SES fetes launch of 4 MEO satellites, bridge for 5G

O3b launch
The launch of the four satellites from Kourou, French Guiana, expands the MEO constellation to 20. (SES)

SES Networks witnessed a significant milestone in its "other 3 billion" journey when four medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites from the company's O3b Networks unit were launched by Arianespace at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on Thursday.

The satellites bring the number of O3b satellites to 20 and mark a transition to SES’ next-generation MEO system, one that promises to have implications for 5G.  

The launch of the four satellites expands SES' MEO constellation to 20, providing a bridge to the next significant launch of O3b mPOWER, which will consist of seven satellites. It goes a long way toward improving SES’ ability to provide service to what it calls the fixed data crowd, which includes telcos, cloud, government, maritime and energy markets.

“This is just one way to add more available capacity,” in geographies where it was limited before due to maxing out the capacity of its existing fleet, said Eric Watko, EVP, Product, Marketing and Strategy at SES.

The newfound capacity won’t be available overnight. According Watko, it will take a few months to get everything in place. Adding four new satellites requires moving not only the four new satellites into position but also moving the other existing 16 satellites in concert so that they’re equal distance apart from each other.

“There’s a little bit of maneuvering and orchestration that will take several weeks ... because as we move those other 16, we can’t drop service to the existing customers” that are using those satellites, he told FierceWirelessTech.

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Typically, SES doesn’t do MEO-based backhaul for U.S.-based mobile network operators; its geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) satellites offer enough coverage over the U.S. to provide the required backhaul needs. But, SES is learning from U.S. operators to prepare for mPOWER, which is coming in 2021.

“Where we really feel we can help the U.S.-based MNOs is with 5G rollouts,” Watko said.

With the pure densification of 5G networks, the mPOWER fleet will make a difference. “The 5G operator will really drive the needs and demands for backhaul as a whole and that’s where we see O3b mPOWER being that next leap for them.”

“O3b” historically has referred to the “other 3 billion” people who are un-connected or under-connected in the world, although some speculate the size of the market has grown to something more like 4 billion since that term was coined.

According to SES, what it plans to do with the O3b mPOWER constellation will exponentially upscale the MEO constellation to deliver unprecedented flexibility and cloud-scale performance—to the tune of terabits from the sky.

5G comes into focus

SES has seen a total of about 70 use cases that 5G enables for service providers, and out of those, SES is focused on backhaul, aggregation, mobility and what it calls a hybrid multi-play, which involves distribution to the home/user and content.

As SES launches these new Ka-band satellites, it’s also looking to increase its business with mobile operators that are deploying 5G. SES is one of the members of the C-Band Alliance (CBA), which is lobbying for a plan that would see the CBA members give up some C-Band spectrum for 5G. Mobile operators have said the 200 MHz they're offering isn't enough, and many stakeholders have opposed the plan, preferring the FCC conduct an incentive auction.  

More details emerged this week as the affected satellite companies filed details (PDF) with the FCC showing how they propose to protect satellite service quality and reliability for their customers in the 300 MHz of spectrum that they want to keep.

There’s plenty of pressure to get things sorted out in the C-Band. Top executives from Intelsat and SES, as well as the new head of Advocacy and Government Relations for the CBA, recently met (PDF) with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to discuss their proposal.

In remarks before the Wireless Connect 2019 audience at the University of Maryland on Thursday, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the commission needs to come to a resolution and adopt an order in the coming months for the C-Band to ensure that it keeps pace with the global community in the mid bands. “Under no circumstances can the Commission adopt a process that takes five or more years to get this spectrum into the marketplace,” he said, according to prepared remarks.