HTS: Good Reason to Get Amped!
It comes with its share of challenges, but High-Throughput Satellites (HTS) will also bring about great innovation in the amplifier market and beyond. HTS have caused increased collaboration between vendor and customers and it will elevate the industry to a more competitive level to the benefit of all, insiders say.
With Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites, there is increasing demand for greater operating linear power in higher frequency ranges. While this trend in Ka-band has been evident for several years, the same requirements are now beginning to be seen in Q- and V-bands. Higher power, in addition to its counter effects on rain fade, gives users the ability to transmit more carriers and, therefore, generate a larger revenue stream. For Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations, the requirements for operational power are understandably lower. But manufacturers nevertheless need to provide smaller and lighter amplifier packages that can be integrated into smaller terminals for fixed and mobile applications.
In short, higher data rates, higher modulation schemes, higher peak-to-average power ratio and higher linearity are defining new amplifier architectures and designs. And, as an increasing amount of High-Throughput Satellites (HTS) come online, the environment for amplifier vendors will further change. HTS systems, in both Ka- and Ku-bands, can deliver more than 10 times the throughput of traditional fixed-satellite service. However, they require significantly more gateways as the spot beams cover much smaller footprints. HTS networks, with their huge capacities, can support a larger number of commercial, consumer and government end users, all requiring ground terminals for data-intensive applications, such as HD video transmission. Put all together, this translates to a significant increase in demand for HTS amplifiers.
These changes should be warmly welcomed, and not just by amplifier vendors, explains Cristi Damian, vice president of business development at Advantech Wireless. Noting a significant impact on teleports, Damian sees today’s data-centric environment ushering in a robust period of innovation and introducing a more competitive level to the benefit of all. This, he says, will be on the back of HTS.
I believe HTS will bring many challenges but at the same time it will raise the satcom industry to not only a better technological level, but a much more competitive one in the telecom market as a whole.
— Cristi Damian, Advantech Wireless.
“Considering all the beam-switching schemes required by Direct-to-Home (DTH), new teleport locations oriented on new markets, as well as spot beams, there will be considerable pressure on older teleports to stay competitive. It is foreseeable that teleports owned by satellite operators will have the upper hand while becoming stronger. I believe this will cause a major race to upgrade existing teleports. This market pressure will be a good ground for developing new technologies and fostering innovation,” says Damian. “I believe HTS will bring many challenges but, at the same time, it will raise the satcom industry to not only a better technological level, but a much more competitive one in the telecom market as a whole.”
The outcome of Advantech Wireless’ HTS-fuelled innovation is seen in the modem and hub baseband products. The company developed the concept for a 500 Msymbol/s modulator to be able to fill an entire 500MHz transponder with a single carrier. This is advantageous as it doesn’t require any back-off and allows much higher throughputs to be supported per transponder.
While being early adopters of the wideband transponder concept being deployed for HTS, Advantech Wireless used the broadcast sector to prepare for the challenging HTS requirements. The thinking was that if the company could provide enough power to completely saturate a full DTH satellite with a single antenna and single Solid State Power Amplifier (SSPA) system, then it was on the right development path to later target the more demanding HTS applications. This was achieved in 2013, when all Ku-band transponders on the SES 6 satellite were saturated from a single antenna/SSPA system. Advantech Wireless has since converted its entire SSPA portfolio to the new Gallium Nitride (GaN) technology.
A Collaborative Approach
Echoing the trend in greater innovation, CPI too sees HTS breeding ingenuity, saying that HTS applications continue to drive the company to develop new products that serve the evolving needs of customers. According to Andy Tafler, president of CPI’s Satcom Division, these needs typically involve some combination of greater power, higher output frequency, less weight and more bandwidth. While the company would normally work on improving all these areas, HTS has provided specific points of focus that will ultimately be beneficial for other applications as well.
