival Corporation Chief Experience and Innovation Officer, cruise ship connectivity has evolved from 10Mbps 10 years ago to 50Mbps connectivity five years ago to over 400 Mbps over O3b mPower satellites, which will turn its cruise ships into self-contained smart cities with on-board connections between the casinos, recreational spas and so forth, whilst also providing its crew members with connectivity fundamental to life’s greatest moments and for their mental welfare.
SES and Microsoft have struck a mutually beneficial deal where SES can provide its customers anywhere with premium, direct, secure access with the lowest latency between its gateways and Microsoft Azure cloud services and Microsoft Azure ExpressRoute, whilst Microsoft will use the O3b mPower satellites for their own internal Microsoft Azure Orbital Services solution, so they can deliver one-hop services to their customers irrespective of whether they are connected via fibre, microwave or the O3b mPower satellites.
Similarly, SES has partnered with Amazon Web Services for direct connection to Amazon cloud services over its geostationary or MEO satellites. SES is the first satellite operator to become an AWS Direct Connect partner for connectivity, especially in remote locations.
Rain fade problems?
SES’ O3b and O3b mPower satellites operate in the K-band frequencies and we in Malaysia know only too well, instances when Astro satellite TV broadcasts in the Ku band have been lost temporarily due to heavy rain either over Astro’s gateway in Bukit Jalil or over the locality of subscribers, so will SES’s satellite communications be similarly disrupted?
Harsh, who has been in the satellite business for over 20 years explained that the higher frequency signals used in the K and Ku bands are more susceptible to being attenuated (i.e. absorbed) by moisture, such has heavy rain, common in tropical regions and such problems of rain fade cannot be totally avoided, even with SES’ satellite signals.
About 20 years ago, most cellular operators would not even consider K-band satellites for reliable connectivity especially during heavy rain and instead relied on lower-frequency C-band signals which are less affected by rainfall, but thanks to technological advances in the last 10 to 15 years, the K-band has become popular for use in satellite cellular backhaul.
Measures which SES has adopted to minimise cases of rain fade are firstly that instead of the 30 centimetre diameter dishes commonly used in satellite TV subscriber ground terminals, SES’s customer ground terminals use one metre diameter dishes, as their larger surface area catches more signals from its satellites and concentrates (focuses) them upon the antenna element above the dish, thus more effectively amplifying the satellite signals received by the antenna element, which better enables them to overcome weak signal reception.
Secondly, unlike typical satellite TV reception equipment which receives signals one way, with no way to inform the satellite that the signals received are too weak for effective communication, the satellite equipment used for reception from SES’ satellites provide feedback on signal quality received back to the satellite, and based upon the feedback, the Adaptive Resource Control (ARC) software used in SES’s system dynamically adjusts the transmission power and the throughput capacity in real time to maintain communication despite unfavourable conditions such as heavy rainfall.
“Think of it like when driving at full speed along a highway, you slow down if you encounter a bad patch of highway to avoid damage to your car’s suspension and speed up to full speed once you have passed the bad patch”, explained Harsh.
“Whilst we cannot completely eliminate loss of communication due to heavy rainfall, however our systems are able to achieve well over 99% uptime, even if not as much as 99.9999%”, Harsh added.