FSS CTOs: Do They Want To Spend Money on Your Technology?

By | May 1, 2012 | Feature, Telecom

FSS operators are constantly looking at new technologies to improve business efficiencies and drive new revenue streams. The question is, what innovations are really needed by some of the biggest companies in this sector?

Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Sky Perfect JSAT are four of the biggest FSS operators in the world, with combined total revenues of around $6.3 billion in 2011. The operators have significant buying power for new technology and are aggressively investing in the expansion of their fleets. In this exclusive roundtable, we talk to executives of these four operators to find out where they are making investments, their key buying decisions and what technology they are using to advance their business plans. Taking part are Thierry Guillemin, CTO, Intelsat; David Bair, CTO, Eutelsat; Martin Halliwell, CTO, SES; and Yutaka Nagai, senior executive vice president, engineering and operations group, SKY Perfect JSAT. 

VIA SATELLITE: What technology challenges is your company facing this year? What technology projects are you working on? 

Guillemin: One of the things we are working on is broadband for global mobility. We are launching six new satellites in the next 10 months. Four of these satellites carry global Ku mobility coverage — we are the first to bring this to the market. The demand for broadband connectivity has been growing very fast. We have anticipated the trend and have built a global network with a Ku-band solution. When all is said and done, there will be seven different satellites with 10 different beams that are blanketing the globe. So, for the first time, maritime and aeronautical customers will be able to have broadband connectivity all around the Earth from one single provider. 

Bair: We are pursuing a program of significant fleet expansion, with four launches in the next 12 months. Those are not new technology projects per se, but they are central to our plans for capacity increase and replenishment of older satellites. These satellites are of relatively standard designs but with very large and flexible payloads. In terms of new resources already in-orbit, we are very focused on the rollout of our Ka-Sat high throughput satellite, which we believe will fuel significant future growth. Ka-Sat allows us to maximize the amount of bits we can get through a single platform, so that is probably the key technology feature we are exploiting now and during the next few years. 

Halliwell: The majority of technology challenges that we are working on are operational and engineering related. We have a fleet of 50 satellites in orbit and seven satellites under construction, with two launches scheduled this year. So, there is a huge amount of baseline engineering work to keep pace with the demands that we face today. The major areas of innovation that we are working on at the moment are things like electrical propulsion systems. We are really keen on moving towards an all-electric satellite. We are also looking at the consolidation of nine different legacy satellite control systems into two to three control systems, which is a major challenge. It is like changing the wheels of your car while driving down a motorway. On top of that, we are looking at flexible payloads and at more flexibility on the command receiver side, so that we can choose the various receive slots that we are going to use. Also on the agenda is transparent channelization and processing, i.e., digital transparent processors on board. Last but not least we are looking for variability in our TWTA output performance, i.e., flex-tubes. Some of these may be part of the RFIs that SES will be issuing within the next few months. 

Nagai: Although it has been almost a year since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, we are still in the midst of rebuilding. In the past year, people have reconsidered the value of satellite communications due to its speed and resistance to disasters, and many organizations are considering using it. Our company is working on developing easy to use VSATs that can last through disasters, as well as services for business continuity planning (BCP) during disasters. S*Plex, a high-security distributed storage technology service that uses satellite communication error correction code technology, has been receiving attention as a reliable method to preserve important data. We plan on putting more energy into S*Plex to provide an even more stable service. 

VIA SATELLITE: What do you think is the most important technology advancement to impact the satellite industry during the last two years? Has there been any kind of technology game changer?

Guillemin: I think the race continues to improve the performance of ground terminals and is something that a number of terminal vendors continue working on, but we are getting close to the limits here. The focus is turning to the space segment for higher throughput. I think there is more interest overall in bringing higher throughput to a wider variety of business applications in the future. It is not really a technological advance, but more of an awareness that we can look at technology in a broader way. 

Bair: I would say that high throughput satellites are a game changer. The maturation of spot beam technology, which has enabled extensive frequency re-use, allows more data to be carried over a single satellite, making satellites more competitive for applications like consumer broadband. Ka-Sat has more capacity than the rest of the Eutelsat fleet combined if you go on a bit-by-bit basis, although this isn’t the only criteria that counts. 

Halliwell: In our industry, there are few revolutionary elements, however there are a lot of evolutionary developments that come together to enable you to move forward. I think the one major thing that is really rocking the satellite world is the introduction of SpaceX. It has a very fresh, open approach. In my opinion they have the potential to shake-up the launch industry. 

Nagai: I am keeping an eye on trends in mobile communications satellites using Ground Based Beam Forming (GBBF), large-scale deployable antennas and the appearance of Ka-band high-bandwidth communication satellites. The appearance of SpaceX in the launch vehicle market and plans to reduce satellite weight through use of electrically powered propulsion systems are both likely to be game changers. 

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

Guillemin: We are focusing on providing customers the designs and technologies that they tell us make the most sense for their business. Since our products are very diverse, our solutions are very diverse as well and we do not intend to limit ourselves in terms of access to technologies and frequencies. The keys for us are open architectures, resilience of the space segment design throughout future ground technology evolutions and solutions that leverage our global presence to offer wide scale end-to-end solutions. 

