Linking Connectivity with Space

Having been chosen as a ground station by the European Space Agency, Greece has space at the heart of its digital transformation strategy says Christina Giannopapa, Advisor to the Secretary General of Telecommunications and Post, Hellenic Ministry of Digital Governance, seconded from the European Space Agency.

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GIG: The Hellenic General Secretariat for Telecommunications and Post has developed and is executing an action plan for the development of 5G networks.  What kind of capabilities will this 5G rollout provide for both businesses and state players operating out of Greece?

Giannopapa: In December 2020, Greece auctioned its 5G mobile frequencies aiming for 5G networks to reach at least 60% of the population by 2023 and 94% by 2026. Greece has been one of the first countries in the European Union to do reframing and auctioning of its 5G licences. Rollouts are underway as we speak.

The General Secretariat of Telecommunications and Post commissioned a study by Ernst & Young regarding the opportunities of 5G, which showed how much 5G can be a catalyst and multiplier for the digital transformation of the country. It provides socioeconomic benefits, boosting competitiveness and improving the life of citizens. 5G can provide services in a number of sectors like mobility, maritime, tourism, health, smart cities, banking, energy, among others.

Additionally, the European Commission is aiming at launching 5G services across the EU to ensure uninterrupted coverage in urban areas and along its main transport paths by 2025.

GIG: In your capacity as an ESA official, can you tell us about plans for 6G in Europe, and how ESA picked Greece for its Fibre in the Sky, and the Aristarchos and other telescopes? What are the advantages for Europe derived from this programme?

Giannopapa: The European Union and the European Space Agency (ESA), in turn, are looking beyond 5G. Commissioner Breton in his speech on 15 July 2020 said “Of course, we already need to look beyond 5G. I am talking about starting to prepare for 6G of course, but not only. The next paradigm shift is about linking connectivity with space to provide high-speed connectivity everywhere in Europe.”

Already, a number of initiatives have started at the EU level, such as the European Union Quantum Communications Infrastructure (EuroQCI). Europe is looking to remove the so-called ‘dead zones’ in Europe and provide connectivity everywhere, as well as to integrate quantum encryption to ensure governmental and industry-critical secure communications. Additionally, on 22 February the EU announced a new flagship project expected to be a game changer: the EU space-based global secure communications system that aims to provide access to high-speed connectivity through multi-orbit space infrastructure.

The European Space Agency has already engaged in a number of activities, like the Scylight (SeCure and Laser communication Technology) and within it a programme called “High ThRoughput Optical Network” – the so-called “Fibre in the Sky.” This programme aims to integrate space and terrestrial architectures based on optical space communications technology and optical data relay services. Europe has already successfully utilised EDRS in its Earth observation system Copernicus providing high data rate optical space terminals. In general, optical communications are a major revolution in satellite communications as they bring unprecedented high levels of transmission rates, data security, and resilience. These technologies will be utilised in the EuroQCI and connectivity systems under planning by the EU.

The European Space Agency has chosen Greece’s Aristarchos telescope as an optical ground station for the Scylight programme “Fibre in the Sky.” It is also the first optical ground station for the EU programme EuroQCI.

“Aristarchos,” the largest telescope of Southeastern Europe, is one of the largest national research developments of the last decades in Greece. ESA has selected two more telescopes that will also be prepared to be included in Scylight and EuroQCI: these are Holomondas close to Thessaloniki and Skinakas in Crete. These will bring Greece to the heart of the next generation of satellite communications and related infrastructures.

GIG: How do ESA’s satellites in general boost different economic sectors in the EU and especially in Greece? How do businesses and state players benefit and how will they benefit in the future from capabilities provided through programmes such as Copernicus and Galileo?

Giannopapa: Today, in the new era of space we are entering the so called “new space” or Space 4.0; we see the era of commercialisation, where space is no longer a governed business for a few space-faring nations with dedicated technologies. Instead, through Industry, 4.0 is bringing in new technologies like the Internet of Things (IOT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G, Big Data, 3D printing, new materials and manufacturing techniques.

Entrepreneurs and even small companies, starting from the garage of their home, are starting to enter the space business providing new and innovative services. These synergies between the space and non-space sectors are key. Space is used as a tool combined with air and ground sensors to provide what is called “Big Data” and these, after processing, can provide information that can be used commercially in a number of sectors – like in maritime with the new expected automation and logistics, agriculture with precision farming, and more.

Today, the European Union has two main space flagship projects: Galileo and Copernicus. Galileo is the flagship programme of Europe’s navigation system, fulfilling the need for European autonomy, safety, and security and at the same time allowing the use of space for socioeconomic development to be a part of citizens’ everyday lives.

