In 2017, when dozens of commercial airlines adopted next-generation, satellite-based in-flight Wi-Fi service across their fleets, high-speed satellite communications were pretty limited to a single orbit: GEO.
Six years later, satellite equipment provider ThinKom Solutions — which powered many of those flights with its ThinAir terminals — has significantly expanded its horizons: This year, the company is demonstrating antennas capable of fielding communications in multiple orbits.
“We kind of saw this coming,” says Bill Milroy, chairman and CTO of ThinKom. “Our technology has some nice attributes in terms of being fully compliant to the most stringent regulatory requirements … being able to move the beams very quickly and being able to operate over very wide channels and frequency bands as necessary to support multi-constellation and now multi-orbit capability.”
Just this past February, SES, ThinKom and Hughes completed a demonstration of a multi-orbit service to support government airborne missions, through the use of the ThinKom ThinAir Ka2517 airborne satcom terminal over SES's Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geostationary (GEO) satellite networks.
ThinKom is not the only equipment manufacturer that’s hoping 2023 is the year of the first multi-orbit satellite terminals that work as seamlessly as automatic-transmission vehicles.
The demand for high-speed, low-latency, reliable satellite connectivity has fueled an “arms race” of sorts among terminal manufacturers across the globe. A new breed of terminals and ground equipment is more capable of supporting operations across multiple orbits — GEO, MEO, Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. The latest and greatest terminals also look markedly different than their pre-2020 predecessors — sporting sleek, flat panels and lower-profile designs.
The Journey to Multi-Orbit
For satellite industry players with a strong foothold in GEO, the move to multi-orbit terminals is somewhat of a business necessity, as customers such as government/military demand higher-resiliency networks.
“Our antennas have four to eight times higher performance than a LEO-only antenna, in terms of sensitivity which is absolutely critical to effectively work on GEO networks,” says Milroy. “That's why, for our fully-capable, no-compromise GEO terminals, we've chosen to integrate the LEO capability. This is much easier than starting with a LEO-only system and try to make it compatible with GEOs; it just doesn’t work that way.”
However, single-orbit solutions are still optimal for some use-cases, such as commercial maritime, says Daniel Welch, a satellite market researcher and director at independent research firm Valour Consultancy.
“We'll see a lot of land mobility and maritime move into LEO only, like Starlink, which has between 4,000 and 5,000 vessels already, both indirect and direct, with their own terminals,” says Welch. “In land mobility, you’ve got the connected car, buses, surface mining, autonomous mining, there's lots of different segments. They're perfectly served by LEO only, potentially with some cellular built in as well, as a hybrid network.”
Multi-orbit is expected to come into greater play in commercial and military aviation, with some presence across maritime and land mobility, he adds.
“The reason is, there's a need for robust and reliable connectivity in those segments,” Welch explains. “In commercial aviation in particular, a lot of aircraft are equipped with connectivity systems that talk to GEO satellites.”
Valour Consultancy expects global shipments of communications on the move (COTM) flat panel antennas to grow from a very low base of just below 3,000 to approximately 100,000 units by 2030, at a CAGR of 57 percent.
Lilac Muller, vice president of Product Management at Kymeta Corporation, says that high resiliency is the number one driver for multi-orbit capabilities.
“When we switch between networks, we actually have different modems in our terminal,” Muller explains. “So we have the OneWeb modem, we have a GEO modem and we have a cellular modem, and all those modems have to be in the terminal, and each modem, like it or not, costs money. So until we get to software-defined modems, interoperability standards where we can have a single hardware module, unfortunately it's likely going to be more expensive.”
That begs the question, which users are willing to pay more for a high-resiliency, multi-orbit solution?
“Are all use cases going to require multi orbit? No way,” says Muller. “Direct-to-home for example, it's the lowest cost possible and they just need a best-effort connection. And that's where you're going to see solutions like Starlink, an affordable simple solution, that's a single network. That customer in their house doesn't really need more priority.”
The customers willing to pay a higher rate for hardware and services are those that require high resiliency. “If I’m in a cabin in the mountains and the power goes out, it’s not a high-resiliency use case. I don't value multi orbit,” she says. “But if I am NATO forces out in the field, I need a high-resiliency connection. The stakes are different.”
Challenges in Communications
Cobham Satcom, which designs and manufactures active tracking antennas across GEO, HEO, MEO, and LEO satellites, is also focused on delivering multi-orbit, multi-band, multi-network capabilities to operators serving military and commercial applications. In March 2023, Cobham Satcom signed a contract to provide SES with multi-orbit capable Tactical Tracker terminals and its Explorer 8120 vehicle mount tracking antenna to support a range of O3b mPOWER-enabled communications.
