10 Thoughts About Issues, Trends And The Future

By | May 31, 2004 | Feature

By Mark R. Chartrand

The quip “it is hard to predict, especially the future” has been attributed to baseball great Yogi Berra, movie kingpin Samuel Goldwyn and Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Whoever said it, it is certainly true of telecommunications in general and of satellite communications in particular. The reality is that satellite communications only compose a small percentage of the total telecommunications traffic flow. The industry must respond to changes in markets, regulatory environments, and technology. More so than ever before, satellite operators have to concentrate on niche markets where they are competitive. Having said that, 10 ideas come to mind when it comes to issues and trends affecting the satellite industry’s future.

The Fiber Threat

Topping the list of concerns is the speed with which the telecommunications industry is changing, both quantitatively and qualitatively. People want to communicate more and in different ways. Digital transmissions now dominate communications, and rigidly hierarchical networks are being replaced by more mesh-like connectivity. Communication and computation continue to merge. People want any time, anywhere communication.

In the fiber-optics industry — the biggest competitor to satellite communications — the price-per-bit has been falling by half or more every year for several years. The same trends have not occurred in the satellite sector of telecommunications. The result is that this pricing disparity makes fiber an increasing competitive threat to the satellite industry.

Spectrum Availability

All radiated transmission technologies – terrestrial and satellite – are affected by the increasing demands for more bandwidth to support more services. The number of incumbent users limits the range of frequencies available for additional capacity. Other limiting factors include the atmosphere itself and technology development. Improved technology can alleviate the problem partially by making it possible to send more information through each hertz of spectrum, but there is a limit to this technique. The situation is complicated by legacy services that are difficult to displace and by the disparate spectrum allocations among the 200-plus nations and regions of the world.

Orbit Space

There are only about 264,000 kilometers along the Clarke Orbit. The challenge is to get more communications capacity in this finite space. More efficient use of the spectrum is part of the answer along with going to higher frequencies to allow closer spacing of satellites. Larger satellites with more directional beams will allow more frequency re- use.

A continuing problem is that of “paper satellites,” involving filings with the ITU for satellite systems that never get built. Even so, once filed for, any later prospective satellite systems must coordinate with those already on file. Revised ITU regulations have made a first step in cutting down on these highly speculative systems, but more needs to be done.

Cannibalization And Quality Control

During the past decade, a trend toward consolidation of industry players has developed. Some manufacturers have become vertically integrated to provide not just satellite hardware, but launch services, financing services and communications services. These additional services sometimes compete with those of their customers. Other firms have abandoned the hardware business to concentrate on providing communications.

The growth in demand for satellite communications has driven manufacturers to try to produce satellites in a shorter length of time at lower costs, leading to new, but less- well-tested, technologies.

All of these pressures have led to reductions in quality control. According to insurance experts, 10 percent of all communications satellites launched since 1998 have experienced partial or total early in-orbit failures. This has led to higher insurance rates, which increase the cost of bringing a satellite system into operation.

Launcher And Launchpad Availability

There are only a handful of launchers capable of carrying satellites to geostationary orbit (GSO). Another handful can be used for non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) missions. To maintain quality, launch vehicles only can be manufactured so fast. In this decade, we are likely to see an oversupply of launchers and launch capability, but new ideas and financing could cause a resurgence of demand, such as we saw in the 1990s. One thing is certain: It is reliability, more than just cost, that will be the most important marketing tool of launch providers. Insurance experts say that, on average, 8 percent of all launches fail, as do 20 percent of new launch vehicles.

Financial Capability, Availability And Risk

The insurance-underwriting capacity for satellite launches at any instant has varied during the years from a few hundred million dollars to a couple of billion dollars. This capacity limits the availability of insurance and its rates for satellite systems. The success records of the various launch vehicles also affect the volatility of the insurance market.

The financial community is becoming more aware of the rapidity of change in telecommunications, and it wonders about the risks of obsolescence, even before a system is operational. Financiers also are asking about the importance of being first to market when it comes to new types of systems. There is an old quip that “you can always identify the pioneers by the arrows in their backs.” While such pioneers may have some market advantage, they also take much higher risks when exploring unknown commercial territory.

Multiple Standards

One legacy item slowing deployment of new technologies is a multiplicity of standards. Several different standards exist in various nations for wired telephony, multiplexing, wireless telephony (cellular systems) and television broadcast. Satellite television may be slowly standardizing on two digital standards — DVB and DSS — but the consumers still have televisions that receive only NTSC, PAL or SECAM, and local phone systems that work on standards established, in some cases, half a century ago. There also is an ongoing debate between advocates of the DOCSIS transmission protocol and the DVB-RCS protocol. The rise of the Internet has spurred increased standardization. Its communication protocols, called TCP/IP, are evolving as one of a few truly global data communications standards.

Multiple Regulatory Environments

Not only do companies have to deal with a multiplicity of technical standards, the companies must operate in a large number of often-conflicting regulatory environments. Many regulatory bodies remain hidebound, bureaucratic and slow. Debates continue on just what constitutes the “fair” or “equitable” division of such limited natural resources as spectrum and slots.

The regulations promulgated by various nations range from such major global concerns as national defense, security and politics to personal concerns like privacy, freedom of expression and intellectual property. Rules in certain countries also are aimed at protecting domestic industries.

There is, and will continue to be for a long time, the three-way tug of war among the desires and the requirements of the developed nations, the developing nations and the really under-developed countries. There are more than 200 nations on the planet, each with a history, current economic and political status, sets of desires and a culture.

Still further, we have seen a decline in what is called “international comity of nations,” the willingness to act courteously and to respect standards of conduct and international law. For example, despite ITU prohibitions against trafficking in orbital slots, some nations have done so, and they have gotten away with it because there is no enforcement process available.

Trends, Not Predictions

No one can claim to have a clear crystal ball peering into the future of the industry. The hazards of making predictions are legend. Any predictions are fraught with uncertainties, and about the best we can hope for is to discern trends.

Perhaps one approach is to first consider a guiding principle for making predictions. Science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, an engineer by training, looked at the history of technological predictions, and he noted long-term predictions tend to be too pessimistic. However, short-term predictions tend to be too optimistic. If we estimate that some technology will be available in 25 years, it often takes only 10 to 20 years to develop. But if we guess that something will be available in three years, it may take five to10 years.

For strategic-planning purposes, predictions must be made, but they should be reviewed constantly, updated and checked for the validity of the assumptions upon which they are based. Predictions should not be considered static.

No Ideal Solutions

Finally, in designing a system, whether technical or commercial, there are no ideal solutions. There are always tradeoffs. Sometimes going after cutting-edge technology, also known as bleeding-edge technology, may actually result in the creation of a less useful service. Sometimes “good enough” is, indeed, good enough, while the pursuit of technical perfection can delay service implementation beyond the period of opportunity.

Recall Heinlein’s “TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch).”

This article is adapted and much abridged from the final chapter of Dr. Mark Chartrand’s new 450-page textbook, “Satellite Communications for the Nonspecialist,” published by SPIE Press. The book is based on the introductory seminars he has conducted for two decades, and it is available at http://www.spie.org/bookstore. Dr. Chartrand can be reached at 410/235-6932 or by e-mail at mrc@mrchartrand.com.

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