Navigating The Digital Frontier: Balancing Innovation With Legacy Equipment Integration

May 28, 2024

With the digital landscape rapidly evolving, organizations are coming face to face with the challenges of integrating legacy systems and equipment with modern technology. Across various sectors, including satellite communications, telecommunications, broadcasting, aerospace, defense, healthcare, automotive, and IoT, there is a gap that needs bridging to connect the old world with the new.

As a key supplier to the satellite industry, we’ve seen first-hand how much the space segment, comprising satellites, their payloads and associated infrastructure, has developed. The ground segment is also now quickly evolving with new innovations to meet growing demand. However, as the number of IoT-enabled devices is expected to exceed 75 billion as soon as 2025, there is going to be enormous pressure on the network and its bandwidth. 

In its current form, the ground segment doesn’t have the capacity to meet this demand and even with the convergence of Radio Standards such as V/HTS multi-orbit satellites, Wi-Fi, fiber, 4G and 5G, we’re not yet at the stage where we have the infrastructure to support all the IoT devices forecast to be in operation over the coming years. 

Legacy Equipment and its Challenges

However, as technology advances, new standards, protocols, and communication methods emerge, making it increasingly difficult for older equipment to communicate effectively with modern systems. This can lead to interoperability issues, data loss, security vulnerabilities, and decreased efficiency. What’s more, legacy equipment can often lack support from manufacturers and vendors, making it difficult to obtain spare parts, updates, or technical assistance when issues arise. Eventually, this can lead to increased maintenance costs, longer downtimes, and ultimately, reduced productivity for the organization.

Nobody wants to think that the equipment they’ve recently invested in is now legacy. It’s usually a byword for obsolete – a costly investment that’s no longer fit for purpose in the modern world. Digital innovation is now moving at such a pace that organizations need to be confident that both the hardware and software they invest in will continue to be effective, and meet industry standards both now and in the future. 

For example, Modems are a case in point. Most high-quality modems are replaced because they become outdated, not because they have broken down. This means that investments that were made less than five years ago are already requiring upgrades to meet changing industry standards because they use analog Radio Frequency (RF) technology. Organizations relying on legacy modems may face challenges in maintaining reliable and high-speed internet connections, especially as internet service providers (ISPs) upgrade their infrastructure and transition to newer technologies.

Ultimately, organizations need to be able to justify the cost of digitizing the signal, the server farms and all the other associated infrastructure but fortunately, change of this scale doesn’t have to happen at once. It’s about adapting existing infrastructure for use in the digital world, in a way that minimizes risk and maximizes returns. 

Digital Infrastructure and Solutions

To address the challenge of connecting the old world with the new, organizations may need to slowly invest in upgrading or replacing certain equipment to align with the current industry standards and technological advancements. This can include migrating data and applications to newer systems, implementing compatibility layers or gateways to bridge communication gaps, or adopting hybrid solutions that combine legacy and modern technology where feasible.

The dilemma of transitioning from analog to digital in the realm of satellite communications and the risk of obsolescence does offer a glimpse of hope with the introduction of our Genus Digital 5000. This solution is designed to bridge the gap between analog and digital technologies, by employing Digital Intermediate Format (DIF), also referred to as RF over IP in Europe or Digital IF In the USA, which seamlessly translates signals, enabling operators to leverage existing infrastructure effectively.

RF over IP promises to usher in a new era of flexibility, security, resilience and redundancy across a host of sectors, including defense and environmental monitoring, broadcast and telecoms, to maritime and energy (oil and gas). Like digital technology in general, RF over IP removes limitations around speed, efficiency, scalability, security and productivity in satellite communications. Similar to the switchover from analog to digital in broadcast and, at the end of 2025, landlines, it enhances performance and reduces costs for business customers, governments and end-users. 

Additionally, Digital IF supports the shift towards ground segment as a service (GSaaS), which will allow more organizations to access flexible and standardized infrastructure on an as-needed basis, and improve their data management capabilities. It removes high CAPEX costs, reducing the barriers to entry by making it a more manageable OPEX cost through the enablement of virtualization of previously hardware items such as modems, and supporting instrumentation. 

A digital signal makes it possible to physically decouple antennas from modems – which is a huge advantage from a defense and security perspective. Digital modems, running on standardized compute platforms, also offer significant cost savings over their hardware-based counterparts. They can easily be upgraded to the latest waveforms and can be used extensively, as demand for bandwidth changes. This turns modem CAPEX into OPEX. With signals now in the digital domain, it becomes easier to monitor from anywhere in the network using virtual instrumentation. 

However, as mentioned, the transition to a fully virtualized environment will be gradual, with some customers more advanced in their understanding of digital infrastructure's benefits than others. We anticipate early adopters exploring the possibilities, while others continue to rely on RF until digital infrastructure becomes more established.

Coexisting Harmoniously

While the industry trends toward virtualization, the need for RF still persists. Maintaining solid RF performance alongside the adoption of Digital IF is crucial to ensure optimal system performance and reliability. It’s important to note that investment and innovation in analog technologies still continue apace. However, the direction of travel is clear and, in the future, analog and digital will need to work seamlessly together. 

Before moving to RF over IP, organizations will first need to evaluate all existing infrastructure and identify areas for investment and improvement. Using ETL’s modular approach, analog equipment such as Matrices, RF over fiber, and frequency converters can all be integrated with the latest Digital IF devices with the ETL Genus infrastructure. As long as they meet the DIFI interoperability standard, Digital IF is compatible with virtual modems. For legacy analog modems, the ETL Genus Digital 5000 series includes a conversion device to enable these to interoperate with the DIFI standard. It is worth noting that Digital RF will require up to a 100GBE speed and access to a dedicated IP network is required for any digital links.

Using a more hybrid approach eases customer’s transition into the digital world. What’s important is that we don’t lose sight of the benefits of RF, and treat Digital IF in isolation. In fact, for it to work properly, we need solid RF performance in the ground segment. The modularity of our own systems means that this ecosystem can evolve at the right pace to deliver value.

Our expertise in both RF and the digital domain positions us to provide customers with versatile ground systems that can adapt as the industry evolves. We see the digitization of RF signals as a promising area for government customers and have a deep understanding of their development roadmaps and we are aligning our equipment, developments, and engagement approaches to meet their specific needs.

At ETL Systems, our primary aim is to provide our customers with agile and flexible systems to meet their evolving needs. Our focus is on evolving our systems to offer a range of options, whether it's traditional RF, purely digital, or a hybrid approach, to cater to the diverse RF equipment landscape that exists today.

Overall, the advantages of digital signals, coupled with the importance of maintaining solid RF performance, pave the way for a future where analog and digital technologies can coexist harmoniously. By embracing hybrid approaches, promoting interoperability, and fostering continued innovation, organizations can leverage the strengths of both analog and digital domains to create robust and versatile communication systems that meet the evolving needs of the digital age.

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ETL Systems

Country: United Kingdom
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