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Panelists Link Flatter Antennas with Fatter Profits, But Offer Vague ROI Timetable

Panelists highlighted a handful of lucrative developments in the flat-panel antenna space but took on a cautious tone in warning the audience to be wary of the hype surrounding the flat-panel market...

Dozens of attendees at the SATELLITE 2017 Show in Washington, D.C., packed a mid-Tuesday afternoon session, coyly titled “Can Flatter Antennas Bring Fatter Profits?” in the hopes that flat-antenna innovators — including executives from Phasor, Kymeta, EchoStar subsidiary Hughes, and Integrasys — could answer that exact question. And for the most part, the executives comprising the panel did just that — highlighting a handful of lucrative developments in the flat-panel antenna space and offering insights into technology development in the antenna market. However, panelists took on a cautious tone in warning the audience to be wary of the hype surrounding the flat-panel market.

“We do think there is one feature of flat panels that is absolutely critical,” said Nathan Kundtz, CEO of Kymeta, who was dubbed an “innovator” in the space of electronically steered antennas by moderator Bruce Elbert, president of Application Technology Strategy. “The most important feature is that they actually have to exist. To really make it happen, you [have to offer] more than an antenna. People don’t buy antennas — people buy solutions. You’ve got to be able to bring data, and you’ve got to be able to bring data at a price point that makes sense.”

Kymeta mTenna at the Monaco Yacht Show 2016.Kymeta

Elbert, while presenting a series of slides featuring one of the first flat-panel antennas — Boeing’s Phantom Works’ phased-array antenna, unveiled nearly two decades ago — noted that Boeing discovered early on that achieving consistent and superior coverage presented the a major challenge.

“When you have a flat panel on the surface of the aircraft or vehicle, as your elevation changes from 90 degrees to 30, your gain drops quite rapidly,” said Elbert. So for aeronautical carriers that needed to fly through places like Norway or Greenland, flat panels suffered more loss and, therefore, didn’t present a quite-so-viable blockbuster in the marketplace.

Now that technology in the entire satellite industry has evolved, and more operators are buzzing about leveraging flat-panel antennas in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), these antennas are finally being seen as a viable solution for high-bandwidth applications in multiple verticals, such as aviation.

Yet, David Rehbehm, vice president of the international division of Hughes Network Systems, an EchoStar Company, stressed that performance is the number one factor that will drive growth.

“We approach the market as a service provider,” said Rehbehm, noting that Hughes recently announced the successful completion of in-orbit testing and handover of Ka-band High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) EchoStar 19. “As we look at new antennas, we look very carefully at performance [and] there’s no question mobility is a key driver for the market. We’re very optimistic about electronically steered flat-panel antennas, but it doesn’t seem like we’re quite there yet. We want to get as good of performance as possible.”

Meanwhile, Alvaro Sanchez, sales director of Integrasys, also agreed that antenna performance will continue to drive interest in flat-panel antennas, so long as stakeholders continue to address today’s biggest challenges; specifically, making activation simpler, finding ways to automate processes and mitigate interference, and provide remote maintenance. “We need tools to make it smarter,” he said.

David Helfgott, chief executive officer of antenna developer Phasor, discussed some of its most recent developments, and excitement over the uptick in investments in high-throughput capacity technologies.

Phasor's Electronically Steered Antenna (ESA).Phasor

“The promise of electronically steered antenna in wide band — in Ku and Ka — the promise is you can dynamically manage a beam in an environment that is changing rapidly … and you can do that in a compliant way,” Helfgott said. “If you can do it in a reliable way, that’s economical … then you really have something. The entire antenna system you can now put into a solid-state platform that’s two inches thick.”

According to Helfgott, mobility is driving much of the growth of flat-panel antennas, and finding the right partners to bring antenna technologies to the marketplace will be key to driving investments.

“We all know the market is building momentum,” he said. “We think the ability to provide reliable and robust broadband services … is how you expand markets.” VS