The best reaction to HTS, explains Tafler, is to take a more proactive, collaborative approach with customers and suppliers. To illustrate, Tafler points to the company’s developing and supplying Ka-band amplifiers to the market for more than 20 years. However, customers still need the envelope to be pushed regarding performance. By understanding customers’ needs and goals, CPI is able to develop and provide optimal solutions, regardless of the power source, he says.
CPI introduced its high efficiency SuperLinear Traveling Wave Tube amplifiers (TWTA) 10 years ago and it claims it is still one of the the most efficient amplifiers on the market today. The company has introduced a number of new technologies to keep an edge on the market.
“CPI recently introduced our proprietary LifeExtender and LifePredictor technology on a number of our TWTAs. These tools not only extend the TWT life by up to 50 percent, but they also allow users to remotely monitor the TWT over time. These new connected technologies allow customers to proactively manage and plan for High Power Amplifier (HPA) maintenance, help them to avoid emergencies and provide them with both peace of mind and monetary savings,” says Tafler.
CPI offers a full range of available amplifier technologies, including vacuum device and SSPA-based technologies. The company offers TWTAs, Klystron Power Amplifiers (KPAs) and both GaN and Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) SSPAs. As data-centric connectivity allows ever more stations to be controlled from a remote location, CPI’s amplifiers and high-power Block Upconverters (BUC) are designed with built-in monitoring and self-diagnostic tools that are accessible via LAN networks or over the Internet. Additionally, CPI’s products have intuitive Graphic User Interfaces (GUI) for manned-operator use.
HTS Business Models
New innovations such as HTS are difficult to implement; not only do they require upgraded or even entirely new technologies for compatibility, but they also lead to new business models. This has created the need for changes, most notably among satellite operators. Moving on from the traditional model, involving a hub colocation and selling Megahertz, there is now the vertically integrated HTS model whereby the satellite operator runs the entire value chain right to the end customer relationship. The demarcation point between satellite operators and service providers will redefine margins, investment, OPEX, customer service and service levels.
“Understanding the HTS business model is important as our terminal customers must work with the satellite operators to get on their networks,” explains Amiee Chan, president and CEO of Norsat. “For equipment manufacturers, we must continue to work with all levels of the operator value chain to ensure our products are meeting our customers’ certification and specification requirements. Norsat will continue to work with our customers to develop unique amplifier features such as selectable or custom frequencies in order to make our products compatible with current and future satellite’s networks.”
Norsat is focused on developing new products for numerous HTS networks, including Wideband Global Satcom (WGS), Global Xpress and O3b Networks. In the past two years, Norsat has revamped its entire BUC line-up and introduced more than 20 new products, including several new BUCs and amplifiers in Ka and Ku-bands to support its customers’ use of HTS networks.
Pointing to O3b Networks for reference, Chan says the company witnesses demand for HTS amplifiers rise every month. O3b Networks provides low latency services such as IP trunking and cellular backhaul over their MEO satellite network. As a certified O3b partner, Norsat has developed Low-Noise Block downconverters (LNB) and a 5, 10, 20 and 40 Watt BUC for O3b customers for both fixed and on-the-move applications.
“A significant challenge for any product company is ensuring you’re investing [Research and Development] R&D dollars in the right place at the right time. HTS is a huge opportunity for companies like Norsat, as long as you are quick to market but not ahead of the market. Our product management team is constantly interacting with our customers to ensure we are on track with market demands.
“The industry needs to listen to customers throughout the value chain and ensure that we build an ecosystem to support future demands. This applies to everything from new satellite technologies and launch vehicles, to ground infrastructure and networks. Innovation and R&D will only continue to bear fruit if we invest in the places where our customers see value,” adds Chan.
HTS Challenges and the Silver Lining
Of course, knowing where and when to invest in R&D is easier said than done and while HTS creates opportunities, it also comes with a new layer of uncertainty. This is because of new business models and the transitional phase when existing satellite users choose to switch to HTS, notes Heidi Thelander, director of business development at Comtech Xicom.