Bair: There are several areas of interest. High throughput satellites constitute, arguably, a technology in itself. While the concept is not really a new technology, further enhancements are being pursued to make this existing technology even more efficient. Other technologies of interest include flexible or reconfigurable payloads. These consist in two general classes — reconfigurable frequency plans and adjustable antenna coverage patterns. Both have been explored in the past, and have been used on military missions, but, to my knowledge, have not been flown commercially on GEO communications satellites. Active antenna arrays fit the latter category and can be used to change both transmit and receive antenna patterns. These types of things would help operators in many ways — from interference and jamming mitigation to enhancing the ability to adapt to changes in the marketplace or even region of operation — an important consideration for satellites lasting 15 to 20 years. 

Halliwell: One of our internal working groups is focused on new technology and innovation. The single most important item is electrical propulsion and electrical transfer orbit — so orbit raising capabilities on a spacecraft. This is coupled with the SpaceX opportunity. SpaceX can offer fairly reasonable launch costs and if you had a fully electrical satellite, you could remove 2 tons of chemical fuel at lift-off. That is potentially a very interesting configuration. The next thing we are working on is the flexibility of payloads. Today, our payloads are relatively rigid. We want to move towards transparent processing capabilities to have flexibility in the transmit and receive side, not only to give us flexibility in the types of traffic that we are carrying but also to allow us to reposition the spacecraft at different orbital positions, while using the same asset in space to its maximum capability. 

Nagai: As for transmission technology, I believe that a new high-efficiency transmission system to succeed DVB-S2 and H.264 is important. We are also focusing on Ka-band satellites and high throughput satellites that will be launched in the future, as well as flexible payloads. 

VIA SATELLITE: Are you satisfied with the options available for satellite manufacturing? What improvements are you looking for? 

Guillemin: We have been looking for two years to add more players in the satellite manufacturing arena. We certainly are aware of the importance of vendor diversity, and this is true for launch service providers as well. We went with Boeing for IS-22 in March and we have been very supportive of Sea Launch getting back into business. They will be launching two satellites for us.

We would like to see more options for certain satellite components. A good example is traveling wave tubes — we feel there are not enough options today and the production capabilities are limited. We would like to see higher throughput, so there needs to be more capable platforms. We need more power, more mass and more real estate capability from the manufacturers. The platform products that we are buying need to continue to grow and evolve. I would like to see the manufacturers increase the flexibility of payloads. I think our market is extremely dynamic and the more configurability of payloads that we have in orbit, the better it will be in the future. 

Bair: I think you can never have too many choices. I would certainly be happy to see some of the operators that have focused on government business in recent years come back to work more closely with the commercial market, and we have periodic discussions with just about everyone. But our traditional satellite manufacturers have been Astrium and Thales Alenia Space, and more recently Space Systems/Loral. Overall, we have been satisfied with these selections, each manufacturer having its own strengths and weaknesses. Some of the other manufacturers, such as Orbital Sciences, are coming up in the power range and getting closer to the kind of satellites that we buy.

The biggest area where we would like to see improvements is with schedules. The average communications satellite takes 30 months to 36 months to be complete — much longer than I think is needed. There are several reasons for this and it is not always the fault of the prime, but the bottom line is that we would like to see faster and more reliably predicted schedules. 

Halliwell: We would like to see more competition. We would like to see Lockheed Martin, Thales and Boeing back in the mix. Lockheed basically does not have a modern satellite design right now, Thales’ offering is not quite what we want and Boeing is maybe closest to where we might be going in the future. We would encourage them, as well as Astrium, SS/L, Orbital and others, to become more involved with us and to respond to our RFI’s and, generally speaking, have more active players again in this sphere. 

Nagai: I would like to see an improvement in quality control. The main parts and instruments that satellite manufacturers use are all provided from the same sources, so it has become common for an issue at one vendor to have an effect on the satellite industry as a whole. I feel that there are also more cases where the root cause is a human error, such as issues in workmanship or failing to follow the production manual. I would like to see strict quality control throughout the industry, not just at satellite manufacturers, but also their suppliers and the subcontractors used by those suppliers.

VIA SATELLITE: Where would you most like to see improvement in terms of the technology available? 

Guillemin: As with all satellite operators, we would like to see improvements in the technology that provides access to space. As you know, the basic technology of launching satellites has changed very little since its invention, and having more reliable, affordable and timely access to space would benefit all. These days more delays in putting new satellite in service are due to the launch vehicle.

We also believe that in-orbit satellite servicing, including refueling, is a technology that could create value by enabling better fleet management and flexibility. Intelsat continues to believe in the value and potential of in-orbit servicing and is committed to exploring technologies and solutions in the future. 

Bair: I think payload flexibility would be the key thing. A satellite is designed for 15 years or more. A lot can change from a market perspective, so flexibility is key to continued success, especially in our industry. 

Halliwell: For me, it will be the replacement of chemical propulsion by fully electric systems on a spacecraft. This would allow a 7-ton satellite to reduce its mass to 4.5 tons. That is going to be the big game changer. That is where SES will put its focus on in the next months and years. 

Nagai: I would like to see improvements in technology for launching and building satellites that lead to a significant reduction in cost.

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