COTM: New Commercial Opportunities for Satellite
The commercial communications-on-the-move (COTM) market has expanded to support virtually anything that moves, including aircraft, trains, ships, automobiles, trucks, farm and construction equipment and shipping containers. COTM technology, which was originally developed for military applications, eventually migrated to the commercial market and has now made the jump to the consumer market. The objective in today’s mobility market is clear: If it moves, make it communicate.
An important part of the overall COTM market segment is communications-on-the-pause (COTP), which is a relatively new term that was coined to add a bit of specificity to the overall COTM market segment. While technically not “on the move,” COTP hardware and services are mobile, but they require vehicles to come to a complete stop for them to communicate.
The COTM market segment is one of the few where both MSS and FSS operators compete for market share. MSS solutions can communicate from a few bits-per-second to more than 400 Kbps. FSS solutions, which employ some type of VSAT platform, range from 128 kilobits-per-second to multiple megabits-per-second.
The broadcast, transportation and energy industries rely heavily on COTM solutions, as well as state, national and local governments around the globe. Satellite communications is a mainstay of non-governmental organizations (NGO) and is always the first communication option that relief organizations look to after a major disaster. Each of these segments has different needs, throughput requirements and budgets, and COTM solutions have been specifically crafted to meet their requirements. This has led to an amalgam of hardware manufacturers, hardware integrators, satellite operators and service providers.
From a business perspective, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is unique. The association is the sanctioning body for a number of stock car races, and unlike other sports, individual teams are not associated with specific stadiums. “As an example, we hold 38 Sprint Cup events in 23 different venues,” says Steven Worling, NASCAR’s senior director of Information Technology. “It is a very mobile sport. NASCAR is the sanctioning body for all the races and we must move with the teams. We rely heavily on satellite communications to make our business operate and have for some time.”
NASCAR has a small fleet of semi-trucks that haul all of the gear needed to support the business infrastructure at a race. Once on-site, the trucks turn into temporary offices. Typically there are 80 – 100 NASCAR employees at an event and a majority of them need Internet access and e-mail. “Some of the tracks, like Talladega, Ala., are remote and we are there for only three to four days at a time. With so few events scheduled at the track, it is a hard for terrestrial carriers to economically justify laying fiber to it,” Worling says. “Of the more than 45 different teams, roughly 20 have auto-acquire VSATs. The teams need to get information back and forth to their race shops, partners and sponsors, as well as those outside the racetrack. A team’s prime responsibility is getting their car ready for racing.”
NASCAR uses an AVL auto-acquire antenna that is housed in a custom built recessed area in the roof of one of their haulers. “The recessed area allows the antenna to stow below the roofline so it won’t get damaged while we are driving from location to location. The antenna is less than one meter in diameter but we can uplink 512 Kbps and downlink speeds up to 1.5 Mbps,” Worling adds.
In addition to carrying a portable IT infrastructure to every event, NASCAR transports a complete video production system to support broadcast partners, such as FOX, ESPN, SPEED and TNT. The broadcast trucks have their own VSAT to transmit a race. “We do everything on-site, from production to editing to graphics to distribution to broadcasters from the track,” Worling adds.
The lack of a “home stadium” may be challenging for NASCAR, but the company and the teams have developed ways to create a home base utilizing satellite communications, no matter where they are.
Planes and Trains
The railway industry shares a number of parallels with commercial airlines as a potential market for COTM solutions. Railways and airlines both use satellite technology to stay in contact with planes and trains in transit from one location to another. The Australian Rail Track Corp. utilizes Iridium short-burst data service to monitor the health and status of 700 locomotives while in route. Within the last several months, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted approval for the use of Iridium data services to transmit Air Traffic Control (ATC) communications from airplanes in oceanic airspace.
While the airline industry has been investigating a number of competitive technologies to deliver broadband services to in-flight passengers, similar initiatives have been launched in the passenger train market. Hybrid networks have been developed, which combine Wi-Fi with either cellular or satellite. Although passenger trains have the luxury of taking a known route, something airlines can’t count on due to inclement weather, they still present challenges to network architects. Passenger trains are popular where there is sufficient urban density to support them. High-speed rail travel between destinations in Europe and Asia is popular and pent-up demand for broadband connectivity appears to be similar to that in the airline market.
France’s SNCF rail company, which operates the TGV high-speed rail service, recently launched TGVBox, a high-speed Internet/multimedia service on trains for its eastern route. The TGVBox uses technology and infrastructure developed by a consortium of companies, including Orange Business Services, Eutelsat, Alstom and Capgemini.
Designing a satellite antenna for use in a high-speed rail system comes with a unique set of challenges. Maintaining line-of-sight is the first thing satellite engineers must deal with. In addition to steep mountains and tunnels, overhead electrical cables and the gantries that support them must be taken into account. A low antenna profile is a must due to the fact that there is precious little space between the roof of the train and overhead obstacles. The antenna must deliver high gain in order to transmit a significant amount of bandwidth. Once those hurdles have been dealt with, the designed antenna must also contend with electrical interference and sparks coming from the high-voltage lines powering the train.
Satellite operator Eutelsat developed a new antenna for TGVBox in collaboration with TES in Italy. The onmi-directional antenna is designed to work on trains moving at 320 Kmh. The design, although small enough for rail environments, is rugged enough to handle the constant vibration, acceleration and extreme temperatures.
