At the SATELLITE 2017 Conference & Exhibition, the ambitious nature of the satellite industry shone through. Whether in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) or Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO), all operators spoke of an optimistic future as they seek to gain new revenue streams and be relevant in an industrial Internet of Things (IoT) world.
However, satellites are only as good the technology that powers them, and more expectations are now being placed on traditional Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) technology providers as they look to provide the solutions that will power the next generation of satellites. The question is, are they able to meet expectations and what do they have on their technology roadmaps?
The market is clearly at an inflection point and companies are readying for a busy period of selling new technology and equipment. Andy Lucas, senior vice president of Comtech EF Data’s satellite operators market vertical, says the primary trends include continual demands for higher levels of throughput with ever-reducing cost per bit added with an enhanced end user quality of experience. Lucas believes the operator demands are getting tougher “with good reason,” as the competitive landscape intensifies and the need to continuously offer clearly differentiated services is evolving — particularly considering that competition includes the terrestrial wireless infrastructure. “To successfully compete requires highly economical solutions, with a capability to tailor effectively toward different end user segments such as mobile network operators and mobility,” he adds.
Lucas calls the trend toward the data-centric environment “exciting and irresistible.” However, he points out two distinctions. “First is the collection of data from a device toward the data centers or cloud. The data volumes in this case can be modest at a device level, but there will be a remarkable number of sites supporting mission-critical applications,” he says. “Second is the delivery of the data toward the user. Video streaming and other entertainment-based personal information will be an important part of the content mix. You will have critical information for use by decision makers and/or analytical systems for industrial, business and government applications. The systems where information is drawn from and delivered to will be distributed widely, some at the edge, most in the core.”
Another company at the forefront of the technology revolution in satellite is iDirect. The company aims to overcome barriers of interoperability and transition satellite service providers toward a fully standards-based and agile service model. “We are moving toward what we are calling dynamic service delivery — the ability to offer services on demand to anyone that needs it whenever and wherever they need it. It requires an open flexible ground system built with the latest networking standards and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that can fully integrate with the core Internet Protocol (IP) network as well as the spacecraft technology,” says iDirect’s new Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Kevin Steen.
Steen says the steps to get here are quite complex with the need to look at the underlying infrastructure to ensure companies like iDirect are enabling ground and space concurrently for scale, performance and efficiency. “The next step is to virtualize the functions on the network to allow unification of all functions. From there we add in the ability to program the networks for real-time operations and automation through APIs. As we do this in concert with the space segment, we are enabling a much more agile business model that will allow for lower capital expenditure and ongoing operating expenditure. We can get to market faster with service and change the delivery of them based on the customer requirements,” he adds.
IDirect is encouraging VSAT service providers to adopt network architectures traditionally associated with cellular providers, such as using the evolved packet core as a framework. Steen believes there is significant value in aligning VSAT to the same methods and techniques wireless providers use. He says these terrestrial providers have already optimized their networks for mobility and made it easier to deploy value-added services. “By adopting these techniques, VSAT takes advantage of all these pre-existing mobility benefits. Plus, it enables clean interfaces, so VSAT ‘plugs into’ terrestrial mobility networks without integration challenges,” Steen adds. “Through this means, VSAT can embrace upcoming 5G architectures and standards, introducing new synergies with wireless providers on the ground. So instead of the VSAT industry worrying about competition over 5G frequencies, VSAT becomes an essential extension of the 5G infrastructure, supporting telco reach to all areas of the globe.”
Stuart Daughtridge, vice president of advanced technology at Kratos, highlighted two major trends in the satellite industry. The first is the move to the Digital Video Broadcasting - Satellite - Second Generation Extension (DVB-S2X) standard since it provides greater efficiencies and supports high Modulation Codes that can take advantage of the higher powers newer satellites offer. The second is expanded support of wideband systems that take advantage of the wider bandwidths offered by the High Throughput Satellite (HTS) architectures, supporting much higher data rate systems, he said.
Daughtridge believes it is not operator demand that is getting tougher, but the end consumers’ demand for increased connectivity, wherever they are, at progressively higher data rates and constantly improving service quality. “These demands put additional pressure on the entire value chain including the VSAT operators to expand operations and optimize the value of the infrastructure,” he said.
The satellite industry is entering into a more mobility-focused era, with particular emphasis on connected transportation, as the connected aircraft, ship and car continue to grow. Bart Van Poucke, vice president of product management at Newtec, said when looking at today’s mobile services in the aero and maritime space, networks are not setup to answer the full customer demand in an effective way. He says if you compare the user experience for internet browsing to sending e-mails on an airplane, you will easily detect the return link limit. In mobile environments, the size of the antenna or regulatory constraints often limits the return rate. Van Poucke believes the introduction of new small antenna technologies for land and sea, combined with high throughput capabilities, will drive more compelling mobile services.
Steen says mobility is definitely a hot market with substantial growth ahead. “One trend we are excited to help drive is breakthrough innovation in the antenna industry, where next-generation electronically steered Flat Panel Antennas (FPAs) will continue to make VSAT more affordable, easier to install and ultimately reduce the size and agility of the terminal,” he adds.
Daughtridge says in the maritime sector the competition between Ku- and Ka-band solutions is causing some to predict an increasing shift from L-band to VSAT. “We are currently engaged in conversations with several potential partners who are interested in embedding our technology into their mobility solutions,” he adds.
There is no doubt activity in the satellite industry has reached a fever pitch, with a number of ambitious satellite projects in a number of different orbits. Daughtridge believes that there is both a large enough and diverse enough market for satellite bandwidth and connectivity to support satellite constellations on all of these orbits. While he believes that not all of the planned constellations will make it to market, enough will and it will drive growth for the entire market. “The rising tide raises all ships. But in this case, since the majority of the growth from these networks will be around IP data connectivity, the lionshare of this growth will be implemented with Time-Division Multiple Access (TDMA)/VSAT networks, which will exacerbate the VSAT interference issue. It will also drive the need for enhance VSAT network optimization tools, which is something else we are working on,” he said.
