MSS Operators: New Constellations, New Technology Challenges

By | June 1, 2012 | Feature, Telecom

The MSS sector has become a hive of activity in recent years, with aggressive moves by a number of the key protagonists as they look to position themselves for future growth. With exciting new technology investments, it is very much a sector to watch.

MSS operators currently are some of the biggest investors in satellites and satellite technology. Operators such as Inmarsat, Iridium and Globalstar are investing in entire constellations of satellites, as well as the infrastructure and launch costs associated with these massive projects. In this exclusive roundtable, we talk to the CTOs of four MSS operators. Taking part are: Ruy Pinto, CTO, Inmarsat; Hermon Pon, vice president of technology, Iridium; Paul Monte, vice president of engineering and operations, Globalstar; and Ahmed Ali Al Shamsi, CTO, Thuraya.

VIA SATELLITE: What do you think is the most important technology advancement to impact the MSS sector during the last two years? 

Pinto: The single technology game changer is the arrival of Ka-band. Although Ka-band has been around for quite a while, we didn’t have the combination of advanced coding modulation techniques on the ground with the new modem technologies, developed by the likes of iDirect, and the onboard package we can now get from suppliers like Boeing, Thales Alenia Space and EADS Astrium. You can now have the power and flexibility onboard to provide global coverage with the ability to dynamically allocate capacity like we do with L-band. With our I-5 satellites, we will be able to provide the equivalent of our normal L-band coverage on Ka-band, and we have the ground segment to match. We will have extra capacity through these steerable beams. They are not only reconfigurable, but you can move them around so they can better respond to surges that happen around a natural disaster or a political event such as the Arab Spring. We will be able to move that capacity around as we need to. This was a band in the past that had issues with rain fade, onboard technology, availability of equipment and TWTAs. This was not there a few years ago. These new techniques give us more than 15 degrees of margin to cope with rain fade. The time has come for mobility on Ka-band.

Pon: I think the big game changer for us is the fact that we have been able to reduce the size of our products — what we have done with the Iridium 9602, and what we will continue to do with the Iridium 9603. That decrease in size enables a wide range of life cycle cost savings for customers. It is not just smaller size; it is better power consumption and less weight to carry. Iridium is unique as an MSS provider because we feel like we can offer a low-cost footprint in terms of how much equipment is needed, as well as power and size. That makes it very easy to deploy in a broad range of applications. This is true in the M2M market with our data modules and it is also true in the maritime and aviation markets. We are not limited to vehicles and large airplanes. We can provide very efficient and economical services to private aircraft and small boats.

We are putting pressure on manufacturers to deliver flexible payloads with lower costs-per-bit.
­— Rui Pinto, CTO, Inmarsat

Monte: Besides our unique success in bringing MSS products and services to the mainstream consumer market, from a product and services point of view, the penetration of smartphones has made an impact on the MSS sector. It is not exactly a technological advancement — it’s the technology advances from five years ago that are now making a deep market penetration. This advancement led to the release of our Spot Connect product –– a palm-sized handheld device that connects to a smartphone over Bluetooth. By adding an app to your phone, you can now be in communication with your smartphone even when you do not have cell service. This has made the MSS sector re-think its products and services and at least at Globalstar, we have people on staff that can write smartphone applications.

Al Shamsi:
Hosted payloads represent an element that is interesting and that could be described as a game changer. The collaboration between the MSS sector and the government sector is also one of the key things that have happened in the last few years. It has changed how people look at the MSS industry. Whatever we do in the MSS market, somehow the customer will always compare it to what is going on in the terrestrial marketplace. So, I think the 3G and LTE push in the terrestrial market will impact the MSS market, and how the technology will develop here.


VIA SATELLITE: Which new technologies are you looking to invest in going forward? 

Pinto: We are looking at two broad areas. Now that we are going to have a fleet that provides the backbone for a Ka-band network, we are looking to have some targeted investments in the ground technology that can help our customers. This will help us deliver services. We are taking a look at possible improvements in Ka-band antenna technology so that we can improve the terminals that we want our customers to use. We are going to look at other options where we can lower the cost-per-bit. We are going to have targeted investments to provide end-to-end services. The customer doesn’t really care at the end of the day whether it is L-band or Ka-band. We do. Now we can potentially invest in hybrid solutions with a potentially seamless combination of L-band and Ka-band, or even L-band and Ku-band. We are investing in making the ground segment easier to use and user friendly, so we want to provide a hybrid solution that gives the user an opportunity to have the best of L- and Ka-band. We will also be investing in next-generation antenna technology. These are the targeted investments we will look forward to in the next couple of years as we start to rollout Global Xpress. 

