Tom Campbell, L3Harris Technologies general manager of Space Antennas, Space and Airborne Systems, believes there will be discussions about performance and business viability.
“Small flexible satellites will be a topic as they can adapt to changing requirements are coming into maturity and are being offered by all primes. I’m also interested in learning more about the changing buying habits of the government to include Other Transaction Agreements (OTAs), and new agencies, such as the Space Development Agency and Space Force, as they have greater expectations for value and speed.
Andre Jones, vice president of Business Development at Communications & Power Industries (CPI) highlighted some of areas he expects to generate buzz, naming the era of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) mega satellite constellations; mergers and acquisitions in the satellite industry; and the C-band Alliance (CBA) spectrum auction and 5G spectrum allocation.
Kevin Steen, CEO of ST Engineering iDirect thinks one of the main themes will be cost and the ways in which the industry is driving down cost. He thinks the discussion around flat panel antennas will continue and he hopes that we see more tangible evidence of manufacturers making clear steps forward and solving their technological challenges.
He adds, “I think the theme of LEO will also be dominant. I’m very interested to hear what Elon Musk has to say when he delivers his keynote. I would like more clarity on the LEO operator’s business models. The final aspect is the transformation of the industry in general. Is Geostationary Orbit (GEO) on the demise? I firmly believe that LEO and GEO will interoperate but I’m hoping the panels will bring more insight.”
Bill Milroy, ThinKom Solutions chairman and CTO expects the major talking points this year will be along the lines of business and technical opportunities (and threats) in the Non-Geostationary (NGSO) vs. GEO competitive space. He also talks about the evolving small satellite ecosystem, which he thinks will enable new Earth Observation (EO) and Internet of Things (IoT) services and business models. “There will be unique global ground infrastructure needs and demands that these will bring,” he says.
LEO Constellation Plans
As OneWeb and SpaceX have already launched satellites for their LEO constellations this year, 2020 has started off at a rapid pace. Most believe we are now in an era where thousands of satellites will be launched. Steen believes there will be at least a few thousand satellites launched. He also thinks that certain countries will develop their own satellites.
“It will be interesting to watch the LEO business models evolve. Will they be aimed at consumers or enterprise or both? Some of the new operators are not declaring their markets and are playing their cards close to their chests. This could be because they are afraid to send the wrong message out which may result in them having to change their value proposition,” Steen says. “My own personal perspective is that enterprise is where higher margin markets are, and I believe the value proposition for LEO is very strong in some of these markets. Getting into the consumer market is a challenge for the inexperienced. There is also a question on whether the LEO providers will open up and adopt non-proprietary.”
Jones adds, “SpaceX and OneWeb are expected to launch several hundreds of satellites this year alone. And, Amazon is already aggressively staffing up to plan, design, and roll out their Project Kuiper network of satellites and global ground infrastructure. So, yes, we I’ll see thousands of satellites being launched in the next five years, in addition to several hundred planned for EO and other related applications.”
Campbell also believes we are in an era where thousands of satellites can and will be launched, however, he says the question about commercial viability remains here.
The Antenna Piece
There is no doubt that the technology around antennas will be one of the fundamental discussions at SATELLITE 2020. As satellites become more powerful, the onus will be on the ground segment to keep up. Jones believes that the medium to large gateway antenna market is well understood, and for the most part, the technologies are proven, except for new development at higher frequency bands such as Q/V bands.
He says we have witnessed several new entrants over the past 10 years, mainly from Asia. However, he thinks legacy manufacturers are holding their own when it comes to reliability and performance, especially at the higher frequency bands being utilized for High Throughput Satellites (HTS). He adds, “The biggest challenges still remain in the area of low-profile antennas, whether electronically or mechanically steerable, or other unique implementation that demonstrates desired performance at a palatable price point for operators and end users.”
Campbell adds: “Most of the focus has been applied to NGSO ground antennas which are required to close the business case for these constellations. This is a very hard problem that has not made significant progress. This has caused first movers to utilize more traditional approaches by steering mechanically. Space antennas are adapting to customer requirement for maximizing capital efficiency of the satellite by increasing in frequency and size to make efficient use of bandwidth.”
Milroy says ThinKom definitely sees and feels the added focus on antennas. He says that size, profile, efficiency, and power consumption have always been key competitive antenna metrics, but the recent evolution/revolution in HTS GEO and NGSO markets have placed added premiums and focus on beam agility, wider bandwidth capability, and particularly as of late more stringent regulatory compliance for the sake of interoperability.
He adds, “Both Ku- and Ka-band frequencies are becoming increasingly contended between established GEO constellations, new NGSO constellations, and even terrestrial 5G users who are all trying to 'play nicely together,' and the bulk of these added performance burdens fall squarely on the shoulders of the antenna.”
The satellite market presents some unique challenges for ST Engineering right now. Steen says the company is driving towards a virtualized capability that enables its services to be deployed overnight. The company is aiming to bring this together on its platform in the context of this market transformation. Steen adds, “Our customers are excited about a move towards virtualization because they can seamlessly migrate from the physical infrastructure in their gateway to the cloud in a gradual way that makes sense for their business. We are talking to our customers constantly on how we can realize this. For our customers, the seamless adoption of new technologies means they have built upon their investments, not replaced them and they can then drive their next generation business services.”
In the space where ST Engineering operates, one significant piece of consolidation this year was the Comtech and Gilat merger.
Discussing this deal, Steen says, “The deal did not come as a surprise to us. The industry needs technology providers that have scale. I think it will actually help in terms of competition. Yes, there will be fewer choices for the existing players in the market, but that’s a shortsighted view. We need to look at the bigger picture in the context of the market transformation. While they will face challenges in terms of integration, from a transaction perspective it was healthy for those companies and also for the overall market.” VS