Say Hello to the Post-GEO World? Not so Fast

The flurry of plans and aspirations for Low-Earth Orbit constellations are very real, yet, the ground segment is taking a more down-to-earth stance, with amplifier manufacturers still seeing longevity in the Geostationary Orbit satellite market.

Year 2017 wasn’t so big on large commercial satellites, with a surprisingly small number of Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) orders placed over the 12-month period. GEO orders the following year were underwhelming at best. In 2019 and looking ahead to 2020, what should we expect? Will the decline continue? Or will satellite manufacturers eventually see GEO orders pick up, and will this only be as aging fleets force replacements? While the future, both near and distant, is perhaps still unwritten, somewhat more certain is that GEO orders are no longer indicative of the industry’s health — and satellite manufacturing is in a state of transition.

While we wait to see what future lies at the end of this transition, another question is: how has this affected the ground segment, and more specifically, the critical amplifier market? With satellite manufacturers recording slight GEO orders, and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites being such a focal point that many have dubbed this the “era of LEO,” what is happening to the amplifier business? Have amplifier vendors changed their game, and do they believe that this is now a big-bird-move-out-the-way-for the-little-birds post-GEO world?

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the finality of this ongoing transition, going from tens to potentially hundreds to even thousands of satellites, is certainly a huge change in the industry. Auspiciously, this era of mega-constellations provides amplifier vendors the opportunity to focus on large volume production instead of more moderate quantities as has been traditionally required for GEO uplinks. Simply put: this is a boom cycle, says Pam Lugos, vice president, business development, Satcom Products Group of CPI SMP Division.

“Our business has remained healthy during this transition time. Certainly, the mix of products has changed a bit; however, we continue to work with our customers to make sure we have the products required to address the LEO market, as well as continue to support the amplifiers as required for Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) or GEO applications. For us, an uplink is an uplink, so providing power amplifiers to support this is routine. But what’s going to happen when this boom cycle calms down? Will GEO orders be on the decline? We will see,” says Lugos.

Ready for LEO

Before the LEO whirlwind struck, the company had already updated most of its standard product line, with TouchPower 750W and 1250W Traveling-Wave Tube Amplifiers (TWTA), compact outdoor TWTAs, TouchPower Klystron Power Amplifiers (KPA), and C- and X-band high-power Solid-State Power Amplifiers (SSPA) all available. Due to LEO orders, CPI’s product roadmap continues to focus on higher frequencies, and the company is at present concentrating on higher power Ka-band, in both SSPAs and TWTAs, and, V-band.

Adapting to these new LEO constellations, explains Lugos, mostly means that careful consultation with customers is demanded. Fully understanding customer requirements is needed for successful operation within these networks. And each and every one requires not only careful study, but also pairing of the best solution for the network. In business planning, economies of scale and more significant production volume certainly need to be considered. Because every one of these orders is huge and affects the company significantly, getting it right is imperative — else, where are you going to make up backlog if you don’t win, considering that GEO-based orders are lagging? This, in a very competitive landscape, continues to be a challenge, notes Lugos.

“Customers have been having us push the envelope for years. One area of focus has been on Error Vector Magnitude (EVM) measurements for Gallium Nitrate-based (GaN-based) SSPAs used for multi-carrier applications. If you use GaN-based SSPAs in a multi-carrier environment, you might be due for an unpleasant surprise when you try to make your Effective Isotropic Radiated Power (EIRP) number, if the memory effects have not been mitigated. At CPI, we’re proud to say that we understand the problem and have mitigated it,” says Lugos.

Over the next year, CPI’s technology innovation will encompass V-band followed by Q-band, while everything else in the company’s portfolio at this point will see incremental improvements. CPI counts on its life-extending technology, touch screen interface, liquid cooling for customers who want it, a full solid-state product line, and an unsurpassed service network to differentiate itself.

“As the satellite industry goes, so goes the amplifier industry. They’ll be busy, we’ll be busy, but what is the landscape beyond the transition? We’re not sure about that, but we’re prepared to respond.”

An Almost Post-GEO World?

While the advent of LEO may be winning a significant amount of attention as well as ushering in technological innovation to enable these satellites, don’t be too quick to call this a post-GEO world, says Ron Merritt, director of marketing at Terrasat. Perhaps the better question is: Are we in an almost post-GEO world?

To answer this, one would have to think if it’s truly the rise of LEO that has caused GEO satellite orders to wane. “Better, cheaper, faster” — this is somewhat of a mantra now; with customers consistently requiring exactly these attributes in their satellite orders. On the back of high-speed demand and the technology development required to meet this demand, satellite operators are reconsidering the traditional approaches, which have always been centered on large GEO satellites. As a result, business cases and a changing economic climate are no longer clear and stable. And as a subsequent result, GEO satellite orders have slowed.

It is, with how much certainly, that one can say LEO satellites will be the solution for these satellite operators? Rather than certainty, perhaps one should consider the uncertainty. The advent of LEO is exactly that: The advent. The LEO world is nascent, and beyond the challenges in amplifiers, LEO constellations face several challenges that may or may not be surmountable, says Merritt.

“Our business in the GEO market is robust. Network deployments and upgrades on GEO satellites are going strong. We are enjoying excellent top line growth in the Block Upconverter (BUC) business. Is this an almost post-GEO world?” asks Merritt.

