Amplifier Firms Eye SmallSat, Ka-band Opportunities

The future of satellite communications has never been more exciting with the increasing interest and investment in LEO, MEO, and GEO constellations, especially in the Ka-band arena. However, LEO and MEO constellations require a much larger volume of antennas and gateways compared to a GEO satellite, and amplifier providers must find a way to offer lower priced equipment to make it affordable to these customers.

As the world’s leading satellite amplifier manufacturers look at the future of their business, two trends quickly become clear: Ka-band and solid-state amplifiers based on Gallium Nitride (GaN) are here to stay.

Without question, Ka-band continues to dominate amplifier requirements from GEO to LEO and MEO. Tony Radford, vice president of sales and marketing for Teledyne Paradise Datacom, observes that as new satellite platforms are introduced, transmit and bandwidth frequencies have expanded far beyond those of traditional satcom systems.

In addition, the ability of GaN technology to withstand higher ambient temperatures with better energy-efficiency than that of Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) continues to drive product and Research and Development (R&D) strategy within amplifier firms.

“GaN has certainly opened the spigot of possibilities by allowing us to not only address the spectrum issue, but also to push much higher power levels in a given footprint — with much higher efficiency than was previously possible,” says Radford.

Few market innovators talked up the market for Traveling Wave Tubes (TWT), with investment and interest shifting decisively to solid-state technology.

Mission Microwave, a three-year-old startup founded by executives previously with Wavestream, started with a clean slate to design the “next generation of GaN-based satellite transmitters from the ground up,” says the firm’s co-founder and Chief Technical Officer (CTO) Michael DeLisio.

His firm made a point to design everything from the frequency converter to the power supplies in-house so everything would be “inside the box” — meaning all the components are custom designed and integrated into one unit instead of having multiple standalone or third-party components — with an eye on performance and to ensure that every component could be as light and streamlined as possible.

Veteran amplifier firm CPI International continues to invest in both its TWT products and its GaN technology.

“With every new wave of satellite systems, the requirement for amplifier manufacturers is always to improve product efficiency, increase reliability, reduce size and reduce weight,” notes Gerard Charpentier, vice president of business development for CPI International.

Charpentier says these demands and the pressure to be cost-competitive with products that are easy to use won’t change with the advent of new LEO and MEO satellite constellations. What will change is the need for much greater production capacity.

“High-volume production capacity is potentially a big challenge,” states Charpentier, emphasizing that CPI has significant experience with high-volume High Power Amplifier (HPA) production with contracts such as WIN-T.

That experience may have helped CPI win an amplifier order for one of the first MEO/LEO Ka-band constellations, though the company wasn’t able to disclose further details.

The LEO/MEO Opportunity

While GEO business is not going away, much of the satellite sector is looking at the new demands coming online with LEO and MEO market entrants. Amplifier players acknowledge that the market presents both opportunities and challenges.

Charpentier says that the opportunities for firms like CPI in the smallsat space will depend upon the type of ground terminals needed, based on the constellation’s application or mission. “Some of the small sat entrants plan to use very high frequency spectrum such as V-band and W-band. CPI is developing Radio Frequency (RF) amplifiers in those bands,” he notes.

Most companies are looking at the upside of supplying teleport gateways rather than large numbers of low-cost end user terminals to the new constellations. (See sidebar).

“The teleports are going to be looking for higher power devices and that’s an angle we may be able to play,” says Brian Donnelly, vice president of sales and marketing for Norsat International, a British Columbia-based provider that has been an amplifier supplier for the past decade. Norsat’s prime business is supplying amplifiers and block upconverters for GEO satellites with products ranging from 2 watts to 250 watts that cross C-, Ku-, Ka- and X-band.

Making the Business Case

Upfront investment on the part of amplifiers is a necessity in this new market, and that takes careful planning since R&D resources are limited and costly.

“One of the big challenges for us is continually evaluating business cases to determine if it’s worth investing in a product for a particular system,” says Heidi Thelander, senior director of business development for Comtech Xicom Technology.

Noting that there are timing, funding and risk issues with each proposed constellation, Thelander says her company is closely evaluating each opportunity to see if it makes sense to pursue. Technology, she adds, isn’t the hurdle. Proving the business case is.

“Technically, we already do Ka-band at the power levels the MEO and LEO players need. It’s not harder than what’s been done before. We have Ka- and Ku- modules already developed using new GaN technology that are very efficient,” she says. “So the amplifiers are not going to be holding us back. But the margins are tough because systems integrators are trying to make the case. It’s not clear that everything is going to go smoothly or on schedule. We’ve got to evaluate each opportunity individually because each one of these has different requirements that require some customized solution.”

Mission Microwave sees opportunities for more powerful user terminals that might “need more throughput” as well as gateways, says DeLisio.

“Smallsat opportunities have really infused a lot of excitement into the satellite industry and I think that’s good for satcom in general,” says DeLisio.

Thelander says gateway systems require terminals with tracking antennas that can quickly cover a wide area. “That puts a lot of pressure on the amplifier because it still needs to be fairly powerful as integrators are limiting the antenna size to keep costs down,” she explains.

The Comtech sales leader believes it all comes down to making the business case at the system level. “I believe for each opportunity [in LEO/MEO], somebody will get close to the price point needed to move forward, so the amplifiers are not going to hold us back, but there has to be a lot of investment to go into this.”

