FSS Engineering Roundtable: Regional CTOs Speak Up

In this special FSS Engineering roundtable, we talk to five leading CTOs of regional FSS operators about the technology challenges facing their companies. Taking part are Antonio Abad, CTO, Hispasat; Zoubair Kachri, CTO, Es’hailSat; Dionisio Tun, CTO, Satmex; Paiboon Panuwattanawong, CTO, Thaicom; and Martin Gee, CTO, Yahsat.

VIA SATELLITE: What do you see as the main technology challenges facing the company this year? What technology projects are you working on?

Abad: The major current technological challenge for us is to find the right satellite solution for the broadband business in all its categories: residential, professional, and mobility services. In addition to our Amazonas 3, which is the first satellite to provide broadband services in Latin America with a highly efficient Ka-band payload, there are several other projects in which we are collaborating with the industry in this subject to develop new modulation schemes, defining new services, etc.

The largest technological program we are developing is Hispasat AG1, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, OHB and TESAT from Germany, and Thales Alenia Space España and Astrium CASA from Spain. This program includes the development of the new Small GEO platform and the REDSAT advanced payload.

Kachri: The main technology challenge we are facing is finding effective interference mitigation solutions for our DTH customers. We all follow the continuous change in distribution frequencies on the major Arab news channels. Because Qatar hosts key TV broadcasters, Es’hailSat will provide not only an effective interference solution but also a cost-efficient one for the customers.

The technology projects that we are currently working on are related to developing the TV broadcasting market to use Ka-band. We will start by introducing this concept to Video on Demand (VoD), Catch-up TV, and professional service providers. These customers will benefit from using cost-effective Ka-band transponder capacity in parallel with the usual Ku-band content using dual-band Ku-band/Ka-band LNBs.

Tun: This year Satmex is beginning the operation of our new Satmex 8 satellite, which has new technological advances and 45 percent additional capacity compared to the Satmex 5 satellite. Additionally we have our first all-electric satellite, Satmex 7, under construction at Boeing facilities. We are looking at possibilities for expanding our fleet so we will look for additional orbital slots and frequencies other than the standard C- and Ku-bands and/or intensive frequency reuse.

Panuwattanawong: We expect to have Thaicom 6 launched this year to respond to the increase in the demand for digital satellite TV. Our team is working on a cost effective set top box that can support HD and DVB-S2 systems with advanced features such as recording and rating systems. In addition, Thailand is also moving forward with Digital Terrestrial TV, which we plan to integrate into our set-top-box so that customers can have one box for both satellite and terrestrial TV receptions. For data and broadband applications, we are working on a satellite mobile unit as well as 3G/4G/LTE trunking. We are working in conjunction with some of the ground system manufacturers and service providers to promote additional use on our high throughput satellite, Ipstar 1.

Gee: I wouldn’t consider Yahsat to have any technical challenges per se. I would say it is more of a significant operational effort rolling out YahClick to all of our markets. Today we are fully operational in eight markets and have several more to go. Saying that, we are constantly looking for ways to improve our product portfolio to service the requests of our customers, especially in the area of supporting managed VAS to complement the IP connectivity services.

 

VIA SATELLITE: What is your view on High Throughput Satellites (HTS)? Do you see these as the future for the industry? Will you look to commission a HTS in the near future?

Abad: We are very interested in the evolution of HTS and we follow them closely. However, our current approach to the broadband business is to develop limited spot beam payloads focused on very well identified coverages and embark them in multimission satellites with other standard Ku- or C-band payloads. With this approach, we control the risk associated to a limited development of the satellite broadband market. We believe that HTS will be an important segment in the satellite industry if we are able to develop adequate and efficient satellite solutions. For that purpose, it is very important that the satellite industry follows the trend of the terrestrial infrastructures in terms of increasing the capacity and reducing the cost of Mbps.

Kachri: HTS provide a huge economic benefit in terms of the cost per Mbps. This allows communication services based on these satellites to be affordable in disadvantaged areas (digital divide) and to be competitive to terrestrial networks in the other areas. The MENA region will see a boom in demand for Internet services and business communication, as Internet penetration rates and bit rates grow to match the rest of the developing world. This will require more HTS and VSATs.

