Cover Story: Earth Stations: Rebounding, Rethinking, Refocusing

By | May 1, 2002 | Via Satellite

The enormous radome at Andover, ME, is gone. It was erected and operated by Bell Labs and AT&T Long Lines in the early 1960s as part of the Telstar project. Comsat took it over, and initiated commercial services there in1965. It was the largest inflatable structure in the world, and it held a 380-ton horn antenna, which was dismantled in 1985.

In July of this year, the 40th anniversary of the first transatlantic TV transmissions via satellite will be celebrated at the three earth stations in the United States, France and the United Kingdom, which participated in the event. Among other things, the respective chapters of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) will be installing plaques at the three sites.

Worldcom operates this 1,200-acre facility in Andover today with 14 antennas ranging from 2.4 to 32-meters. The antenna vendors include Philco Ford, E-Systems and DAI for the Standard A antennas as well as smaller antennas and VSATs made by Tripoint Global/Vertex, Prodelin and Hughes Network Systems.

Whereas Telstar–followed by Syncom and Intelsat’s Early Bird–was pretty much the only game in town 40 years ago, Andover now handles traffic through a variety of domestic satellites along with Intelsat and Intersputnik birds far out over the Atlantic.

Carl Sederquist, president of Quest Telecom International in Ellsworth, ME, worked at Andover from 1965 to 1970. His first job was to coordinate work in the upper electronics cab that hung from the horn, 85 feet off the ground. According to Sederquist, the enormous size of the radome required two diesel generators, which were installed as back-up power supplies for several heaters and huge blowers, as well as the electronics on the horn.

Sederquist recalls hearing a story about one severe winter storm at Andover prior to his arrival. Apparently, while one of the two diesel generators was down for maintenance, it is said that the power suddenly went out, and the single remaining diesel generator also quit. As the snow fell and the radome gently deflated, the earth station operations team scrambled to get the power up and running again. When they did, the process of re-inflating and re-heating the enormous radome in mid-winter melted the snow, creating large dimples filled with water. So, a hunting rifle was used to solve the problem. Shooting holes in the radome drained the water.

“Satellite transmission is not rocket science any more,” says Andover earth station Operations Manager Charlie Hoff. “We still have quite a few people here from the original Comsat team, including one who was onsite when the Telstar feed was activated in 1962.”

And while the radome in Andover no longer exists, its twin in France is now a museum known as Le Musée des Télécoms de Pleumeur-Bodou, and you can catch a glimpse of the huge horn antenna on the Internet at http://www.leradome.com.

Although Worldcom is not willing to share details about the volume of voice, video and data traffic going through Andover in both C-band and Ku-band, Hoff points out that the facility operates around the clock with approximately one quarter of the staff that was present onsite in the 1960s.

From Cable To Ka-Band

AT&T established its Andover earth station in the 1960s at a time when phone traffic had no fiber paths to follow. By 1979, earth stations were on their way to becoming an essential part of the cable industry agenda. Later, in the 1990s, they became essential to the success of the global Internet phenomenon.

“Satellite allowed the cable industry to create better programming offerings starting with HBO and Showtime. Entertainment eclipsed voice traffic in the early 1990s,” says Gary Hatch, CEO of ATCi in Chandler, AZ. “Early on, operators with network uplinks and cable headend downlinks enjoyed a relaxation of the specifications for site licensing by the FCC. The receive only standard dropped down to 5-meter antennas.”

The emergence of the Simulsat concept was a breakthrough in the earth station sector. It now allows up to 35 satellites to be downlinked via a single earth station. “When we introduced this quasi-parabolic antenna as an alternative to the conventional parabolic antenna, people told us that there would never be a need for this product,” says Hatch. “Now, a customer can access as many as 1,200 thirty-six MHz transponders with up to 10 digital channels per transponder. This ability to tap such a vast multi-beam path using a single downlink is incredible.

“It not only helps customers to cope with the process of constant satellite switching by many programmers, but it also means that new applications due to zoning restrictions, which can be a real headache, can be avoided altogether,” he adds.

The shift by radio broadcasters to digital audio in the 1980s caused a spike in 2.4-meter and 3.8-meter antennas. This, along with the huge demand for point of sale and C-band TVRO systems in North America at roughly the same time, set the stage for the global DTH, IP via satellite and two-way satellite broadband markets which are still in an early stage of development.

