MSS Engineering Roundtable: A New Dawn Approaches

In the last roundtable we spoke to the CTO’s of five regional FSS operators and their plans to invest in new technology. For the MSS sector, there are also a number of key technical questions as they look to bring next generation services to market. In this exclusive roundtable, we talk to the key technology executives of four of the biggest MSS operators: Ahmed Al Shamsi, CTO, Thuraya; Paul Monte, vice president of engineering and operations, Globalstar; Ruy Pinto, CTO, Inmarsat; and Hermon Pon, vice president of technology, Iridium.

 

VIA SATELLITE: What do you see as the main technology challenges facing your company over the next 12 months? What technology projects are you working on?

Al Shamsi: Over the last few years, Thuraya had changed its approach and philosophy in managing the network considering the critical nature of the services we are providing to our consumers. The approach focuses on enhancing the operational processes and upgrading the critical elements in the system to the latest technologies that provide superior performance, innovative features and additional reliability. This resulted in higher level of system availability and stability that were well received and recognized by our consumers and partners.

Additionally, we embarked on an aggressive product development roadmap, for which we’re now seeing the results. At SATELLITE 2013 we unveiled the world’s first satellite adaptor for the iPhone, called the Thuraya SatSleeve, for which we’ve seen tremendous response from the market.

Monte: The past 12 months have been the most challenging for Globalstar. We completed the world’s first second generation network with the fourth successful launch of six LEO satellites; our challenge today is to get the word out: our product’s performance is superior. In May, we released Spot Global Phone, which users are able to purchase in common retail stores in the United States such as REI, Sportsman’s Warehouse, Cabela’s or Bass Pro. The Spot Global Phone is a ready-to-use satellite phone.

Additionally, we will soon be releasing a new maritime kit. With the world’s first second generation network in place, we’ll be embarking on several new technology projects to harness the constellation and ground infrastructure’s capabilities. We’ve challenged ourselves to create products that enable 3G and 4G services to translate from your cell phone to our satellite system.

Pinto: The next 12 months for us will be a lot about delivery. The technology challenge is to successfully deliver all the projects that we have in the pipeline. In July, we are launching Alphasat, a flagship platform for our L-band franchise. I think it is fair to say that Alphasat is the most capable L-band satellite that we have launched, and I think it will be the most capable L-band satellite to launch for quite some time.

Over the next year, we will also start to deliver on our Global Xpress project. We have been at the forefront of innovating on Ka-band with Global Xpress; we now have to deliver this to our customers. Additionally, we are working hard with Cisco to provide an applications platform that goes across Ka-band and L-band.

It has always been difficult to provide applications in our industry and to develop new products quickly. We want to make it easy for partners and applications developers to innovate across the ecosystem, and our partnership with Cisco – where they are going to provide an off-the-shelf router that will work seamlessly with our terminals – give us this enhanced capability. The whole infrastructure will be deployed over the next 12 months.

Pon: Our top priority is a smooth transition from the current Iridium network to Iridium NEXT, and we are on track with the plans to design, build and launch NEXT beginning in early 2015. For instance, we’ve achieved the critical design milestone, the engineering units are being built, and testing has started on the ground.

In addition, we are modernizing our ground systems such as gateways and satellite control systems. Our existing gateway provides all that is necessary to support Iridium NEXT, but it is being upgraded to improve the system’s overall functionality, maintainability and reliability which will enable Iridium to support new customer bases, products and services – such as commercial push to talk. Because Iridium NEXT is designed to be backward-compatible with all current Iridium products and services, we expect any devices on our network before Iridium NEXT launches will continue to work as designed after the launch.

VIA SATELLITE: What is your view on High Throughput Satellites (HTS)? Do you see these as the future for the industry?

Al Shamsi: HTS offers a great opportunity to push the MSS sector into serving new markets. However, mobility is still a challenge with HTS in Ka-band in addition to some technical issues related to rain-fade, attenuation, and link margin that need to be addressed. What HTS does deliver is higher throughput and lower cost per bit. HTS technology will bring the competition not only between the FSS and MSS but between BSS and FSS as well. This is because today’s end users are looking for on-demand video streaming and interactive services using data and Internet links. While HTS technology may revolutionize the whole satellite industry, it may only do so if it is used correctly with the right offering and user-friendly products and solutions.