I don’t see the future filled only with HTS for FSS. Most of the HTS systems are based on gateways on the ground. Many users will still need to avoid gateways either to reduce the transit delays or to avoid regulatory issues when their traffic is controlled by a gateway in a third party country. Es’hailSat is not planning an HTS for the near future but for mid-term future, it will be needed.

Tun: HTS will make the satellite communications available for more and more people in the world. Through intensive reuse of frequencies they provide higher data rates at lower cost. I would expect to see more HTS in the future but I do not think all satellites will be HTS.

Panuwattanawong: I believe that there are markets that HTS can nicely fit and be both profitable and competitive, and can provide a good solution for customers that fit the profile. It took Thaicom several years to make our broadband business profitable, as there were many challenges that we had to overcome in getting the landing rights in the many countries we service. Finding the right partners who could bring the necessary values to the table, along with building trust and confidence has not been easy. There are many things that we have learned along the way that we have been incorporating into our existing systems, and that we will apply to our next HTS.

Gee: HTS is an integral part of our strategy and an area where we believe we are well positioned to deliver, both on our current satellite Y1B via YahClick and beyond. We cannot divulge exact information about our plans but, yes, we are actively looking at expanding our coverage and capacity.

Es’hailSat is evaluating the trade-off, presented by Boeing’s [all-electric satellite] solution, between longer GTO (longer time-to-market), Van Allen radiation belts risk, and the overall mission cost. For a startup company like Es’hailSat, time to market is critical.­— Kachri

 

VIA SATELLITE: Boeing signed a deal with Satmex/ABS for satellites based on all-electric propulsion. Are you interested in these types of satellites? Do you see these as the future?

Abad: Certainly this deal got a significant focus in all the satellite industry last year. According to the information that we can estimate, the cost per transponder in orbit achieved would be difficult to match with other satellite/launcher configuration. That being said, we do not expect this type of satellite to become a general trend in the market as several conditions need to happen at the same time: satellite capacity matching the operator needs, coupling of two launch opportunities usually between different operators, and affording a six-month Launch and Early Operation Phase (LEOP).

In any case, we expect to see more satellite platforms with full electric systems in the future as long as they can open new launch opportunities at lower cost. For example, we expect that a 5-ton-class satellite with a 9 to 10 kW payload could be configured in a full Electric Propulsion (EP) 3 to 4-ton-class satellite, which could open new launch opportunities and reduce dramatically the cost of the launch. This shall be taken into account by the launcher industry as it will change the mass-to-volume ratio and may require new developments in the fairings to accommodate these satellites.

Kachri: Es’hailSat is very interested in the Boeing 702SP all-electric propulsion platform. We are in discussion with them, as we are with other satellite manufacturers, regarding the potential Es’hail 2 program. Es’hailSat is evaluating the trade-off, presented by Boeing’s solution, between longer GTO (longer time-to-market), Van Allen radiation belts risk, and the overall mission cost. For a startup company like Es’hailSat, time to market is critical. The technical teams from both companies are working to find the best optimization for Es’hailSat.

I see the future split between all-electric propulsion for small to medium size satellites and hybrid systems (chemical and EP) for the big satellites. The development of the all-electric propulsion will depend heavily on the availability, reliability and affordability of launchers with direct dual GSO injection. Moreover, the Boeing all-electric propulsion package with SpaceX’s dual launch will offer many companies and countries affordable access to space. This will help accelerate the adoption of all-EP.

Tun: Satmex decided to select the 702SP platform because of the 702s reliability and because the EP typically offers higher specific impulse than chemical propulsion, requiring less amount of propellant to be loaded into the satellite for the same number of years of on-orbit service life, which makes possible to launch our Satmex 7 satellite in the Falcon 9 launch vehicle in a dual configuration, allowing us efficiencies in the capital investment. We are confident in the performance of the 702SP platform and we have the option to include additional ones in our fleet. I think the industry has reacted positively and I foresee that other companies will adopt this approach.

Panuwattanawong: We do find the concept of using all-EP systems for orbit raising and station keeping to be very interesting. This could help reduce the cost on the launch service or increase payload capability for the same mass. However, there are some issues that have to be carefully analyzed. Satellite operators still need to confirm that the risks associated with having the satellites orbiting in the sub-geostationary for a long period of times are acceptable. There are risks from space debris and other objects as well as high radiation in the Van Allen Belt that could damage or degrade the satellite. In addition, satellite operators will also have to consider allocating three to six months extra for the satellite procurement plan to accommodate longer LEOP operations with all-electric propulsion for orbit raising.

