Satellite Technology Leaders Discuss What 2021 Will Look Like

Everyone loves an upgrade, whether it’s the latest iPhone or a new car. Satellite customers also want more from their technology partners. But, what do they want and what will satellite technology players deliver in 2021 and how do they see the market for new technology in wake of the new normal?

2020 has been one of the most disruptive, if not THE most disruptive year in recent history. The satellite industry has remained resilient in the face of global adversity. What does the future hold in 2021 from a satellite technology perspective? Major satellite tech companies share their predictions.

Outlook for RFPs in 2021

Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are the lifeblood of the industry, as company’s compete for satellite, hardware contracts and more. So, what is the market hearing in terms of RFPs out there? Alexander Mueller-Gastell, CEO of ND SatCom tells Via Satellite that ND SatCom is seeing delays in RFPs that the company was targeting for 2020.

“One of our strong suits has always been the ATC [Air Traffic Control] market. When I look at what we thought would be the roadmap for RFPs in this area in 2020, especially in the third and fourth quarter, they have been completely delayed or postponed. It has been the victim of budget cuts. There is not a lot of demand for Air Traffic Control solutions as there are not many airplanes up in the sky right now. Hopefully, when we get into a more normalized world, we will start to see these projects start up again. There has been a backlog created,” he says.

Chris Johnson, president of Boeing Satellite Systems admits he thought 2020 would be the year where Boeing would have a better understanding of what the future would look like in terms of the types of new satellite orders to come. He thinks some of that has been delayed, citing a 2020 rebound of Geostationary (GEO) orders, but he believes this view of the future is right around the corner. Johnson expects to see a lot of dealflow in 2021, and he’s seeing more interest in flexible hybrid architectures and how those systems might work with systems in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), and GEO.

“We are seeing a shift from the lengthy RFIs and traditional RFP process and having a lot more direct interaction with customers. I think that will enable and lead to some bigger opportunities and announcements, rather than just the one-off RFP dealflow we have seen in the past,” Johnson adds.

Lilac Muller, vice president of Product Management for Kymeta, says that Kymeta expects RFPs to continue in both the government and commercial arenas.

Demand for Satellite Tech

One of the big questions is what the demands will be for new satellite technology in 2021. Verticals such as aviation and maritime have been hard in 2020 due to the pandemic. While there is hope these markets will bounce back soon, it’s not guaranteed. Thomas Van den Driessche, president and CCO of ST Engineering iDirect, believes that in 2021, the market will come back to 2019 levels, followed by new growth in 2022. He cites NSR’s Global Satellite Capacity Supply and Demand report, which forecasts that satcom revenues will reach $26.5 billion by 2029.

“Some of the markets will recover rapidly but others, such as the aviation and IFC [In-Flight Connectivity] will take longer to get back to pre-COVID levels. However, when they do, they will emerge as an important differentiator. This bounce-back could take 12 months, 18 months, or 24 months. It obviously depends on the specific market. However, it’s important to state that the demand for new technology remains high because the new technology innovations are key to enabling many of the new NGSO [Non-Geostationary Orbit] constellations, which in turn will enable new applications and new market opportunities.”

In the antenna space, Muller of Kymeta is confident that demand for new satellite technology will remain high going into 2021. “Satellite growth is exploding with large investments being made to increase the number of satellites in space. As we begin to see satellite capacity grow and become more accessible, it follows that we will see new technologies enter the market in space and on the ground to support this new growth," she says.

From Boeing’s perspective, Johnson says demand for the technology is always high, and Boeing’s customers are demanding as they constantly look to push the envelope. “[Our customers] are trying to create new markets and opportunities. The days of understanding exactly where you customer base is for DTH [Direct-to-Home] broadcasting and how that doesn’t change significantly from year to year are over,” he says. “The kinds of technologies our customers are demanding requires us to bring even more flexibility and bandwidth, and adjust to changing market conditions. I think this has increased even more given the pandemic and the challenges we are seeing.”

2021: What We Might See?

It seems most technology companies are not anticipating a slowdown in 2021 and are all looking forward to bringing new technologies to market. Van den Driessche expects 2021 to be a busy year for ST Engineering iDirect. It will see field trials of its new Internet of Things [IoT] offering which aims to give its service provider partners the ability to deliver satellite-based, cost-effective connectivity for the industrial IoT market.

