Market consolidation and technological independence: SATCOMRUS 2022 experts outlined the main trends in the satellite industry

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On 27 October, Moscow hosted the SATCOMRUS 2022 conference organized by Russian Satellite Communications Company, where the key players of the Russian satellite market discussed current problems and outlined the ways to solve them.

Alexey Volin, General Director of Russian Satellite Communications Company, made a global review of the situation. He mentioned three main challenges, which the Russian satellite communications industry is currently facing: sanctions and the exit of foreign companies from businesses with Russian partners, the role of government and defense agencies as customers in Western satcom, which had come to the fore, and the consolidation of players in the Western space communications market.

Sanctions as an impetus for development

Foreign companies began to disconnect Russian users from their service at the end of February and did it in an extremely coarse way. The disconnections were made despite the existing long-term contracts and in the shortest possible time. The Russian operators RSCC and Gazprom Space Systems were set out to practically switch services to their own satellites in a seamless way. This resulted in the fact that the capacity load of RSCC increased by 1500 MHz, and, according to Alexey Volin, only the redundancy of the orbital bandwidth and, in particular, the new Express-AMU3 and Express-AMU7 satellites allowed to solve the problem. These two vehicles not only allowed RSCC to cope with the difficult situation: with their advent, the operator crossed the psychological threshold, Alexey Volin noted. Now RSCC’s satellites cover more than 80% of the Earth's surface.

The termination of the cooperation of foreign companies with Russian ones also had the opposite effect of what was intended: they proved to be unreliable partners, which resulted in a greatly increased interest in RSCC’s services from other countries which realized that they could be left without satellite communications at any time, despite the agreements concluded. In 2022, the operator, with the assistance of Intersputnik, has implemented several projects in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia. Projects in India and Indonesia are on the way.

The sanctions also led to a collapse of payments – there was a problem with receiving money for services and paying for them. But this difficulty has already been solved.

Payload developers and equipment suppliers stopped cooperating with Russian enterprises. First of all, this affected the main supplier of Russian communication satellites – Academician M.F. Reshetnev Information Satellite Systems JSC, whose main payload partner was Thales Alenia Space. The Russian industry began to resolve this problem much earlier than 2022, and now M.F. Reshetnev ISS is working on a completely domestic communications satellite, which is scheduled to be launched in 2026.

The situation is similar with ground equipment, which includes not only satellite stations and user terminals, but also spacecraft control systems and TV signal encoding systems. The issue of achieving independence from imports was raised much earlier, the work has been carried out for several years, and now there is every reason to say that the problem will be solved.

Non-discriminatory insurance

Today, insurance accounts for up to 30% of the cost of spacecraft, when taking into account the total cost, rather than the cost of the spacecraft itself. Russian insurers have always reinsured risks in Western companies, which has become impossible since March of this year. But, nonetheless, these problems were not on a sudden and out of nowhere. Western insurers have been blatantly discriminating against Russian companies for quite some time now. Insurance premiums for Russian satellites considerably exceeded the price paid by owners of foreign devices. And this, emphasized Alexey Volin, despite the positive dynamics in successful launches and the operation of vehicles in orbit.

Now RSCC is actively negotiating with underwriters and has already achieved a mitigation of the discriminatory regime using the statistics provided by M.F. Reshetnev ISS as an argument. But this is only the first step, and there is still a lot of work to do in this direction.

Explicit government support

One of the main trends in 2022 is the identification and recognition of the fact that the public sector and, in particular, law enforcement agencies are anchor customers of the operators. That is to say, it turned out that the space business does not exist in its purely commercial form: one way or another, it is always tied to the state. In connection with the increased state support of foreign operators, it becomes much more difficult to compete with them in the global market. Exactly the same effect is exerted by the widespread consolidation of players, which results in the emergence of real giants in the market.

The social role of satellite communications

The satellite continues to be in demand for the digitalization of Russian regions. Minister of Digital Development of the Krasnoyarsk Territory Nikolay Raspopin, who spoke at the plenary session, noted that 40% of the territory of the Krasnoyarsk Territory was located in the Arctic zone, with many remote and hard-to-reach settlements not only in the North, but also in other parts of the region. These territories have no other alternative but satellite communications; therefore, of course, the Ministry of Digital Development is interested in the development of satellite technologies and their wide distribution.

Adaptive payloads as the main trend in the satellite design

Oleg Ivanov, Director General of the Radio Research and Development Institute (NIIR), in his report described in detail the role of flexible, adaptive loads in the further development of satellite services and spoke about the prospects of the Russian industry in their creation.

The adaptive payload enables bandwidth reallocation, channel routing, more effective interference mitigation, and unified performance and services.

The antenna, as part of such a payload, should allow increasing the number of beams, making them individual, and flexibly distributing the capacity between them. The most promising is APAA, which allows literally the allocation of a personal beam for each subscriber.

Now each vehicle is created as a separate experimental design, which causes significant delays and does not contribute to cost reduction. In turn, the creation of a unified payload is in conflict with customers’ demands: they cannot afford to experiment with a commercial vehicle, they should rely on proven solutions. Therefore, Oleg Ivanov believes, a separate development of an adaptive payload is needed. Right now, NIIR is ready to move on to practical implementation in this area. This is hindered by a problem with components — not everything has Russian analogues, and the delivery lead time for existing ones is extremely long. But, nevertheless, the work must be started, despite any difficulties. The head of NIIR is sure that it is possible to make a domestic adaptive satellite payload in 3-5 years. After this period, we can get a finished vehicle, while individual elements can be introduced much earlier. For example, an onboard satellite APAA can be developed in two years.

Unification is the way to reduce the cost per MHz

Yevgeny Nesterov, Director General of M.F. Reshetnev ISS, noted the positive effect of sanctions and the cessation of supplies — all these factors had given a very good impetus to the development of our own industry. And this will allow making a domestic satellite that meets modern requirements — to reduce the frequency resource unit cost and the delivery lead time. In addition, the architecture of the Russian civil satellite constellation has de facto become a development plan, and, as part of this plan, ISS will need to seriously increase the production of spacecraft.

Therefore, the main task is the unification and standardization of solutions. Including for heavy vehicles designed for use in geostationary orbit, the output of which needs to be tripled.

Unification and standardization will make it possible to abandon the assembly rig and put on the conveyor not only light vehicles for low-orbit constellations, but also heavy ones for GEO. This work will be done not only by ISS: the company is working with partners so that, ideally, any satellite component can be, figuratively speaking, taken from a shelf in the warehouse.

Another positive trend noted by the participants is that geostationary satellites are not losing ground. While earlier there was talk of replacing geostationary satellites with low-orbit ones, 2022 showed that geostationary satellites do not lose their positions, the demand for them is growing. Meanwhile, the development of non-geostationary systems goes in parallel.

Hybrid networks are the future

According to Yuri Urlichich, Chairman of the Council of the Association of Satellite Communications Market Participants, there is a trend towards the development of a direct “smartphone to satellite” connection service. Now, operators of space and cellular communications are beginning to interact with each other at every turn. At the same time, a kind of hybrid networks are being created, where both mobile and satellite communications technologies are simultaneously used, and this type of service has a great future.

So far in Russia, this idea has found its way to the Internet of Things in the Marathon project, but this direction needs to be further developed.