Thuraya 4
The Thuraya 4 satellite is being built by Airbus, and will launch into orbit some time in 2024. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai: By now, putting a satellite together for the UAE’s Thuraya should be as easy as picking something off the shelf.

But Adnan Al Muhairi, Deputy Chief Technical Officer at Mubadala’s Yahsat, Thuraya’s parent company, says it’s not even remotely like that. Over the next few years, Thuraya has to work with a network of distributors and suppliers to put the parts of its next-generation satellite together.

“The satellite payload is manufactured in Portsmouth, UK,” he said. “Then we have the satellite avionics manufactured in Toulouse, France, and we have many other components such as the satellite reflector, which is manufactured in Florida.

“All these separate manufacturers then deliver their products to Toulouse where the entire satellite is integrated.”

Toulouse figures on the route because Thuraya commissioned Airbus to build it. Once that’s done, the satellite is shipped off to the launch site from where it is shot into space with the aid of a launch vehicle. “At the moment, we haven't selected one yet - that will happen in the coming months,” said Al Muhairi.

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New handsets

Thuraya is working on designs for its next generation of handsets and charting out a plan for the launch. “We see that our existing handsets’ demand is very healthy,” said Al Muhairi.

The company has satellite phones priced between Dh1,500 to Dh3,000. High prices and slow internet speeds have prevented consumers from making the shift to satellite phones in the past – but that may be about to change now.

“There's always going to be somewhat of a gap between satellite phones and cellular phones,” the official added. “However, with the next-generation system, we will have the ability to narrow that gap and these (have) higher data rates, easier to use applications and bring the cost down as well.”

A 5G booster

UAE plans to have 5G coverage in all its inhabited areas by 2025, and satellite networks will play a big role. During the deployment, satellites will be required for cellular backhaul, managing network congestions and reaching remote areas within the country where it is too expensive to set up conventional infrastructure from scratch.

Satellite technology’s true worth emerged during the COVID-19 lockdown when students and employees from remote areas were stuck at home. “They needed to attend schools, work, etc. and Yahsat went and met their connectivity needs in a period of days,” said Al Muhairi. “if you try to do that with ground infrastructure, you're talking months or years to be able to make it happen.”

Constant engagement

Thuraya offers communications solutions to organisations in energy, government services, broadcast media, maritime, military, aerospace and humanitarian work.

“Our business team is constantly engaged with customers - we have regular meetings, both at the service provider level, and with major customers,” said Al Muhairi. “We basically set up a marathon of meetings with as many customers as we could get to specifically understand their needs for the future… and on which we built our system requirements”