A true convergence between MSS and FSS has yet to happen. Each band has its own sweet spot and I believe that we shouldn’t engage in a battle of the bands discussion.­— Ahmed Al Shamsi, Thuraya

Monte: No, though they certainly have their place. The difference is in mobility: the more mobile, the harder it is to deliver high data rates. As an MSS operator, Globalstar will be able to meet the high data demands of our customers with impressive data speeds of up to 256 Kbps with a 14mm by 14mm chip. The current use of HTS in VSAT and TV applications does not directly compete with Globalstar’s services. The MSS network we operate allows us to be truly mobile.

Pinto: From a technology perspective, it is interesting to see what Intelsat, ViaSat and HNS are doing with HTS. There is a place for these satellites in providing broadband connections that are not reached by terrestrial technologies or even providing high-throughput services where the terrestrial infrastructure is not so good. And, it is exciting to see those satellites are coming online. But, like our investments in providing a mobility offering, I see these developments as expanding the whole market.

I think the companies that are developing HTS, as well as companies like Inmarsat, are building great momentum and growth opportunities into the communications market. There is some overlap but we are expanding our respective markets in slightly different directions. In many areas we compete, but in many cases we complement each other. HTS are not the future, but they are part of the future.

Pon: Our new NEXT satellites will have much higher throughput than our current satellites and will provide vastly superior processing power compared to the current Block 1 satellites: roughly nine times computational throughput and 125 times memory capacity. All this means we will be able to offer higher processing capabilities and new waveforms that allow speeds greater than 500 Kbps.

VIA SATELLITE: There has been a lot of talk between convergence between the MSS and FSS industries. Given that the likes of SES and Intelsat are looking to sign more deals in maritime/in-flight connectivity, for example, is MSS technology under more pressure than ever before?

Al Shamsi: Thuraya has traditionally been strong in the land mobile segment and we haven’t been impacted like other MSS operators. However, a true convergence between MSS and FSS has yet to happen. Each band has its own sweet spot and I believe that we shouldn’t engage in a battle of the bands discussion. As an industry, it is important that we dedicate time to educate end users on the applications and the advantages that each band offers. The fact remains that Ku-and Ka-band terminals are not designed for truly mobile applications and there is the cost factor of the space segment and equipment. L-band offers superb mobility, compact devices with fast deployment for mobile applications and it can be truly considered as the “tactical band,” whereas other bands like Ku and Ka are better suited for non-mobile bandwidth-hungry applications.

Monte: Globalstar is always exploring markets, industries, and uses for our services. The SPOT brand was born out of our awareness for what consumers are looking for in-satellite services. We’ll continue to mine the unknown areas throughout our industry and we’ll be paying close attention to how the MSS and FSS lines continue to blur. And we’ll be ready to take advantage when necessary.

Pinto: MSS and FSS operators are under more pressure than they have ever been before, which is good. What is going on in the industry is good for the user, and good for us as operators. It is forcing us to expand our market, and to compete with each other. But, our ambition is also to grow the applications market. In reality, users nowadays don’t overly worry about whether something is Ka-band, L-band, Q-band, or X-band. They worry more about having a high quality and high reliability end-to-end service. In the current economic climate, such as the budget environment in the United States, both MSS and FSS markets are under pressure to deliver more for the same amount of money. We have to add value to the services we provide, and adding value means we have to plan our offering and ensure that we deliver clear additional value to customers, whether that is the Department of Defense, the captain of a cruise ship in the Caribbean or a container vessel sailing through the Singapore Strait. They simply want a service that works; they don’t truly mind which band it is. Whoever succeeds in providing this end-to-end experience, which satisfies the broad variety of requirements of these users, is going to be successful.

Pon: At Iridium we see this as more of an opportunity than a threat, viewing ourselves as a complement to FSS by providing coverage extension in areas that can’t be served by FSS. We are currently exploring partnerships that allow for this complementary support, and just this year we finalized a partnership with KVH Industries whereby they offer an integrated service package that pairs their mini-VSAT broadband service with the Iridium OpenPort broadband service for seamless, fully global connectivity.

VIA SATELLITE: How are you looking to invest in new technology going forward? Are there any particular technologies you are focused on?

Al Shamsi: We are currently in a research phase where we are studying and evaluating different technologies for our next generation. However, it is too early for us to share any information as to what technology we are planning to adopt.

Monte: Globalstar is equipped to provide 3G and 4G services to market. We’ve used cellular standards in our second-generation ground equipment, which allows Globalstar to take advantage of the development of new terrestrial wireless products and services. As we develop new products and services we’ll be focused on meeting the needs of a wide array of consumers.