Navigation, positioning, and timing through satellites is today an integral part of our lives. Every time we withdraw money from the bank a time stamp is provided through a satellite. The aviation and maritime sectors are constantly using it among other sectors.

Europe also has Copernicus, a system composed of earth observation satellites, the so-called Sentinels. They combine with air and ground sensors to provide a number of services, including those related to disaster management, land and marine monitoring, as well as tracking of climate change.

In 2014, during the ESA’s visit to the Hellenic Parliament, we offered to set up in Greece the first Copernicus mirror site in Europe, hosted by the National Observatory of Athens.

Today, this centre covers the entire Mediterranean, Europe, Middle East, North Africa, Balkans, and Black Sea, in support of the operational activities of Greek, European and international users and organisations. It is empowered by GRNET to ensure big data archiving, retrieval, and networking resources, hosted on distributed cloud facilities.

Another programme currently under development in Europe is GOVSATCOM – Governmental Satellite Communication. This programme will allow for provision of defence, security, humanitarian aid, emergency response, and diplomatic communications. Greece is one of the very few countries in Europe that have their own operational system installed in ministries, parliament, embassies and emergency service centres.

Space is no longer only about looking out to the planets and the universe with scientific intent but, rather, it is about looking down on earth for the socioeconomic prosperity of citizens.

Aristarchos telescope. Copyright: Helmos Observatory

GIG: Can you tell us about the new ESA business incubator in Greece?

Giannopapa: ESA Business Incubation Centres (ESA BICs) are the largest network of space incubators in Europe. The ESA BICs started to be set up by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2003 to support entrepreneurs with a space-based business idea, thereby creating commercial start-up companies and growing clusters of space-related start-ups across Europe. ESA BICs seek entrepreneurs with innovative ideas on using space technologies or developing applications to create new products and services in a non-space environment. Born to support Europe’s space programmes, several technological innovations have turned out to be key to successful solutions for terrestrial markets.

The transfers from Space to Earth enhance the know-how and competitiveness of Europe by creating new start-up companies and lead to new jobs and growth.

Greek companies have already been active through cooperation with ESA for several years and the creation of an ESA BIC in Greece is another key element in the future development of the Greek space industry.

ESA BIC in Greece will be implemented by Corallia, a unit of the Research Centre Athena.

The objective of ESA BIC Greece is to create and strengthen the community of successful space-related start-ups in Greece by supporting 25 incubatees over the period of five years under the ESA BIC scheme. The incubated start-ups should either utilise space technology in non-space markets (spin-off) or become suppliers to the space sector (spin-in). ESA BIC Greece will provide support to the start-ups, such that they can develop their business and their technology until they are ready to leave the incubation phase and continue operating and growing without support from the incubator. ESA BIC Greece is not only essential in supporting entrepreneurs and start-ups from the development of a business idea to full commercialisation, but will also underpin the creation, growth, and strengthening of the space cluster in Greece, will contribute to the country’s innovation and space strategies, will encourage further uptake of space-based services, and support the transfer of technologies from/to the space sector, which will lead to the creation of jobs and economic growth.

GIG: How is Greece’s space programme coming along?

Giannopapa: Greece is often considered a newcomer in space activities; however, this is not the case. Greece is a founding member of the International Telecommunications Union, the leading UN organisation for ICT and related satellite matters since 1965. As of May 2003, the country also belongs to the space-faring nations group, when the first Greek Telecommunication Satellite, HELLAS SAT II, was launched. In June 2017, HELLAS SAT III was launched to replace the aging HELLAS SAT II and in February 2019 HELLAS SAT IV was launched.

Since 2019, Greece has had an operational Governmental Satellite Communications system “GreeCom” connecting ministries, Parliament, embassies and more. In 2017, Greece also introduced a space law that brought all civilian competencies under the Ministry of Digital Governance and, in particular, under the General Secretariat of Telecommunications and Post. Within that, there is a newly-established directorate for “wireless, 5G and space” bringing together space and terrestrial planning under the same roof.

Thus, by putting in place the appropriate governance in the public sector this allows for the boosting of the high-tech sector in the country and further elevates the market, growing innovation. Additionally, in October 2020 a law was passed that provides the objectives of Greece in space engagement as: a) To strengthen national security and defence, especially with the utilisation and development of space infrastructure; b) The development of the Greek space industry; c) Utilisation of space data and the development of relevant applications; and d) The support of space research and innovation.

In December 2020, the Ministry of Digital Governance published the Digital Transformation Bible 2020-2025, which provides the government’s strategy going forward. Space is at the heart of digital transformation.

It builds step by step on the current capacity and capability of the country and foresees engagement into the next generation of connectivity through ESA and European Initiatives.

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