Gee: We definitely see a more agile and cost efficient approach to bring value, especially when it comes to growth markets. One often thinks that the biggest possible satellite brings the best value proposition, which may be the case in some markets or in the case of replacement missions; however, when it comes to new market entry, a “pay-as-you-grow” approach can also be attractive. The cost savings delivered by EP are significant and cannot be ignored; however, this needs to be coupled with the technical risk associated as things stand as well as the extra time taken to fully orbit the satellite.

 

VIA SATELLITE: In terms of satellite manufacturing, are you pleased with the options? What areas are you looking to improve?

Abad: We are expecting three major trends in the satellite industry: the increase of capacity and flexibility to allocate capacity within different spots, focused in the satellite broadband business. You also have generic in-orbit flexibility, aiming at the ultimate goal of the “generic satellite” that could work in any orbital position and change frequency and coverage at any time in orbit. And finally, the industrialization and standardization of the satellite equipment that should allow to build generic equipment before allocating to a specific mission. When a new satellite program starts, it should be possible to take these generic boxes from the shelves and “adjust the tuning screws” to adapt to the particular mission. This should generate dramatic reductions in cost and schedule.

Also there is an increasing concern about security in the satellite business and we are expecting the manufacturers to provide solutions that will increase the security of the TTC links.

Kachri: For the medium and large satellites, the available options create the required competitive market to get the right value-proposition. For the small satellites, the market still needs more players.

The improvements that Es’hailSat is looking for are related to interference mitigation techniques in the space and ground segments. In the long run, the major improvement that is needed is the standardization of the physical and data interfaces of the space-qualified equipment. We need to be able to outsource these components from different manufacturers without having to incur delays in the programs. It will also ease the work for the satellite manufacturers. CCSDS is doing great job at data interface level. We are still far from any convergence at the physical layer.

Tun: Satellite manufacturing is always evolving and has improved over the years in several areas: you can have all-electric satellites, or more powerful ones, or more complex and more reliable payloads for example.

Panuwattanawong: There are a number of satellite manufacturers out there offering choices for satellite operators to select from. They all seem to have made some progress in improving the satellite capability and reliability, but there are still a number of advanced technologies which our development team has conceived since the inception of Ipstar that are still being developed. The long lead time for the procurement and manufacturing cycle seems to have improved incrementally, but most are still being driven by the TWTA manufacturers and other long lead time parts.

Gee: We are receiving strong input from the industry to support our future plans. We look to the industry for more innovation and creativity in terms of optimizing missions to meet differing operator needs and local market dynamics, especially leveraging new developments and technology.

 

VIA SATELLITE: Flexible payloads are being talked about in the industry. Are these something that could make a huge difference?

Abad: Flexibility, in effect, could be a key element in the future development of the satellite industry. I would just add that we are expecting this flexibility to provide for more effective solutions that will not increase the cost of the satellite capacity.

Kachri: Flexible Microwave Power Modules (MPMs), agile down-converters and reconfigurable filters will allow configuring the satellite dynamically based on the market demand and constraints. Without any doubt it is useful. The benefits will be enormous from reducing the satellite launch mass, facilitating frequency coordination outcomes, easing interference mitigation and providing better ROI.

Tun: If you take into account that you began to define the payload characteristics three or more years in advance of the beginning of operation, that you expect to last at least 15 years on orbit, then certainly flexible payloads may make a difference in the business. Flexible power levels, adjustable beams, or more switching capabilities might allow capturing more business opportunities.

Panuwattanawong: Considering that most of the commercial satellites have orbital maneuver lifetime of well above 15 years, having the flexibility in the payload to cope with the dynamics of the satellite market is certainly something that a satellite operator would like to have, especially for HTS. Having the ability to reallocate bandwidth to different service areas over the lifetime of the satellite will definitely help satellite operators to cope with the changing market demands.

Gee: The current satellite technology is demonstrating very good reliability and extended lifetimes, hence considering the long service life of the satellites, a measure of flexibility in the payload configuration (for example, coverage, bandwidth, EIRP, etc.) is an important factor, as it allows us to take advantage of market changes and developments.

 

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