Yet while Cobham Satcom offers multi-orbit antennas to support NGSO and GEO applications in maritime and land-based communications, the lack of interoperability between networks, each with their own waveform and modems, is an ongoing challenge for the industry, notes Bob Potter, Cobham Satcom’s CTO.
“The nirvana is having a universal modem that works across all networks,” says Potter, noting that the Digital Intermediate Frequency Interoperability (DIFI) Consortium, which comprises multiple satellite industry stakeholders, is working hard on this goal.
He says the issue is not in the design of the antenna, but solving the problem of how to operate the antenna and interface into the network. Satcom has similar challenges as the wireless industry with frequency bands and add-in waveforms, and the industry is now moving toward a standard method of managing and controlling the antennas in a standard interface. “M&C interface and DIFI offer the opportunity for a common data plane with virtualization of the modem and network protocols, and that's really what we've been concentrating on,” he adds
But Muller said that while the satellite industry is making progress — including Kymeta, which will launch its first multi-orbit flat panel terminals which operate on GEO, OneWeb’s LEO, and cellular networks later this year — it’s still far off from where the cellular industry is with interoperability.
“It took decades but standards-based interoperability was developed and adopted, which allows me to now land in Tokyo, turn on my phone, and it just miraculously works,” she says. “The satellite industry isn't there yet.”
However, if the industry can gravitate toward a standards-based modem, costs could come down, and potentially open the door for more multi-orbit use cases.
“If you want a multi-orbit solution that is the lowest cost possible, you want as few pieces of hardware [as possible],” says Muller. “And the only way to do that is with a common hardware platform supported with software-defined modem capabilities. Until that exists, a multi-orbit terminal will be a bit more complex.”
The Shape of What’s to Come
While evolutions in design are impressive, the needs of operators and service providers are driving the look and feel of terminals.
“Operators like OneWeb have been the most active in terms of the partnerships they’ve built,” says Welch. “They’ve gotten very stringent, they've got very high expectations of the antenna for it to work on that network, in terms of beam switching. The fact that a few vendors have achieved that partnership is huge.”
Blane Boynton, vice president of Product Development for Intelsat, agrees that shape and functionality of multi-orbit terminals will be dictated by their intended use cases and vertical markets.
“In general, you will see a shift to deployment of auto-pointing, electronically-steered array based antennas because these antennas allow us orbit-flexibility,” said Boynton. “As the ESA technology continues to improve, we expect the terminals to marginally decrease in size but materially decrease in cost, weight and customer complexity. So these terminals will look futuristic, fully integrated and in general we’ll see movement away from large parabolic dish antennas in many use cases.”
Specifically, says Boynton, operators are looking for a few things: a great connected customer experience, flexible terminals and networks, and eliminating hardware, software, and network lock-in.
“From a customer experience standpoint we are hard at work developing products and service with one mantra in mind: ‘Make Satellite Simple,’” said Boynton. ‘Our Flex customers will see us move to automated provisioning and commissioning in the form of a simple-to-use mobile app in early 2024. In addition to simplifying the customer experience at the terminal edge, we are also working on new network capabilities that will allow us to dynamically change service levels, like a 'surge' capability that allows a higher level of throughput on demand. When the surge demand is done we dial the connection back down, automatically.”
By all accounts, ground equipment will continue to evolve as the industry moves toward software-defined applications, and needs shift.
“The future of multi orbit terminals is indeed promising, and we expect them to play a significant role in the satellite communication landscape,” says Nir Barkan, CEO of SatixFy, satellite communications provider with an extensive product line of antennas and chipsets. “However, it’s important to note that single-orbit terminals will continue to have their place for many years to come, serving specific use cases where additional orbit support may not be necessary.”
For example, in applications such as the Internet of Things, where cost efficiency is a critical factor, single orbit terminals are likely to remain prevalent, Barkan says.
“IoT terminals often have low data rate requirements, making them well-suited for single orbit solutions that offer simplicity and cost-effectiveness,” says Barkan. “Similarly, fixed data link installations with large 1.2-meter dish antennas may not require the multi-orbit capability. These installations typically have stable communication requirements and can efficiently operate with single orbit terminals.”
Barkan says SatixFy has “achieved significant milestones” in 2023, through recent demonstrations of simultaneous multi-orbit capabilities on actual product-level terminals. “These achievements validate that simultaneous multi-orbit/multi-beam capabilities are not just theoretical but are indeed available and fully functional,” he says. Presently, we are actively engaged in developing various products based on our advanced technology, each designed to cater to specific markets and verticals.”
Barkan says SatixFy recognizes that the demand for multi-orbit/multi-beam solutions is relatively high-end and is particularly crucial for markets such as aero and government, where high service level agreements and robust resiliency is essential.
“The choice between multi-orbit and single orbit terminals will largely depend on the specific requirements and budget constraints of each application,” he says, “ensuring that both types of terminals co-exist to cater to the diverse needs of the industry.” VS