In preparation for HTS, Comtech Xicom rolled out new products including the launch several years ago of its 500W Ka-band TWTA. In addition to supporting HTS’ uplinking capacity with its new TWTA — a significant increase from its earlier 250 and 275W amps — the company has recently introduced its SuperPower products, which are Ku and DBS band, with the Ku-band supporting the new HTS Ku-band systems.
The roll-out has changed, says Thelander, explaining that ordinarily the business model saw satellite operators preleasing capacity before the satellite was placed in orbit. Now, though, HTS is taking a different approach, whereby the satellite is launched on the assumption that customers will fill the capacity. This new model is also supplementing frequency reuse with statistical multiplexing on users and offering varying data rates and service levels. When all these HTS systems go operational, the industry may face an excess supply of HTS bandwidth. While this capacity will be offered at an enticingly low cost per bit, many of the existing users will be set up according to the older business models with their existing terminals, modems and architectures.
“This pressure on existing satellite users to switch to HTS comes with questions: what is the timeline for this? In the meantime, what products should we make? What will see the most success? Where should we place our bets in terms of the best system to support? This period of transition really highlights the change in business mode, which, of course, creates so much uncertainty across the whole industry,” says Thelander.
This qualm is indeed real but the silver lining certainly helps ease the discomfort: HTS has caused a rise in demand for high power amplifiers but what will follow is another wave of demand for less powerful amplifiers too. In line with the new business model, HTS have to be launched and the gateways set up before any capacity is sold. Doing this means all the early amplifier purchases are high power gateway amplifiers. But what will happen when user terminals become more widespread? As we move into the phase where the rate of user uptake for Ka-band starts to grow, then the user terminals will become the biggest demand driver for amplifiers, leading to a significant spike in typically lower power amplifiers. And these demand drivers won’t be short lived either, notes Thelander.
“New systems will be built causing ongoing demand for more gateway amplifiers. But then the user terminal expansion is going to be very dramatic over the next five to 10 years,” says Thelander. “HTS has had a big impact on our company so far but looking forward, we see continued demand.”
What is Driving the Amplifier Market?
It may not be an occasion of free-flowing champagne and feasts of caviar, but the satellite industry does appear to have picked up significantly. And on the back of where it’s headed is robust demand for amplifiers. While High Throughput Satellites (HTS) are a significant driver of demand, industry players share other notable areas of growth.
Noting the positive buzz that animated the SATELLITE 2015 Conference & Exhibition in Washington, D.C. last March, Amiee Chan, president and CEO of Norsat International, says that while its U.S. business is growing, its international business poses very healthy opportunities.
“At SATELLITE 2015, we were also very busy with customers discussing new opportunities for our standard and custom Low-Noise Block downconverters (LNB) and Block Upconverters (BUC) for the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), comms-on-the-move, broadcast and military markets,” says Chan.
Andy Tafler, president of CPI Satcom Division, notes renewed interest in commercial and military communications but also points to new areas of crossover technologies. Airborne, pleasure maritime, In-Flight Entertainment and Communications (IFEC) and UAV projects are receiving increased interest and investment, he says.
“Higher power Travelling Wave Tube (TWT) Outdoor Units (ODU) are becoming available in Ku and DBS bands, and these ODUs provide users an alternative to high power indoor amplifiers. When the outdoor operational environment is relatively benign, users have the potential to save on infrastructure cost with these products,” adds Tafler.
For Comtech Xicom, a big driver is Direct-to-Home (DTH) and the ongoing demand for video distribution. DTH in the United States has room for some growth, but Heidi Thelander, director of business development at Comtech Xicom, highlights the bigger opportunities offered by “new” markets.
“Markets such as Brazil, India and Russia have opened up regulatory wise for expansion in DTH. This means that new competitors can now enter these markets. Additionally, there is still the on-going transition to HD from SD channels. These two factors continue to drive business,” says Thelander. VS