Pon: We have the Iridium Force strategy, as well as products like the Iridium 9602 and Iridium 9603. These are all about our focus on what our partners tell us they need to better service their end-users. This really drives our technology strategy. One thing that we are focused upon is that we want to make sure that Iridium NEXT is a significant step forward in terms of the ability to offer our current services and new services at higher bandwidths than we can offer today. We are focusing on both the products and a satellite design that will support this higher bandwidth. To achieve this, we are using higher order modulation codes and extending radio bandwidth from our current narrowband signals to wideband signals. Lastly, we are going to continue to invest in miniaturization and high-density circuit integration, which will allow us to make our products smaller and much more cost-effective. 

Monte: We are focusing on new duplex products and services with our current ground infrastructure, as well as the duplex products and services that we can offer with our second-generation ground infrastructure, such as 3G/4G type services.

Al Shamsi: I believe having the right business plan in place is the key factor here, especially at this stage of the MSS industry and the world economy situation. I believe the world has learned a lot in the last decade and about the demand for MSS services especially when we consider the recent manmade and natural disasters. The choice of technology will be directly driven by the market requirements and not the other way around.


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

Pinto: We are putting pressure on manufacturers to deliver flexible payloads with lower costs-per-bit. For the Inmarsat-6 generation, we are pushing our satellite manufacturing partners and exploring where they can go in terms of providing backwards flexibility with a lower cost-per-bit. You are not trying to create satellites that are double the size or antennas that are 30 meters in diameter. You want a system that will provide lower cost solutions to customers. The other side where we could see improvement is the second highest cost ticket item, and that is the launchers. An improvement in quality for launchers will help the satellite sector as a whole. SpaceX and Falcon, proving that they can deliver, could really help the industry. ILS could improve its quality and track record. You could have a new launch vehicle for Europe that provides a lower cost in orbit, or it could be easing some of the export control restrictions that will allow other players like Long March to come into the market. If all of those factors happen, I will be a happy man. Any combination of those should help. 

Pon: We like to look for improvement, and the biggest ideas come from our partners. They continue to come up with innovative solutions and we continue to put a lot of emphasis on the work that we do outside of our distribution channel with partners such as our Iridium NEXT prime contractor, Thales Alenia Space and device development partners such as Cambridge Consultants. Finally, we keep our eyes really focused on the terrestrial wireless space, and we get important concepts in terms of how phones and other devices should look and what types of features they should have. We are all about further investment in device technology to continue to enable devices to be smaller and have higher performance.

I think we have identified everything we need to get Iridium NEXT going. We need launch vehicles that can launch several satellites at a time. We have found those launch vehicles. Obviously, making improvements in batteries that we use on satellites is an important area. Another important area is solar panels and making them more efficient. All of those should help make Iridium NEXT the success we are planning it to be. 

Monte: MSS operators and Globalstar in particular are interested in broadening the market. Globalstar products are now distributed in “everyday stores” such as REI, Bass Pro, Cabela’s and Best Buy. We are now looking for ways to participate in the mass production of certain elements that would lead to a cost reduction in the production of products. From time-to-time with a promotion, you can already purchase a Spot device for $99. We want to find ways to get that cost down so the MSRP for a MSS satellite device can be $99 or less. 

Al Shamsi: The MSS industry is very dynamic and the expectations of the customer are very high, unlike those of the FSS industry. Customer expectations are driven by developments in the terrestrial industry, which is moving fast in terms of mobility, bandwidth and terminal size and cost. This adds more challenges in the MSS industry. Of course the terrestrial world has different economics and is able to generate faster and higher returns on frequent investments. We hope to see more improvements in the technology in term of high throughput with small mobile products, better coverage for indoor usage and advanced technology based on the LTE platform.


VIA SATELLITE: There has been a lot of talk about hosted payloads and Ka-band. As a CTO of a major satellite operator, how have these impacted your thinking?

Pinto: If you look at it from a purely technological perspective, hosted payloads have been around for a long time. In the 1980s, Intelsat provided a hosted payload. We provided navigation payloads to the FAA in 1996. What has changed is that there is a new commercial proposition that many of us are putting forward. The natural growth in the size of the satellites and the space on these allows operators to provide a hosted payload without compromising the main mission. The technology breakthrough is that there is a new commercial packaging with additional room on next-generation satellites. 

