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Orange Exec Details Plans for SES O3b in Africa, Says Telcos Are Hungry for More Satellite Bandwidth 

By Mark Holmes | February 25, 2022

Jean-Luc Vuillemin, Orange

Global connectivity provider Orange has been a valuable customer for satellite operators as it builds its seamless mobile network in various regions around the world. Recently, Orange and its Senegalese telecoms subsidiary Sonatel announced plans to deploy the first SES O3b mPOWER gateway in Africa.

Just prior to making this announcement, Via Satellite interviewed Jean-Luc Vuillemin, Orange’s executive vice president of International Networks, and discussed the telco’s plans to leverage O3b and future satellite services. Vuillemin also identifies new satellite technologies and constellations that Orange believes could help the company better serve new markets.

VIA SATELLITE: Given the current global situation and more dispersed workforce and communities,  from an operator perspective, how do you see the demand for satellite-based cellular backhaul?

Vuillemin: The demand for satellite based cellular backhaul is indeed growing, but I think that what you’re describing is more accurate in the U.S. than in the markets we serve. Europe especially has extremely good fiber coverage, allowing us to cope with this more dispersed workforce. But we are expanding the mobile network even faster than the fiber network, so in some African regions, or in French overseas territories for instance, we’re actively deploying satellite based cellular backhaul.

VIA SATELLITE: In the satellite industry, there is a lot of excitement around Non-Geostationary (NGSO) services. Does Orange share that same excitement?

Vuillemin: This momentum around NGSO both LEO [Low-Earth Orbit] and MEO [Medium-Earth Orbit] and what it can bring to more traditional satellite capacity is very exciting. Clearly, we’re very interested in this because it opens up a whole new set of use cases; of course, new use cases linked to lower latency, but we could also benefit from the use of hybrid capacity, to combine on the same antenna, for the same customer, both LEO/GEO satellites, for example.

The more options we have for our network, the better, and satellite is increasingly becoming a really good complement to the rest of our network, especially in Africa. This is based on the location, the use case, or the density of users to help us define if satellite makes sense, or if a terrestrial fiber, for instance, is more suitable.

And even between GEO [Geostationary Orbit] and NGSO we won’t choose just one option for all needs. They are options that will probably coexist for a significant time, and based on the use case we’ll go for either GEO, MEO, LEO, or a combination of them.

VIA SATELLITE:  Has Orange’s attitude changed toward satellite? Do you expect to see Orange work more with satellite tech in future years?

Vuillemin: Yes, we definitely see something happening, in the perception of our customers, and even internally within Orange. Of course, satellite is a must to serve certain areas, but it’s traditionally seen as an expensive, last resort solution, with low flexibility and very limited capacity. These characteristics are changing, and the perception is gradually evolving. We need from the industry the right level of price, flexibility, and standardization and there’s currently a traction on all three aspects. I’m convinced that satellite will play an increasing role in our network to bring ever growing connectivity everywhere, especially in Africa.

VIA SATELLITE: We have seen AT&T work with OneWeb and TIM work with Eutelsat. Are we seeing a change here overall in how telecoms do business with satellite operators?

Vuillemin: You’ve mentioned TIM and Eutelsat. We have actually already signed a strict equivalent deal with Eutelsat for the exclusive use in mainland France of their future Konnect VHTS satellite. We are of course actively working with constellations as well.

Europe and Africa don’t have exactly the same potential than the US for satellite residential broadband, but we do see traction. With new capacity and lower costs, we have seen in France for instance the trend in satellite residential broadband shifting recently to a much more significant growth.

As you know Orange is active on numerous markets, both B2C and B2B, and we also see for instance a significant growth on maritime satellite. We are actually reshuffling our maritime network to cope with this growth, taking advantage of both our assets and cooperation with constellations like SES’ O3B mPower.

VIA SATELLITE: During the COVID pandemic, we have seen the importance of connectivity in areas like remote healthcare, remote education. Is it even more important to connect people in remote areas as a result?

Vuillemin: Yes, of course. And what we’ve also seen especially is a change in traffic pattern. This shows us the need for more flexibility. It could really be a huge benefit of new flexible satellites compared to the traditional satellite industry which used to be very static (one beam, one area). When we’re talking about more diverse, or displaced workforce, the need for capacity can move quickly from one area to somewhere else. This goes back and forth with each new COVID wave, each new home work constraint or return to office. This flexibility is key.

VIA SATELLITE: As satellite services evolve, do you see LEO constellations challenging or complementing future terrestrial networks?

Vuillemin: It will be an excellent complement. We don’t expect the LEO/GEO constellations to replace traditional telcos, but we’re confident that we can join forces. Ultimately, we welcome all opportunities to provide more coverage to populations and in many cases, our willingness to partner is essential and beneficial to both parties because this will allow us to mutually develop new and interesting value propositions for customers.

VIA SATELLITE: What do you see as your key network challenges to reduce digital divides in the markets where you operate?

Vuillemin: Naturally, maintaining efficient cost control is key and we can see that there are specific situations where subsidized connectivity will be essential if we want to try and provide connectivity to as many people as possible. For example, ultra-rural areas in Africa, or challenging or mountainous areas in Europe pose problems for all players. In Europe, we believe that authorities have recognized this and initiatives such as the European Digital Gateway could be a positive, joint solution that will enable us to solve such problematic areas together.

The other issue also goes beyond connectivity because the quality of service, especially the continuity of service, is as important as connectivity itself. If we can use satellite networks alongside our own networks to offer greater continuity of service, this again is a positive step forward for our customers.

VIA SATELLITE: How do you see the 5G ecosystem developing over the 2020s? How will you be successful in bringing cutting edge services to residential, as well as business customers?

Vuillemin: Our vision is that in order to develop the 5G ecosystem and finally to bring cutting edge services to customers, we need to act on three complementary levels. The first one is to stimulate the creation of a complete and interoperable value chain such as extended reality to make future 5G products, both consumer and B2B, a reality. The second one is to work closely with startups, SMEs, large businesses from every sector of activity to test and develop innovative use cases relevant to their operations and business strategies. This is why we have launched a network of nine Orange 5G Lab in France, Romania and Belgium in 2021 that will be extended in 2022. Finally, working with the ecosystem also enables us to build a portfolio of offerings and services to serve all of our customers, and identify players that can provide complementary resources and solutions, e.g. edge computing or AI.