Van Poucke says bandwidth demand continues to grow at an exponential rate and is primarily constrained by price. He believes that provided these new constellations can deliver on their promise of dramatically higher speeds and lower costs, they should be viable. “The big question remains over the availability of low-cost electronically steerable terminals, which is they key ingredient to most LEO/MEO business models. It also becomes clear that there will be a place for different satellite architectures to serve all the demand and markets in the most optimal way, including GEO, MEO and LEO,” he adds.
Van Poucke points to a colossal shift in customer behaviors within the last 10 years that has led to several changes within the industry. He says the current environment is about taking the right decisions in situations that have not been experienced before. The uncertainty and volatility can create chaos, but the identification of islands of truth for satellite operators can create a sense of order in an unstable environment. There, such truths we can identify is the increase in end-users’ demand for data, the availability of data everywhere becoming a reality, as well as satellite remaining the long tail of any connectivity graph, he adds. Van Poucke believes it is important to remember that innovation in space must be matched on the ground. “The industry will never realize its full potential of rapidly developing HTS and LEO technologies if the ground segment technology does not keep up. Almost all these new innovations are disruptive, so this must be reflected on the ground if the premium services they enable are to be delivered. The dawn of 5G technology is certainly an area where the industry may need a boost from satellite, proving the window of opportunity for the industry is constantly changing,” he adds.
Steen says the rise of LEO will accelerate LTE/LEO/MEO/GEO interoperability and will drive the need for a more standards-based approach and orchestration among all these technologies. “This has been part of iDirect’s vision, and we are supporting this through dynamic services, roaming, LTE/5G interoperability and orchestrating the management of blended portfolios. We envision the capability for a service provider to provision and deliver the same service to the end-user over any orbit,” he said. “With LEO as a new benchmark, satellites will need to be manufactured much more cost-effectively, be smaller, and support shorter life-cycles including the potential to be disposable. Launch costs will need to be reduced significantly.”
Lucas also believes the industry is at the cusp of a new era. “The potential applications for satellite are going to increase exponentially, where satellite solutions will be able to demonstrate an ability to deliver unique solutions for unique solutions with significant societal impact. This is pushing the current technology to and beyond its limits, but it is driving remarkable innovation within the technology providers; they will meet the challenge,” he says.
Nir Barkan, Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) at Satixfy, believes the industry has room for multiple constellation orbits to provide answers to multiple use cases. “Companies are looking for innovative solutions to reduce the cost of satellites, launches and ground terminals. There is much interest and capital being invested in the satellite market in the last few years. There are more disruptive ideas and technologies. Technology vendors should use the most advanced technologies in silicon and adjacent wireless fields to serve the market with the most advanced solutions. Those solutions will enable a decrease in cost and larger uptake of satellite equipment. Players that will not be able to adapt to this changing environment will disappear but as we have seen in other markets, new players will grow,” he says.
All the companies interviewed here are at the forefront of bringing new technologies to the market. Kratos has a number of initiatives designed to meet the future needs of the markets, including enhanced data analytics and machine learning capabilities, wider band solutions across all of its product lines, expansion of its digital Intermediate Frequency (IF) applications and signal cancellation technology, and continued investment in intellectual property.
Satixfy designs its own chips and builds products based on these chips. The company is investing many tens of millions of dollars in the development of new technologies and chips that will support the next generation of modems, electronic steering antennas and satellite payloads. It is partnering with a number of other companies to make sure its solutions answer these future needs.
For Newtec, it is all about its complete HTS product portfolio, which aims to empower its customers to cost-effectively deliver improved services in any vertical market and benefit from the efficiencies and throughputs enabled by HTS spot beam technology. It wants to enable its customers to address a wide range of applications and verticals to monetize their satellite capacity in the best possible way.
Comtech will be focusing its efforts on its latest generation of its Heights platform. It will include a return channel technology called Height Dynamic Network Access (H-DNA), which aims to provide a highly dynamic, uncompromised bandwidth allocation method.
IDirect aims to take its partners beyond the first wave of DVB-S2X through the next several generations of HTS. The company believes it’s all about smart, rapid access to innovation whenever and wherever it’s needed. Its ultimate goal is to remove every barrier to growth —be it network speed, operating cost or market viability. The company has pushed through a set of engineering challenges that aims to put the company ahead of what the satellites can do. It hopes the result of this will be that it gives customers the capability to go into markets that have traditionally been untouchable.
Our Readers Speak Out on VSAT
To look at the changing nature of the market, Via Satellite conducted an exclusive survey among our audience to see what the demands were for new technology. When asked how often companies look to upgrade it VSAT equipment, more than 40 percent of respondents said they look to do this every five years. The next best was every two years, which was just more than 24 percent.
One of the key questions in the survey was: What is the most important metric when buying new VSAT equipment? More than 40 percent of respondents in the survey said capability was the number one factor when purchasing VSAT equipment. Cost was second, which gained just more than 20 percent of the vote.
Interestingly, the HTS arena is changing the game for VSAT. While that may not come as a surprise, close to 70 percent of respondents of the survey said this is now changing their plans when investing in new VSAT equipment, with just more than 30 percent saying that HTS is not making a difference to their investment plans.
When asked if they were planning on investing in new VSAT equipment this year, close to 60 percent of respondents in the survey said they were going to invest in new equipment compared to just more than 40 percent who said they weren’t. The results of the survey are loud and clear. Companies are investing, and the move to HTS is accelerating these new investments. VS