Pinto: There are two areas where we are investigating and starting to invest. On the ground, we are investing in better antenna technologies such as phased array, core modules and smaller terminals. This is focused on continuing the tremendous work we have been doing on Ka-band. We want to have smaller terminals and better modulation schemes that allow us to have more margin against rainfade, for example.

Looking more widely, it is very important for us to be able to expand the market and embed our technology in other devices – for example, smart metering. I think we will invest more in ground level satellite technology over the next few years. We are also looking at our next generation of L-band satellites (I6), but we see that as more incremental than a revolution.

Pon: In terms of devices, we’re continuing to invest in making them smaller and more cost effective. We are looking into smaller form factors, more applications, and extending Wi-Fi to reach more people. We’re also looking at new antenna technologies: multi antenna terminals with speeds up to 1.5 Mbps and single antenna terminals with speeds up to 88 Kbpss. Above all, we’re investing to make sure our partners can exploit the new waveforms available with Iridium NEXT –with 8 times the RF bandwidth that will increase to 333 kHz, and new modulation codes such as 16APSK which offer two to three times the spectral efficiency.

VIA SATELLITE: Finally, from a technology perspective, where would you most like to see improvement in terms of the technology available to you?

Al Shamsi: In the late ‘90s, the MSS industry was challenged to provide mobile satellite services using handheld satellite terminals. Thuraya accepted the challenge and emerged a winner. Currently MSS users are demanding to have high throughput data services so it will be exciting to see how the industry will push the boundaries of technology outside of the realm of what is possible today in order to fulfill the demand for faster speed.

Monte: The access to product and equipment is better than it has ever been. But, with continued demand to be at the cutting edge of not only the MSS industry, but frequently finding uses for our products in consumer’s everyday lives, we’d love to see improvements in getting production costs down, enabling our products to be available at an even more affordable entry rate.

Pinto: I would say I would like to see improvement in the user terminals. On the satellite side, we have developments such as electric propulsion, but it is not really a new technology. Boeing cleverly repackaged their offering to make it cost effective. We expect better launch vehicles, and more reliable satellites to be delivered on time and on budget. The next game changer I would like to see is on the terminal side: we need to provide cheaper, even more reliable terminals. I would also like to see more “white labeling” of satellite technology, so you can use a normal mobile phone to make calls via a satellite network. By embedding satellite technology, we can significantly expand the market. So, for example, when you buy an iPhone, you could be able to use it via satellite for certain applications. We want our technology embedded in everyday life.

Pon: In terms of devices, we’re continuing to invest in making them smaller and more cost effective. We are looking into smaller form factors, more applications, and extending Wi-Fi to reach more people. We’re also looking at new antenna technologies: multi antenna terminals with speeds up to 1.5 Mbps and single antenna terminals with speeds up to 88 Kbpss. Above all, we’re investing to make sure our partners can exploit the new waveforms available with Iridium NEXT –with 8 times the RF bandwidth that will increase to 333 kHz, and new modulation codes such as 16APSK which offer two to three times the spectral efficiency.

VIA SATELLITE: Finally, from a technology perspective, where would you most like to see improvement in terms of the technology available to you?

Al Shamsi: In the late ‘90s, the MSS industry was challenged to provide mobile satellite services using handheld satellite terminals. Thuraya accepted the challenge and emerged a winner. Currently MSS users are demanding to have high throughput data services so it will be exciting to see how the industry will push the boundaries of technology outside of the realm of what is possible today in order to fulfill the demand for faster speed.
Monte: The access to product and equipment is better than it has ever been. But, with continued demand to be at the cutting edge of not only the MSS industry, but frequently finding uses for our products in consumer’s everyday lives, we’d love to see improvements in getting production costs down, enabling our products to be available at an even more affordable entry rate.
Pinto: I would say I would like to see improvement in the user terminals. On the satellite side, we have developments such as electric propulsion, but it is not really a new technology. Boeing cleverly repackaged their offering to make it cost effective. We expect better launch vehicles, and more reliable satellites to be delivered on time and on budget. The next game changer I would like to see is on the terminal side: we need to provide cheaper, even more reliable terminals. I would also like to see more “white labeling” of satellite technology, so you can use a normal mobile phone to make calls via a satellite network. By embedding satellite technology, we can significantly expand the market. So, for example, when you buy an iPhone, you could be able to use it via satellite for certain applications. We want our technology embedded in everyday life.
Pon: Our biggest challenge is still within radio. We would like more efficient power amplifiers, as well as smaller- and higher-gain antennas. We are also interested in digital beam forming technology with no moving parts to steer antennas.
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