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Ground Segment Execs Say COVID Was a Customer Service Wake-Up Call

By | July 22, 2021

Ground segment players all believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has made them more customer- and service-focused, rather than just focused on selling hardware, according to executives from Comtech EF Data, Gilat Satellite Networks and Kymeta who spoke at the Asia Tech X conference last week.

Toni Lee Rudnicki, senior vice president of marketing at Comtech EF Data said he believes the big difference that COVID has made on the part of ground players is a change in mentality. “We need to change how we think, and how we represent the industry,” she said. “One of the interesting things I have seen since being part of the satellite industry, is that it has gone from being very hardware centric, to a more software defined approach. COVID has made people very comfortable with this digital type of environment.”

Rudnicki adds that customer expectations are increasing and that the nature of the conversation she is having with them its customers. “In the hardware world, we never used to think of the customer service,” she said. “Who would ever have thought we would talk about ground segment as a service? Instead of saying we have a wonderful modem, we talk about the benefits. We need to talk about it as a benefit and a solution. It definitely changes the way we talk about what we do. Expectations have gone up. Before COVID, I don’t think we would be talking about ground segment as a service so much. It is changing our business model dramatically. There is a greater expectation on the part of the customer. It has become much more important.”

Gilat Satellite Networks’ Head of Products Gil Elizov admitted the satellite market is seeing huge changes, but says the change is not just being caused by developments in LEO and MEO, but also in GEO, from which a lot more capacity is supplied.

He pointed to markets like IFC which while going through a difficult time because of the impacts of COVID. “We think there are good years ahead (in markets like IFC), but they will be challenging years ahead also,” said Elizov. “There is a lot of new capacity and applications coming to market. We are moving more into software defined networks. These are just on the horizon of coming into this market. We are seeing things like beam forming. We need to be able to change systems dynamically and rapidly, as the networks change their needs and applications. We are seeing a change in this area. The software defined era brings about a greater flexibility.”

Like Rudnicki, Elizov pointed to the fact that customer expectations are changing here, and the days of Gilat being ‘just’ a hardware provider are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. “Over the years, we saw ourselves as partners, but now it is definitely becoming more of a reality,” he said. “Satellite operators are looking for more than you just bringing the hardware, the hub etc. They are looking for more of a partnership approach. Today, it becomes much more critical. They now have much more expectations in this regard. Most of our customers are now saying ‘don’t bring me just the hardware’. They need more than that.”

Kymeta’s Vice President of Sales for the Asia Pacific region David Geiling said that satellite coverage is becoming truly ubiquitous with the rollout of the non-GEO constellations. He believes the industry is making huge strides in terms of lower latency and greater coverage and that this is making a huge impact on how the industry addresses the need for big data, and big data on the move. “We could not have considered this a short time ago. We can look at mobility platforms as big data sources,” he adds.

Geiling also believes there are some questions facing the ground systems industry in regards to standardization and achieving scale. “We think you need a flat panel antenna capable of good performance, easy to install and operate, small and lightweight, and cost-effective,” he said. “Even if we make a wonderful technology, we need to look at systems not being siloed. We need industry standards for our technology to scale. I think what we are seeing with the 3GPP releases, is the evolution of satellite being integrated into that. I think the network of the future is an integrated satellite and terrestrial network.”

Geiling agrees with his peers that customer demands on ground systems providers are clearly changing. In response, Kymeta said it is partnering with companies that are outside of the traditional satellite industry sphere. “Our partnership eco-system has got bigger and different,” he said.

Elizov also agreed that partnerships outside of the normal comfort zone play a critical part in the ground systems business.

“The demands on the telco side are becoming different. They are looking at how they can reduce the digital divide. You need to look at it from a business perspective. We can talk to them about expanding their network and reaching their obligations. We just have to get smarter in how we talk about it.” said Elizov. “The telcos are learning that satellite is a friend, and not an enemy. In many cases, it is the first solution. It is much easier to talk to telcos.”

Rudnicki and Elizov are looking at how cloud and virtualization have become much more important as a required offering to customers. They said that once customers are on the cloud, they demand and expect flexibility.

“There is an evolution taking place,” Elizov said. “People want to know about what the solution is now. People are talking about solutions, services, and not just about hardware and bits and bytes. There is a different way of talking. There is an evolution of the NGSO market. Satellite operators are becoming network operators. They are now operating a service. It is a welcome evolution, and it was a needed one.”