“The train market is an interesting one, but there are several key questions that need to be addressed,” says Claude Rousseau, senior analyst, NSR. “How many trains can be outfitted with these solutions? Not all train rides last long enough to use the Internet. Is there enough usage to generate enough revenues to pay for themselves? There is peak traffic in the morning and afternoon, just a few hours of usage. Where you have dense railway traffic, such as in Europe, there appears to be a good take-up rate for Internet connectivity on trains.”
The cruise industry was an early adopter of COTM technology and services. “The joint venture partnership that later became MTN helped develop the original stabilized VSAT antennas for the commercial satellite market,” says Errol Olivier, president and COO of MTN. “What started off as a solution for cruise liners, we kept evolving and became adopted by a number of other industries.”
Olivier points out the dramatic impact the Internet has had on the cruise industry noting that many mainstays of ship life require bandwidth, such as a ship’s Internet café, Wi-Fi hotspots, gaming operations, crew communications and corporate communications between the ship and corporate headquarters, as well as third-party networks for gift shops on board cruise liners. Some vendors are even monitoring remote equipment in a ship’s refrigeration systems while the vessel is underway via the ship’s satellite link.
“The clientele on cruise ships has changed quite a bit in the last 20 years,” Olivier continued. “People used to go on cruises to escape and be by themselves; now people want to stay connected, or need to stay connected, while they are on a cruise.”
Olivier notes that there has also been a shift in traffic patterns, with less voice traffic and more data. “Passengers like to stay connected through social networking, email and texting. We have had to adapt our network to accommodate these traffic shifts. Overall, bandwidth demand is going up. Of course, cruise ships are much larger now, with some holding up to 5,000 passengers. Bandwidth demand has grown on a typical ship from 128 Kbps 10 years ago to 1 Mbps today. Large ships require even more bandwidth,” he says.
The demand for COTM services is a huge potential growth market for MSS operators such as Iridium and Inmarsat. Both operators, which are building next-generation constellations of satellites, are looking to tap into the demand for COTM services. Inmarsat’s global footprint reaches everywhere except the poles and the MSS company, and with maritime roots has expanded their BGAN service offering to include communication services to mobile devices on land, sea and in the air. BGAN represented a huge boost in performance to end-users, offering IP connectivity at data speeds up to 492 kbps. The initial BGAN terminals were stationary, but mobile platforms that could communicate while in motion were introduced shortly after the service launch and new variants continue to be released.
The Hughes 9450-C11 is a good example, incorporating a small auto-acquire antenna, Ethernet or integrated Wi-Fi, and advanced software optimized for vehicular fleets to effectively control usage costs. The incorporation of a BGAN terminal using Ethernet or Wi-Fi has a number of benefits. The integrated system has common software, making commissioning much easier than dealing with a hodgepodge of different communication devices from different manufacturers; the terminal has a single power supply, making it easier to install in vehicles; and it has an intelligent power management system that senses when the vehicle’s ignition is off and automatically powers down.
Iridium also continues to introduce new COTM solutions to the market. “Data is now the fastest growing segment within Iridium,” says Patrick Shay, vice president and general manager, Data Services, Iridium.“That segment has been growing at a 60 percent annual rate and we expect the growth to continue.”
One of the reasons for optimism is the release last year of the new 9602 Data Module. The matchbook-sized OEM module allows manufacturers to integrate satellite communications capability into a wide range of products. Irdium is looking to exploit a perceived demand machine-to-machine market for a satellite communication device that can provide global coverage and two-way (duplex), low-latency, short-burst data connections at an economical price. Iridium took orders for more than 100,000 9602 modules last year.
In their annual forecast of space segment demand for 2010, Futron looked at the needs of the COTM market and found that when all of the slices of bandwidth used to support COTM applications were added together, the aggregate represented 145 of the more than 7,000 available transponders. Futron predicts in their report that the total number of transponders will grow to the 10,000 mark by 2019 and that mobility applications will account for 450 transponders — a 300 percent growth in 10 years.
“We see steady growth in the maritime segment and VSAT communications is being integrated into the communication system on everything from ships to drilling rigs. Companies are pushing remote applications and end-users will want more bandwidth. This will stimulate growth for a while,” says Jacob Gullish, director, space and telecommunications, Futron.
There are many new products being developed to serve COTM applications and prices are dropping, Rousseau says. “We see the ongoing development of smaller auto-acquire and stabilized VSAT antennas. The smaller size and weight of the antennas make it easier to install. You see this because many satellite operators serve dual clientele: commercial and military customers. There are some bright spots in the comms-on-the-move market, but it is still primarily a government and military market.”
Gullish thinks there will be a decline of video contribution via satellite in the future and notes the importance of this segment to the overall COTM market. “More and more stadiums and public places have fiber connectivity and news organizations have begun the shift to news pooling, which equates to fewer SNG trucks. In addition, news organizations at the local level have been hard hit by this economic downturn and have had to cut back. Will they rebound when the economy turns around? It is unsure at this time. And last, we see an increasing amount of news coverage using videophones and Skype. The viewers seem to have accepted these lower quality images and this equates to less satellite usage. 10 years from now we see significantly less formal news gathering via satellite,” he says.
The market for COTM solutions is bifurcated and the commercial market segment benefits greatly from the military segment. Hardware manufacturers and integrators, as well as service providers, can leverage both markets. In turn, commercial and military customers reap the financial benefits that come with the increased scale. The future looks bright for COTM as it continues to grow and the market anticipates the coming availability of Ka-band frequencies.