DTW23-Ignite: Satellite operator Airbus taps the Open Digital Architecture for interoperability
Satellite operator, Airbus Defence and Space, may seem like an unlikely TM Forum member, but the company is using the Open Digital Architecture (ODA) and Open APIs to build and manage new digital platforms to make it much easier to interoperate with other satellite operators and communications service providers (CSPs).
Satellite operators are in the same tough spot telcos were a decade ago when they began developing open, digital platforms to address competition from more nimble digital startups, according to Dr. Amina Boubendir, Head of Research and Standardization at Airbus Defence and Space, speaking at DTW23-Ignite.
“As happened for the telcos with OTT [over-the-top services], we are challenged by new players coming into the ecosystem and building very small satellites – really small, about the size of your device – that can that fly at low altitudes and [address] use cases like IoT,” Boubendir said. “These add new requirements on the existing systems.”
Since the launch of its first Earth observation satellite in 1986, Airbus has built and launched more than 70 satellites. Like most large satellite operators, it mainly serves companies in industries such as oil and gas and maritime, which need connectivity that cannot be provided using terrestrial communications networks. The devices that connect to satellites typically are large and bulky and can only be used on a single satellite operator’s network.
The introduction of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites is disrupting the market and creating opportunities to serve new customers with smaller interoperable devices. While traditional geostationary (GEO) satellites fly 36,000 kilometers (about 22,000 miles) above Earth, LEO satellites launched by SpaceX, OneWeb and Iridium fly lots closer to Earth. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, for example, fly just 550 kilometers (about 340 miles) above Earth.
Apple and others are starting to offer satellite connectivity to smartphones. With the introduction of the iPhone 14, for example, Apple began offering phone-to-satellite connectivity for emergency use. The iPhone has an antenna that can connect to Globalstar's satellites, which gives users the ability to send messages in emergency situations. The aim to expand direct-to-device connectivity beyond emergency use.
Combining LEO satellites and 5G is likely to provide even more opportunities as CSPs increasingly turn to satellite as a cost-effective and flexible solution for extending 5G coverage and capacity, especially in remote and hard-to-reach areas.
3GPP’s Release 17 5G specifications include two new standards for communications from smart phones and IoT devices directly to satellites. However, there are no network management standards for satellite operators currently, which is why Airbus has joined TM Forum.
Traditional satellite operators’ network management systems are vertically integrated and vendor-specific. This has to change to promote interoperability. “The telco world obviously has adopted well-established communications standards that allow for worldwide Interoperability – your phone allows you to move from a country to another country and change the service provider but not change your device. The NFV, SDN and Open APIs have contributed a lot to making the telco move faster … by reducing the development and deployment cycles,” Boubendir said. “So, the fact that our systems are vertically integrated is for sure one of the biggest challenges.”
Airbus is participating in two Catalyst proofs of concept at DTW. One, which is championed not only by Airbus but also by SES, OneWeb and Strigo, is focusing on interoperability between satellite providers. The other, which is also championed by mobile operators Deutsche Telekom and WE, is exploring interoperability between satellite operators and mobile operators using 5G. Both projects show how to use ODA standards and Open APIs for product catalog management, order capture and service order management to make solutions interoperable.