Positive Sign: Financial Backing of OneWeb, O3b Constellations

One encouraging development is that well-established satellite companies are backing some of these constellations. While Intelsat’s deal with OneWeb fell through, it seems likely that in the future, that OneWeb will team up with another Fixed Satellite Services (FSS) operator. SES also acquired 100 percent of MEO constellation O3b Networks last year, which seeks to provide high-bandwidth internet connectivity to the world’s most remote locations. It seems likely that traditional satellite operators will continue to look for creative and imaginative partnerships with new constellations.

Future Product Plans

Looking to the future, industry leaders remain upbeat about both near and long-term opportunities for amplifier manufacturers, despite pressure from the market to produce products that deliver more power in smaller packages with higher efficiency — all at reduced prices.

Radford of Teledyne Paradise Datacom points to how the satellite sector has always delivered at every major shift. “Since its inception the satcom industry has been in a dynamic state of accommodation,” he says, pointing to the analog-to-digital transformation, the rise of Internet Protocol (IP), and now Ka-band and LEO/MEO constellations. “So far, no challenge has been insurmountable. We’ve always found a way to reinvent ourselves when the need arises.”

Currently, Teledyne is working to complete its 300-watt and 400-watt Ka-band Solid State Power Amplifiers (SSPAs) and its liquid-cooled airborne variant. “We will continue investing in our indoor and outdoor PowerMax lines that allow customers to generate extreme amounts of redundant power both indoors and out on the antenna pad,” Radford says.

The company’s key sources of revenue will be in the maritime, airborne, earth observation, troposcatter (beyond-line-of-sight communications) and high-power gateway areas.

“In addition to amplifiers, we will be releasing a couple of modem products that we feel are reflective of current market trends. They will offer higher performance and a smaller footprint.” Radford says.

Targeting Comms-on-the-Move Market

Norsat’s Atom amplifier line, launched three years ago, targets the comms-on-the-move market. The company introduced the Ka-based Atom product line in 2016 followed by the 50-watt amplifier in early 2017.

According to Donnelly, Norsat’s satellite division built extra design capabilities into its Atom line to address demanding environmental certifications expected in a comms-on-the-move platform, including electromagnetic interference and vibration and shock, which are required for airborne, shipborne, and land-based satcom-on-the-move applications.

“We have started hearing people ask for even higher power levels in the Atom product line and we are looking at that,” he says.

CPI anticipates continued strong growth in Ka-band in the commercial fixed earth station market and military communications with the need for wideband data transmission to and from battlefields.

“Airborne Ku and Ka is the other vertical that is growing very fast,” says Charpentier. “CPI is pursuing a number of opportunities with the major players in that market. And CPI fully intends to participate in the market for equipment in the V-band and higher. We already offer klystrons at those frequencies.”

Mission Microwave plans to continue to increase the power available from its rugged, compact transmitters. “These units will be used in fixed, mobile and airborne applications where performance, portability and reliability are important,” says DeLisio.

According to Steve Richeson, senior vice president, global sales and business development at Advantech Wireless, his company is shifting its business focus from not just amplifiers but to also providing Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) solutions. “Amplifiers are our core business in terms of revenue today but we also have been investing aggressively over the last few years into the VSAT business for high-throughput satellites. Customers value the ability to get both the advanced VSAT equipment and the RF chain from one responsible supplier,” he says.

Comtech Xicom will continue to pursue Ka-band. For smallsats, the manufacturer has invested in modules for Ka- and Ku- band that can take advantage of new LEO/MEO market opportunities, with the ability to customize the solutions to meet specific requirements of the satellite operators.

“We know we have to address specific requirements for individual opportunities so we have a good set of building blocks, built, tested and ready to customize and build in volume,” Thelander says.

Amplifier Players Eye Gateway Opportunity in MEO/LEO

By the 2020s, the world could see around 20,000 satellites in Low and Medium Earth Orbits (LEO, MEO) as a result of the smallsat revolution and new, more affordable launch options.

Leading the charge are companies such as OneWeb, with its planned 648 LEO Ku-band constellation set to begin launch later this year, and LeoSat, which intends to launch between 78 and 108 high-throughput Ka-band satellites beginning in 2018. Six companies, including Boeing, SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat, filed with the FCC their intention to deploy V-band satellites in non-geosynchronous orbits.

While the MEO and LEO constellations on the horizon call for multiple low-cost ground terminals for end users, they also require significantly more gateways than a GEO system. Many amplifier manufacturers who provide higher power systems do not see themselves offering end user terminals in mass quantities. However, they are attracted to the more sophisticated gateway systems that these terminals depend upon to operate. Comtech Xicom, Advantech Wireless and Norsat International all see gateways as a potentially solid market opportunity.

Advantech Wireless’s Richeson notes that his firm is talking to emerging LEO/MEO players, calling the gateway business potentially “significant” considering they represent a major infrastructure project requiring multiple layers of redundancy. But to date, Advantech sees its major market opportunity for amplifier sales predominantly at GEO -- supporting Ka-band High-Throughput Satellites (HTS).

“Unlike the LEO and MEO proposals out there, HTS is real,” he says. “There is a vast amount of HTS capacity completed and sitting on the ground waiting for their launch schedule to go online over the next two years.” He adds that Advantech sees significant near-term business in replacing aging Traveling Wave Tube (TWT) and klystron amplifiers with more efficient solid state amplifiers. “Advanced amplifiers are required to support the high-throughput waveforms that customers are now demanding. It’s a large market with ample room for innovation,” Richeson says. VS

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