Pon: Hosted payloads are a really big part of our thinking when looking at Iridium NEXT. The main service we are looking at is a global aviation monitoring business. If deployed, that would provide the ability to monitor aircraft on routes to anywhere in the world, with high latitude, as they cross the ocean. It is an example of where we go to find unique applications that only Iridium can provide because of our global coverage and our low-cost footprint for customers. On the Ka-band side, we see ourselves as a complement to these services. We can offer coverage extension in high latitudes and remote geographies where either Ka-band service is not available or it is not cost-effective. We have many partnerships and proposals we are discussing where Iridium is being used as a back up or a coverage extension of Ka-band service. 

Monte: Hosted payloads had no recent impact on Globalstar. Globalstar looked at hosted payloads in the 2006 timeframe while we were finalizing our second-generation satellite contract.

Al Shamsi: Hosted payloads represent a good solution for appropriate sharing of the financing burden of satellite projects and it is one of the good collaboration opportunities between the commercial and government sectors. In the past we used to see programs that were fully funded by government, and then this moved to capacity leasing (which is still one of the good revenue sources for MSS operators). But those have limitations from the government point of view in terms of security and satellite control. I believe the hosted payload concept resolved some of the government concerns and provided them with a good solution to easily access the market.

In Ka-band, there are benefits and limitations. Ka-band will have quality and reliability issues, and the resolution of those is still to be proven, especially in a mobile environment. It is too early to know this. Having said that, we actually have filings in Ka-band. So, in some ways, it has been in our strategy for a long time to consider this frequency band. But, we have to pick the right time in terms of if and when we would add Ka-band capability. We are open to these technologies and others, and we will select the right one when the suitable time comes.

VIA SATELLITE: With a number of next-generation MSS constellations coming to market, do you see a blurring of the lines between the MSS and FSS sectors? 

Pinto: Yes, I do. It was a very interesting debate at the technology roundtable at SATELLITE 2012. There are two different models. You have the Inmarsat model where you take an end-to-end look at the ecosystem and the user requirements and come up with a new constellation, and global mobility and a new set of services. You could argue that this is a pre-investment. You then have the incremental model that our FSS peers are trying to adopt. Here, they have an existing infrastructure and then try to piggyback on this. You could call this strategy a targeted use of spot beam capacity. They add another layer of coverage so that they can provide a service that is somewhat equivalent to what we provide. All of us have a different definition of what global coverage means. Iridium will argue that it means covering the poles. This is their strength. We will look at it as the availability anywhere, not over the poles, but anywhere, anytime with flexible allocation. Companies like Intelsat and SES, they will look at global coverage as adding another layer of spot beams on Ku-band that allows them to cover a large percentage of the traffic, without needing a global mobile constellation. But, who is going to be successful? You could argue that FSS players’ approach means they could be quicker to the market as they have assets that they are flying. Our approach is more holistic, as we provide a whole system. They are very different models.

Pon: I absolutely believe the lines have been blurred. Our network of 275 partners, for example, is really driving this convergence. Two of our partners, KVH and Vizada, have both brought to market the ability to deliver to their customers an MSS service delivered together with an FSS service. Our partners are trying to provide the best service to end-users. This market momentum should build their view of FSS and MSS as complementary. For that reason, you will see more of a blurring going forward.

Monte: There will probably be a bit more of a blurring, but I don’t see a huge impact. FSS and MSS each have their specialties. 

Al Shamsi: The MSS industry is currently passing through a stage similar to the one between 1995 and 2000. I believe it very critical and important to reevaluate the market requirements to make the right decisions for the next step. It is very important to distinguish between MSS and FSS and when it comes to mobility capability. Although we see today attempts on both the Ku- and Ka-band providers to operate in mobile environments, elements related to coverage, performance and overcoming of rain fade, attenuation and link margin related issues will continue to be a challenge for those Ku- and Ka-band operators. In addition, the size, weight and cost of Ku- and Ka-band terminals will prevent them from penetrating the land mobile market and the lower end of the maritime market. It is very important to understand and meet the market needs and the customer expectations, and Ku- and Ka-band cannot meet every need. We are still committed to L-band, which will continue to be the technology of choice for the land mobile market and for many sectors within the maritime market.

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