Tracking Terrasat’s product roadmap of the last couple years, Merritt says the company has experienced an increase in orders for GEO networks. This rise in business is due to two factors. Firstly, increasing bandwidth demands from current customers have been driving developments in higher usable output power; particularly in GaN amplifier implementation. Secondly, expansion into additional vertical markets has focused development in Ka-band Intelligent BUCs (IBUC).

The LEO satellite start-ups have taken the satellite manufacturers captive, explains Merritt, adding that they’ll then take end-user terminal manufacturing captive as well.

“That is not a business that we would pursue. Terrasat has both the products and the capacity to fulfil increasing requirements for LEO gateway IBUCs,” says Merritt.

In Terrasat’s experience, providing gateways indicates that advanced modulation schemes put pressure on amplifier performance, specifically linearity and Noise Power Ratio (NPR). Fortunately, Merritt notes, the company’s designs are meeting these demands. Considering LEO gateways, a key area of technology innovation that Terrasat is working on includes relevant developments in broadband Ka-band IBUC 2Gs. The IBUC 2G product is similar to the IBUC but comes in a smaller, more cost-effective package and is also powered by GaN technology.

The company also sees cybersecurity as a key technology concern for both military and commercial networks, and is investing in developments such as its third version of the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMPv3). Customers are seeing the need to cyber-harden their network management, adds Merritt.

From Flexibility to Continuous Planning

Even with the current transition, there is on-going business for all levels of user terminals for ground equipment suppliers, says Heidi Thelander, vice president of business development, Comtech Xicom Technologies. The transition is, however, affecting the timing, number, and type of gateways required for the new systems coming on line. The result is a change in the products required, and there is growing demand for large quantities of somewhat lower power, lower cost amplifiers, primarily in Ka-band but also in Ku- and V-band.“While our technology and product roadmaps have always had to be somewhat flexible and are adapted throughout each year, the shifting requirements for the large number of planned constellations, each with its own specific needs, currently has caused us to be in a continuous state of roadmap planning,” says Thelander.

This approach enables the company to swiftly meet new and changing requirements, and to prioritize new developments to match the state of the market. Comtech Xicom’s technology roadmap also encompasses continued development in its advanced product offering, including the first 250 Watt (W) V-band uplink TWTA, to support the larger High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) systems, which the company says will continue to operate, upgrade and expand. In parallel, Comtech Xicom has made advanced developments in millimeter-wave SSPAs to support the new non-GEO commercial systems.

Compared with five to 10 years ago, the roadmap now has greater focus on higher frequencies, including Q- and V-band, and on millimeter-wave GaN SSPAs power-combined to achieve higher power levels with good efficiency, as well as more complex and broadband frequency converters. The company has also continued to expand its in-house chip-and-wire assembly capability to increase technical and cost advantages over companies that use packaged parts for their SSPAs.

Transition = Adaptation = Flourish

Constantly adapting to these ever-changing requirements is a challenge. However, when you get it right, the results make it all worthwhile. This current transition, which Comtech Xicom says is halfway through its decade-long period, is moving the industry from the old business model of leased transponders to a new model of paying for service levels and/or guaranteed or consumed data transmission rates.

“The vertical integration of the past is changing, the relationship between user and service provider is changing, and all manner of new applications for satellite communications are envisioned or already happening,” says Thelander.

With massive amounts of new switched capacity as well as new cross-linked LEO networks that can completely bypass fiber network latency, the opportunities are seemingly endless. As transponder costs come down and latency drops with the LEO or MEO constellations, increased usage of satellites for 4G and 5G wireless backhaul, broadband internet, and Business-to-Business (B2B) networking using new cost-reducing SD-WAN technology will grow at a faster rate. Satellite will enter a new era of relevance. “While this is an achievement for the industry as a whole, it may not mean higher revenues for all the satellite operators due to the lower price per bit transmitted. However, it will mean a huge number of new ground terminals are needed. The ground equipment segment should flourish as the industry transition finishes,” explains Thelander.

Terrasat’s IBUC2 Intelligent Block Upconverter.

While Comtech Xicom sees the overall satcom power amplifier market growing over the next few years, the company notes that the market is also splintering among more different types of products.

In the past, there were certain standard products offered by multiple suppliers that satcom system engineers would assume in their link budget and network design. Now, each new system seems to come with individual requirements that aren’t easily covered by a few standard products,” explains Mark Schmeichel, senior vice president and general manager, Comtech Xicom Technologies.

The company is also seeing a trend towards higher volume programs versus the lower volume typically seen with GEO systems, and expects this trend to continue as the LEO or MEO systems come online along with the GEO Very HTS (VHTS). With the emphasis on cost, these high-volume programs often need a program-specific design to optimize performance and cost for their system. The winners of these large volume programs, explains Schmeichel, will develop cost advantages that could improve a supplier’s competitiveness.

“GEO is far from dead. While most of the currently planned GEO systems will actually all be built, I suspect that there will not be sufficient capital to build all of the planned LEO or MEO systems. Which ones will ‘win’ in the end is yet to be seen. But the amplifier suppliers aligned with those winners will also win, probably,” concludes Schmeichel. VS

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