In terms of other launches, Van den Driessche says, “We will be introducing new capabilities across our portfolio, including our Dialog, Evolution and Velocity platforms. We’ll be releasing our Mx-DMA MRC waveform which will allow huge scalability of networks. Our Evolution Defense series will also feature the new Glowlink Communication Signal Interference Removal [CISR] technology. We will constantly work to improve and upgrade our modem range. Excitingly, we are taking our first steps towards the implementation of our multi-orbit strategy with Over-the-Air testing of our ground equipment on the Telesat LEO satellite as well as a partnering with SES on its O3b mPOWER system which will enable fiber-like connectivity and flexible service delivery.”

Mueller-Gastell says ND SatCom will continue to develop its modems look at the features that are serving the market and its customers. He says the big launch for the company next year will be a new terminal solution. “It will be a busy year for the company. We need to turn our roadmap into projects. We are positioning ourselves outside of the modem market, by developing our own terminal solution which is going to be launched at the end of Q1 next year,” he says.

Kymeta has been busy this year preparing to roll out its next-generation solutions, Kymeta Connect and the Kymeta u8 terminal, which were launched at the end of November. In terms of trends she sees in the market, Muller says: “As NGSO networks become a reality, software-defined, stationary, and mobile multi-beam user terminal architectures that can support multiple waveforms and GEO/NGSO network interoperability will be developed. A virtualized hub infrastructure that can also support network interoperability will be developed as well. In addition, RF [Radio Frequency] chain technology will become more integrated to support software-defined architectures.”

A Satellite Revolution

Some might say the satellite market is in the midst of a revolution. When we write a technology preview for 2030, the market is likely to look very different than it does now. This could be the decade where satellites are launched in the thousands. Johnson admits we are in the small satellite revolution at the moment.

“I would say we are right in the middle of the small satellite revolution. The question is how small is small. That is the part we need to see how it lands,” he says. We are also in the middle of a software-defined payload revolution. I think it is just the start of showing the world and our customers and our customers’ customers and what that is going to bring in terms of market opportunities. I predict once we get that initial data and what it can do, this will accelerate the software defined satellite revolution even more.”

Van den Driessche says when looking at the small satellite side, the limit to small satellite applications can’t be ignored. “Small satellites are limited in what they are able to achieve given their size. Although applications such as Earth Observation [EO] and IoT can be achieved on small satellites, in broadband communications you need to receive, send, and amplify, and that’s why you need a specific size of satellite. LEO represents a revolution into small, but there’s also a limit to small in terms of what we can do, which is enable high-speed, broadband connectivity,” he says.

He thinks we are also going to see new services coming to the fore such as Artificial Intelligence [AI], Big Data, security and IoT. As an industry, Van den Driessche thinks the satellite will need to remain agile, and that the industry must enable more services and ensure that those they are getting to market quickly so that can we meet customer demand.

“The main technology trend — and the main challenge — will be to bringing the different disruptive technologies together. The benefit to be gained from the cloud, 5G, MEF, flat panel antennas and digital payloads is huge, but on their own, they don’t mean a lot. They must be brought together to form tangible services that can be monetized. We need to make it all work together as each satellite operator has different business models, costs, payloads, etc. That will be the toughest part,” he adds.

Muller says Kymeta expects to see innovation in communications satellite design as NGSO and next-generation HTS constellations come online. “In addition to satellite technology, we expect to see significant developments on the ground side as well, including developments in networking virtualization and user terminals,” she adds.

Johnson says, “We are making progress on larger platforms too with ultra-high throughput platforms. I would say that is the other thing. Those focused cost-per-bit platforms in GEO are interesting and I think we will see some further investment there also.”

Mueller-Gastell admits there is a lot of uncertainty out there, sees an increasing number of deals. “It is not necessarily back to what it was before COVID-19, but I think there will continued search for organic growth. I expect things to pick up again. We have seen that in our specific markets with the deals we have made. That will be one of the trends to follow,” he says. “I think next year will be seeing which LEO constellations will work out, which ones will pull through, and who is going to survive. Is LEO really the answer to questions around latency and costs? I don’t know all the answers yet.” VS

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