SES uses beamforming to steer capacity on ships

The terrestrial mobile industry isn’t the only one looking to bring software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) further into the picture. These sorts of techniques are applicable to the satellite industry as well, and it’s every bit as interested in being a part of 5G as anyone.

“In 5G, we totally believe we play a big role in that,” said John-Paul Hemingway, EVP of product, marketing and strategy at Luxembourg-based SES Networks, noting that a lot of conversations are going on right now to work out spectrum sharing.

SES, which is one of the participants helping Alphabet X’s Project Loon provide service in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, is already using dynamic bandwidth allocation and beam steering via SDN principles on its O3b fleet. The current generation allows it to steer beams and dynamically control the amount of bandwidth to endpoints within those beams, according to Hemingway.

The principles are applicable to the big passenger cruise ships that SES serves. It used to be that passengers would get on a cruise ship and immediately store their cell phone in a drawer because it lacked coverage. But that's all changed now, and passengers are able to use Facetime and all the things they expect to do on land.

“We do that by literally following the ship with a high-capacity beam and using software control techniques to follow those ships wherever they go on their itineraries,” Hemingway told FierceWirelessTech. “Those kinds of innovations have completely changed what we’re able to provide in terms of raw throughput, the latency and the price.”

The underlying technology has moved satellite communications away from being the "too expensive, choice-of-last-resort” type of service to being more mainstream. SES is contracted with Royal Caribbean to provide services using the O3b fleet of medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites and says its maritime solution provides ultrafast satellite broadband connectivity wherever their ships sail.

RELATED: Intelsat, Intel propose way for mobile industry to use C-band for 5G

In its next generation of O3b satellites, the “follow-the-ship” concept will direct many more beams. SES acquired O3b about a year ago and recently announced that it has contracted its first O3b mPower technology partner, Boeing Satellite Systems, to build seven MEO satellites. The constellation will have 30,000 fully shapeable and steerable beams that can be shifted and switched in real time to align with its customers’ capacity needs. O3b mPower will provide coverage to an area of nearly 400 million square kilometers, or four-fifths of Earth’s surface.

SES already operates a nongeostationary broadband system through 12 MEO satellites that deliver high-throughput, low-latency connectivity and will be launching another eight MEO satellites in 2018 and 2019. 

SES is also involved in the European Commission-funded VITAL (VIrtualized hybrid satellite-TerrestriAl systems for resilient and fLexible future networks), a project that addresses the combination of terrestrial and satellite networks by driving NFV into the satellite world and enabling SDN-based resources in hybrid satellite communications/terrestrial networks.