Watching The New Data Convergence Market

With the limited demand for large earth stations, and with the waiting game surrounding the satellite broadband sector, earth station vendors are searching for alternative strategies that will result in higher revenues, and this movement is propelling many companies into new territory.

The formula surrounding the introduction of Ka-band services in North America, for example, is being redrafted almost on an ongoing basis.

“The market is changing. Broadband is here, and not here simultaneously,” says Paul Cox, group president of communications products at Orland Park, IL-based Andrew Corp. “There are fewer customers now, and more intense competition. The price pressure in this market has not changed.”

Andrew began the year with news that CO-based Wildblue Communications was delaying its launch. With this customer’s decision to push back its timetable by 18 months or more, Andrew immediately adjusted its backlog of Ka-band earth station antenna systems to the tune of $26 million. When and if Wildblue restarts the program, it will be at a substantially reduced order, in the range of $14 million.

This unfortunate delay by Wildblue reshuffles the broadband deck once again. On top of somber news from departing entities like Astrolink and Skybridge, and with the radical trimming of Teledesic, all eyes in North America now turn to Hughes Spaceway–Andrew is developing a 3-meter terminal for Spaceway–and Loral’s Telstar 8 for a Ka-band rally.

For earth station vendors who had visions of millions of tiny Ka-band earth stations from coast to coast as well as all the supporting infrastructure in between, well, the expectations are coming back to earth in this instance.

“As a result, we have to prepare not just for a first generation Ka-band roll-out, but for a third generation product roll-out as well. And we have to do this in advance of actual production,” Cox says. “We are trying to position ourselves in the middle of this swirl.

Infrastructure Alone Is Not Enough

The slowdown in telecom-related capital expenditures, the slower than expected tempo of global telecom deregulation, and unexpected glitches in specific markets such as the devaluation of the Russian ruble are all part of the earth station equation.

For these and other reasons, Hauppauge, NY-based Globecomm Systems Inc. has migrated away from being an infrastructure-only player. Instead, Globecomm Systems is focused on end-to-end solutions with an emphasis on IP connectivity and service provisioning, all centered around the company’s two teleports in New York and Los Angeles.

“The market for large earth stations, backbone and gateways is relatively flat. Earth stations alone constitute less than 50 percent today, and they will continue to be a smaller percentage of our total business,” says Globecomm Systems CEO David Hershberg.

“Our recent $9 million contract with the Kingdom of Tonga is a good example of where we are going. This contract involves three earth stations, along with Internet and voice services landed at our teleport in Los Angeles, cellular radio, GSM, WLL and terrestrial video,” he adds. “The earth station component constitutes less than 10 percent of the contract.”

Content, and more specifically distance learning product, is another dimension of the Globecomm Systems value-added game plan. “What you can and cannot deliver to the desktop matters,” says Hershberg, who adds that the medical learning environment is on his company’s radar screen.

However financing, or the lack thereof, is what Hershberg sees as the real problem these days. “We could double our business tomorrow if our customers had the financing. In the wake of the turbulence resulting from certain satellite ventures, investors are still on edge, and as a result, a lot of new service providers are stuck in neutral,” says Hershberg.

According to Hershberg, shared broadband connectivity via satellite is proving to be quite compelling even in the face of many of the multiple fiber-based broadband ventures. On top of that, tactical systems and gateways for the U.S. military may add considerable momentum to the earth station segment.

Trends And Opportunities

As spotbeams proliferate and more powerful satellites are added to the global fleet, the cost of earth stations continues to fall. The fact that higher performance satellite dishes are rolling out of antenna manufacturing plants only makes satellite business models more attractive.

“Where we once required a 6-meter dish, we can now use a 4.5-meter dish, and where a 4.5-meter dish was required, a 3.8-meter antenna is now okay,” says Jeff Mathie, president of Patriot Commercial Satellite Systems in Albion, MI.

“We see a steady demand for replacement products in particular,” adds Mathie. “There was a lot of overseas product introduced into the market in the mid to late 1990s. It was not well built, and it no longer performs up to the level required in this rapidly evolving digital environment. Digital means that surface tolerances need to be much tighter.”

