Digitization and Virtualization of SATCOM Networks – Part I
December 16, 2021
Digitization and Virtualization of SATCOM Networks: What Does It All Mean?
By Dr. Juan Deaton and Carlos Placido
Satellite ground networks are in the midst of evolutionary challenges that will transform industry business ecosystems and ground network architectures. With up to 50,000 active satellites predicted to be in orbit over the next 10 years,1 the space layer is rapidly changing, bringing a complex and variegated set of orbits and waveforms that satellite communication (SATCOM) networks need to support. This drives the need for SATCOM operators to create flexible and adaptable networks capable of operating on a myriad of different waveforms, orbits, and constellations—while simultaneously maintaining service quality and profitability.
In the past, access to space resources was expensive, “scarcity economics” modulated business ecosystems where a limited number of purpose-built proprietary modems thrived. These rigid solutions that dominated SATCOM networks for decades are now unfit to meet the needs of the current “abundance economics” paradigm. As leading global satellite and space market research firm Northern Sky Research (NSR) recently reported, legacy “satellite ground networks … lack the scale and agility necessary to avoid the palpable risk of becoming bottlenecks.2” Furthermore, the U.S. Space Force, in a recent vision document, expressed the requirement for agile SATCOM networks and modem terminals—i.e., the ability to seamlessly transition between different SATCOM waveforms, orbits, and constellations.3
The need to promptly evolve the SATCOM network architecture leverages two principles that are widely accepted and adopted in the larger telecommunications industry: Digitization and Virtualization.
- Digitization refers to replacing the L-band Intermediate Frequency (IF) interfaces with Internet Protocol-(IP) based interface, i.e., digital IF. Simply put, the evolution to digital IF is analogous to transitioning from broadcast TV to Netflix. Leveraging digitization, SATCOM operators can reduce Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), improve system performance, and increase network/ terminal agility.
- Virtualization refers to the abstraction of computing resources from the specific hardware to create a virtual computing environment. Similar to virtual reality, multiple independent virtual computing systems are instantiated to behave like independent computers or servers. These virtual computing environments can share the same physical hardware resources. With virtualization, a panoply of applications and functions is consolidated onto common hardware. Most importantly, virtualization separates application and hardware vendors, which eliminates the need for purpose-built hardware. Leveraging virtualization, SATCOM network operators can reduce TCO, increase terminal/ network agility, and, most importantly, accelerate the speed of innovation by separating applications from hardware.
Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), (i.e., Verizon, AT&T) have adopted and developed standard approaches using these principles. Mobile network digitization standards started in 2011 with the Common Public Radio Interface (CPRI) and was superseded in 2019 by enhanced CPRI (eCPRI). In essence, the eCPRI standard provides transport of digital samples over IP networks.4 Similarly, virtualization was adopted by MNOs through the Network Function Virtualization standard5 in 2013, which specified a common architecture and approach to virtualize network functions onto common hardware. While these principles are now common for MNOs, they starting to show promise in SATCOM networks as well.
Dr. Juan Deaton is a Research Scientist for Envistacom’s Advanced Technology Group and Carlos Placido is a Consultant for Northern Sky Research.