Satellite CTOs Concerned with Engineer Shortage in Dealing with Tech Issues

By | March 15, 2011 | Feature, Telecom

[Satellite News 03-15-11] An RF engineer shortage has hampered the satellite industry’s efforts to deal with interference and provide better network management tools, according to a panel of CTOs speaking at the SATELLITE 2011 conference.
    With many networks moving towards IP, the lack of RF knowledge among skilled engineers is reaching critical levels, according to Alan Young, CTO of SES World Skies. “There seems to be a general decline in the number of people that are RF savvy. There are more people that understand IP. Understanding RF is in decline. New people that come into the industry need to have some understanding of RF. If you’re going to design a network management system, you need to understand how all parts of the network work. The ones who want to do engineering want to do computer networks or the Internet. For our industry, the RF part of that is critical.”
    Michael DeLisio, CTO and co-founder of Wavestream Corp. echoed these sentiments. “People with RF knowledge are harder to find. People want to do digital and computer networks.”
    The move to Ka-band satellites is having an impact on the demands of technology vendors going forward. David Bettinger, CTO and senior vice president of engineering, iDirect, said the change in the direction of data communications is one of the bigger shifts taking place in the industry. “One of the most exciting things is the move toward Ka-band spot beam satellites which are not designed for video but rather data communications. It changes the dynamics of costs,” he said. “Data communications has been seen as an also ran previously, but now it will become a main application.”
    The demand for bandwidth is growing so rapidly that the onus is on technology providers to bring the costs of bandwidth down. Adrian Morris, executive vice president of engineering, Hughes Network Systems, said that this is taking place. “A gigabit of capacity on a Ku-band satellite is worth $200 million. Spaceway bought that down to $40 million. Technology advances will lead to costs of $10 million per gigabit of capacity on future satellites,” he said.
    Morris added that the move to bigger satellites will be felt across the industry. “The real message is there is an insatiable demand for bandwidth. That is where we think things are going over the next decade. I think you are going to see some satellites over 6,000 kilograms. On the ground side, you will see high-speed ACM. On the next generation of Ka-band gateways, you are going to see that they will have more than 1 Gbps of capacity,” he added.
    One of the issues facing the satellite sector is that it cannot keep up with the pace at which terrestrial technology is advancing, said Young. “Technology has evolved on the ground at such a frightening pace, but satellites really haven’t. They have the same fundamentals as 30 years ago. I think if we can put a big pipe in space and have more flexibility around the antenna, innovation on the ground can help us increase efficiency rather than putting a router or active components on the satellite which will probably rapidly go out of date.”
    The desire to bring costs down also could lead to service providers picking technology based on price rather than performance. “It is all about reducing the costs. The on-the-move products are not easy to do. There are a lot of terminals out in the field. A lot of the cheaper terminals can cause interference. People buy cheaper terminals, crank the power up, and this can cause interference,” says Tim Shroyer, CTO, General Dynamics.
    As the pressure to squeeze as much use as possible out of capacity, Young offered a warning as to how the satellite sector could go too far on its bandwidth efficiency and management push. “We are having enough trouble managing the increasingly scarce capacity. With the Galaxy 15 event, one of things that we found as we were taking down uplinks is that the link margins that people used to have were in dBs, and now are managed to tenths of a dB. This comes at a price and was never seen before.”
    Bettinger also spoke about the need to reduce engineering costs as a key component of the new technology it was bringing to operators and service providers. “While bandwidth efficiency is very important, the next largest cost is engineering, so to be able to have fewer people manage these networks is a huge cost savings. We can really bring a new level to the management of the network, so things like additional reporting on SLAs are met with customers. We are trying to automate these processes as much as possible.”

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