In Discussion with Aarti Holla-Maini, Secretary General, EMEA Satellite Operators Association (ESOA)
October 21, 2021 by Aarti Holla-Maini
This exclusive interview appears in the third issue of our Wi-Fi 6E Insights newsletter, a quarterly newsletter sharing updates on regulatory developments in the growing Wi-Fi 6E ecosystem. To subscribe to the newsletter, please sign up here.
ESOA is a CEO driven association that is globally recognized as the representative body for satellite operators. Satellite services employ parts of the 6 GHz band to enable communications between stations on the earth and the receivers in space. Aarti Holla-Maini, Secretary General of the EMEA Satellite Operators Association (ESOA), explains how satellites and Wi-Fi can work together to deliver connectivity and the future of the 6 GHz band.
How do satellite-based services fit into the broader connectivity mix?
Satellites enable ubiquitous coverage for content delivery and connectivity to users in areas that are not covered by terrestrial connectivity. That includes fixed locations and connectivity on the move. Satellites can enable direct satellite broadband connectivity, cellular backhaul, and community Wi-Fi® solutions. In the past two years, while so many people stayed home, ESOA members saw a huge increase in the number of new subscriptions especially across Europe, particularly in Italy, UK, Ireland, Spain, Poland, and Hungary.
As the broadband connectivity enabled by satellite differs so much in its implementation in different contexts (standalone solutions versus hybrid solutions, diverse speed ranges depending on real needs and geographic location of users, etc.), we have started talking about Meaningful Connectivity – everyone should have the connectivity solution that works best in their particular situation. We see from our member use cases that so many models are able to transform lives, lift people out of poverty, and be an equaliser in terms of the opportunities they bring: there is no one size fits all solution.
How important is Wi-Fi to the distribution of the broadband connectivity provided by satellite operators?
Increasingly important given that Wi-Fi allows a large number of people to connect at the same time with minimum infrastructure. Satellite provides the link to the internet backbone and a Wi-Fi router provides the local connectivity. In Mexico, for instance, Viasat enabled satellite-powered Wi-Fi hotspots to bring 1.8 million people who previously had no internet access at all online. It is a relatively simple technological solution that requires no effort on the part of the user. People use it for all kinds of purposes: farmers realised they could get market information for agriculture; new trades (bakers, beauty shops, etc.) started because people could get online and learn.
In Spain, agri-food company Florette partnered with Hispasat to bring broadband connectivity powered by satellite, and enabled locally via Wi-Fi, to crop fields in Alicante. Farm workers transmit crop management data from their mobile devices in real time, without having to travel to far-away areas to access the internet.
Please describe how the satellite industry uses the 6 GHz band today?
The 6 GHz band is mostly used for C-band uplinks for geostationary satellites. Within EMEA, the most intensive use of C-band is in Africa where C-band small terminals “VSATs” are common. In Europe and the Middle East, a more common use is for large gateway earth stations. Operators are having to adapt to the ingress of mobile 5G systems into the downlink frequencies in the C-band (3.6 GHz), but operators are continuing to invest heavily in C-band, with new, more capable satellites.
If parts of the 6 GHz band were to be used for IMT services, what would be the impact on existing satellite services?
Satellite services have already suffered as a consequence of IMT licensing in the 3.6 GHz band in several countries and earth stations need to transition to other bands or locations as a result. We are fearful of a similar impact if IMT were to be introduced in the 6 GHz band. In addition to possible incompatibility with 6 GHz earth stations, we are very concerned about interference to the satellite itself. This concern does not arise in the 3.6 GHz band, which is used only for satellite downlinks, but in the 6 GHz band, the antenna on the satellite will receive signals from perhaps thousands of high power IMT base stations. That is likely to prevent the satellite uplink operations.
If the 6 GHz band were to be used for low power indoor and/or very low portable Wi-Fi services, what would be the impact on existing satellite services?
The 6 GHz band has been studied by several spectrum regulators and spectrum bodies for introduction of low power/indoor Wi-Fi and many regulators are in the process of finalising their national rules. We expect that power limits to protect satellites can be established that are compatible with low power/indoor Wi-Fi. In some countries, the power limits adopted are higher than the satellite industry has requested, and we will be watching closely to see how Wi-Fi develops and whether there will be any impact on our satellites.
Ahead of WRC-23, the ITU-R will study IMT coexistence with incumbent services in the upper 6 GHz band. Would it be worthwhile to conduct similar studies to determine whether WAS/RLAN/Wi-Fi could coexist with the incumbent services?
Some studies have already been done and some countries have already adopted national regulations for Wi-Fi in the upper 6 GHz band. We know that many other countries are starting to think about Wi-Fi in the upper 6 GHz band, and we are keen to work with the Wi-Fi community and regulators to establish mutually acceptable rules.
What advice would you give to regulators considering the future of the 6 GHz band?
Many regulators are placing a high priority on spectrum sharing, to maximise efficient use of spectrum. Wi-Fi looks like a good sharing partner with fixed satellite services (FSS) in the 6 GHz band and probably the future of that band lies in shared use between Wi-Fi and FSS.
How do you see satellite broadband services evolving over the coming decade?
Huge investments are currently going into new LEO (low earth orbit) broadband systems, some of them with thousands of LEO satellites being deployed. These systems are enhancing the overall portfolio of capabilities of the satellite sector. Together with very high throughput satellites (VHTS) – the first of which will be launched in Europe in 2022, and other HTS and MEO systems - the capacity available from satellites will be huge and the price per bit will fall. New satellite systems will likely use the higher frequency bands to a greater extent, which will also enable satellite capacity to advance.
Can satellites make a major contribution to reducing the digital divide?
Undoubtedly, but it requires a change in the mindset of policymakers away from a one-size-fits-all approach - often characterised by artificial speed and latency requirements associated with the false assumption that everyone needs and will eventually get 5G - to a holistic approach that focuses on the real needs of users and pushes for cost-effective solutions that can be implemented in short periods of time. The digital divide will not be eliminated without satellite connectivity.
The cost of satellite connectivity is falling thanks to multiple new systems being launched and demand increasing, which helps drive scale. Competition is another factor that affects cost: countries that have adopted liberal “open skies” policies, benefit from strong competition and this drives more affordable services for users. Moreover, countries that apply blanket licensing for satellite systems and appropriate administrative fees rather than levying fees per installation and seeing satellite operators as a source of revenue benefit the most from affordable satellite services. Regulators also need to make sure that sufficient satellite spectrum is available.
Aarti Holla-Maini has been Secretary General of the ESOA since 2004. She is a Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technology, Global 5G Coalition Network and Essential Digital Infrastructure & Services Network.
Under Aarti’s leadership, ESOA & its member CEOs lead the effort to showcase the benefits of satellite communications for a more inclusive and secure society – vital to bridging the world’s digital divide, achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and realizing the 5G ecosystem.
Since joining the association, Aarti has lead the expansion of ESOA from a European association to one that represents the interests of 20 global and regional satellite operators. She reports directly to their Chief Executives.
Aarti has 22 years’ experience in the aerospace industry, starting at Daimler-Benz Aerospace/EADS (now Airbus) in Germany. In 2000, she moved to Brussels, representing Airbus interests in the European satellite navigation program: Galileo.
Aarti holds a Masters of Business Administration from HEC, France & Stern Business School, NYC, USA. She qualified as Solicitor of the Supreme Court in the UK in 1995, holding a 2:1 graded LLB Hons Law with German Law degree from King’s College, University of London & the University of Passau, Germany. Aarti is of British-Indian origin and holds British and Belgian nationalities. She lives in Brussels, has 3 children and speaks 5 languages