Patriot has added RF engineering to its stamping and manufacturing, and has acquired CA-based ADL Feed to augment its high volume, precision antenna lineup, which now encompasses antennas in 22 different sizes. IP multicasting has opened the door to lots of opportunities as well.

Earth Station Evolution

The growing use of L-band (950 MHz to 1450 MHz) modems, the replacement of coaxial cable runs with fiber optic cables for interfacility links, and the lowering of power overhead by using lower power amplifiers installed in a shelter at the base of the antenna (instead of higher power units in the main building) are just some of the trends that are driving the earth station market.

“Earth stations are getting bigger, and as the antennas spread out, the advantages of using fiber are becoming more apparent. It is better for longer runs, it is immune to noise–although there is still some signal degradation–and it is much more secure,” says John Murphy, Foxcom’s director of satellite U.S. “When it comes to ensuring lightning protection, and eliminating RF interference or ground loop hum, nothing beats fiber.

“Instead of a 3 kW klystron HPA at the main building, you can run RF in L-band via fiber out to the shelter now, and install a lower powered HPA with an upconverter or block upconverter integrated into the HPA itself,” he adds.

New Skies Satellite N.V. and Group W–now part of Liberty Livewire–have both deployed fiber at their facilities, according to Murphy.

Wes Knipmeyer, director of engineering at Carrolton, TX-based IDB Systems, sees other new and innovative products appearing, such as a new generation of satellite routers that feature modems with Ethernet plug-ins that are ideal for IP networks.

“We are seeing such things as the introduction of smart converter systems consisting of online frequency converters, a back-up converter and a switch as the primary unit,” says Knipmeyer. “Smaller, modular solid state HPAs with hot swappable modules are becoming quite popular, too. You can put two of the smaller, high power HPAs in a single cabinet today.”

“We are seeing a continuing reduction in size and power requirements at all levels of the earth station. Whereas large 20 to 30-meter Standard A antennas were once in demand, today we see smaller Standard A antennas such as 16-meter or less in demand. 3.8-meter antennas can be used for the hub with 1.2 to 1.8-meter downlinks,” he adds.

Satellite coverage is changing with large, broad footprints involving a higher average EIRP as well. “Better beam shaping is saving lots of money by reducing the number of hubs and satellites which are necessary to achieve global coverage. This aggressive cost cutting across the board has kept satellite as a viable option for many customers,” says Knipmeyer.

The large cost reduction resulting from the elimination of multiple narrowband frequency converters to cover the satellite spectrum by the migration to L-band IF solutions in teleports–block up and down converters, and modems–is something Knipmeyer welcomes as well.

“It is still a niche marketplace, and a low bandwidth solution when compared to fiber optic alternatives. There is always the question of bandwidth and capability,” says Arthur Faverio, president of MITEQ Inc. in Hauppauge, NY. “As with most technologies, satellite technology is application driven. The applications keep changing, and new applications keep arising.”

He sees small teleports as operating in difficult circumstances, given the rampant consolidation industrywide. While there has been a dramatic leap in the performance and reliability of earth stations in general, Faverio has concerns about what lies ahead as the satellite industry moves on to the new and relatively undefined Ka-band market.

“In the old days, we did business in a government controlled environment. With Comsat, Intelsat and Inmarsat, we encountered neutral bodies that exerted a degree of control over the marketplace. This constituted a constructive influence in the form of clear technical guidelines and rules,” says Faverio.

“No comparable organizations are setting similar guidelines or standards as we move on to Ka-band. Customers need to know that terminals conform to some standard, and right now, I do not see that framework in place,” he adds. “Digital modem development efforts are underway as well with no central organization providing guidance.”

The lack of a clear broadband agenda does not mean that the demand for broadband services–not to overlook IP backbone connectivity as well–is diminishing. In fact, consumers are eager to embrace this technology, and the new services that come with it.

While the fixed point-to-point market will continue to migrate to fiber, smaller and more efficient and affordable satellite earth stations will continue to make waves in many parts of the world. Do the huge overseas markets in China, Russia, and India, to name just three, offer the promise of a spike in earth station sales in the coming years? Surely they do, but domestic producers are likely to dominate with U.S. and European companies as partners. That trend is already evident.

Regardless, as we mark the 40th anniversary of the first Telstar TV transmissions via satellite, the next 40 years are wide open to those with drive, imagination and the right mix of products and services.

Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia Editor. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

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