Can Amplifier Technology Vendors Stay One Step Ahead?

By | August 1, 2012 | Feature, Telecom

The vibrant satellite amplifier technology market features a number of companies competing for business. Are vendors meeting customer needs, and is there enough business for such a large number of competing players?

The satellite industry is full of eco-systems of technology that make the whole industry function. With the demands for satellite capacity showing no signs of slowing, the demands for new technology and solutions is increasing. With the entrance into the markets of new high-powered Ka-band satellites, the demand on the infrastructure that powers these new systems also is increasing. One of the eco-systems within satellite is the amplifier technology market. This market is comprised of a number of players, and there is strong competition as vendors look to supply this technology to broadcasters, telcos, satellite players and others.

The advent of a new Ka-band infrastructure market is placing new demands on amplifier technology vendors. Operators like Hughes, Eutelsat, ViaSat and Inmarsat are investing heavily in Ka-band satellites and the associated infrastructure needed. The cycle of technology investment reverberates around the satellite industry.

Andy Tafler, head of CPI’s satcom division says he believes that technology players have risen to the challenge here. “We certainly feel that the success of these satellites is critical to the future of the satellite industry. Meeting the satellite system providers’ requirements for very high power and very high quality gateways has really pushed the capabilities of both Traveling Wave Tube Amplifiers (TWTA) and Solid State Power Amplifiers (SSPA) amplifiers. What they have asked from the amplifier industry and the tube vendors is to push their capabilities. Manufacturers have risen to the challenge, and these systems have been operating successfully and on time,” he says.

The Ka-band market, however, does present some unique challenges to vendors. Daniel Enns, senior vice president, business development for Comtech EF Data, says that while the Ka-band market provides definite potential, it also comes with a number of issues. “The challenge in Ka-band is that there are military bands and commercial bands,” he says. “The number of different bands raises questions: Do I have the right amplifier for the right band, and for the right application or customer requirement? So, we need to predict the right band for the right application so that we can have the right amplifiers built when there is demand. There is certainly demand in the military market. The WGS Ka-band for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is being deployed. Many of the foreign DODs are getting on the bandwagon for the WGS, so that is driving the demand for international Ka-band. In the Middle East, there are several other satellites that have Ka-band capacity that are also looking at the enterprise market.”

The theme of more demanding customers there is apparent. “Our customers are demanding high-linearity, high-efficiency and high-power,” says Cristi Damian, vice president, operations, Advantech Wireless. “We see a migration from the traditional 30 GHz to 31 GHz market to lower 26 GHz to 30 GHz frequencies, as well as a demand for higher bandwidth SSPAs. We have been investing in Ka-band solid state technology since 2003.”

Providing products for both the commercial and military segments is key, according to Marion Van Fosson, vice president and general manager, CVG-Avtec, who says developing dual-use products is vital in accomplishing this task. “Tier I OEMs would like to have a dual-use product that can support both the commercial and military bands so amplifiers that can operate over a wide Ka-band range to satisfy both military and commercial requirements are desirable,” he says.

Miteq is another company looking to play in the Ka-band arena, and its CEO, Howard Hausman, admits that this is a key focus for the company. Hausman cites statistics about the levels of data traffic as compelling reasons why this sector is going to place heavy demands on technology vendors. “We supply nearly every major Ka-band satcom system and we expect further growth over the remainder of the year,” he says. “The projections for ever-increasing data transmission are simply staggering with Ka-band satcom being the critical transmission link to achieve these demands. To give just one example, at a recent Air Force conference it was stated that traffic will grow by a factor of 50 over the next five years.” 

Is This a Hot Market?

One of the questions that a number of markets within the satellite sector have is whether the demand for technology can mean enough business for all players — it seems as though there could be a battle for new contracts. What is interesting is this is a very diverse market, with many of the players involved pointing to the maritime and in-flight connectivity markets, as well as the military and telecoms markets.

Gary Echo, vice president of business development, Wavestream, admits the overall global recession has hit companies in this sector. “Depending on the market segment, things have been pretty flat. The global recession is hitting everybody. Demand is flat. The U.S. DOD budget is uncertain, but there are growth areas for Wavestream outside our core DOD market. But, the general trend we are seeing across the board is pretty flat,” he says.

Some companies, however, are optimistic that 2012 could be a banner year for sales. Damian adds, “We are actively participating in a number of large contracts and we expect to increase our sales in 2012 by at least 30 percent. We also see very large projects being developed.”

Tafler believes the market will remain strong and points to solid trends in both the commercial and military markets. “The market has always been quite competitive, and I don’t think that is going to change. We do expect our business to remain strong and stable over the next few years. We do see a number of potential larger opportunities that are beginning to materialize that could make the next few years very exciting for us,” he says. “We divide the market into commercial and military. The commercial market for high power, ground based satellite services and mobile applications remains quite strong. The higher growth part of the military satellite communications market is smaller, mobile type terminals. We see strength in all of these areas. There is also a lot of interest for lower powered terminals in the maritime area. That area appears to be growing, not as much in the traditional L-band area, but at Ku-band and Ka-band frequencies.”

Enns also says the need for replacement amplifier technology is another key to this remaining growing market, despite 2011 being a tough year. “We saw a little bit of a slowdown in 2011 — we had been going very strong. I would say in 2012, it is an interesting sort of time right now. There have not been any major breakthroughs per se, but there is always a need for amplifiers,” he says. “Revenue is increasing from all service providers. This is not necessarily coming from new subscribers, but from all customers as they require more bandwidth. How does this translate into amplifiers? What this means is that they all need bigger amplifiers. This is driving the replacement market.”

Enns also points to markets like maritime as one where there is some growth potential. “The maritime market could also be one of interest for the company. There are higher bandwidth requirements coming out of this market and we see some good growth in that particular area. There is also cyclical demand coming from the DOD and different MODs, but overall I would say there will be medium growth in this market over the next 12 to 24 months,” he says.

CVG-Avtec has focused on tactical comms-on-the-move and portable VSATs and sees an interest from those customers in amplifiers that can provide additional power without adding size and weight. “Increasing demand for high bandwidth applications like high data rate IP backhaul, mobile broadband entertainment and HD video is driving a need for higher power amplification,” Van Fosson says. “Ideally operators and equipment providers would like to provide drop-in replacement amplifiers that provide higher power to enable those higher bandwidth applications using existing modems and antennas. We see growth opportunities in the Ku-band and Ka-band mobile communications market segments and are targeting our product development to capture market share in those segments.” 

New Technology

For all the companies that operate in this sector, investing in research and development is a key component of success as they all look to meet customer needs. So, how are companies looking to invest in new technologies? Enns says, “The investment is being done now to try and bring costs down. So, whatever we can do to lower the cost of manufacturing will bring more value to the customer. Our capital expenditure in this area is going up because we believe the longer-term market is there. We are pretty much transitioning everything to outdoor amplifiers, which is leading to additional requirements such as housing and machining. Our investment in terms of manufacturing internally is going up as well because we believe in the market. But, we have to do this with greater manufacturing and cost efficiencies, so we can pass savings on to our customers.”

New trends are also impacting companies. The importance of customers having online access anytime, anywhere has become the pervading characteristic of the market. Echo says these trends are impacting the business Wavestream has been able to do in this area. “We are seeing business and non-business travellers of all ages using the Internet in order to stay in touch. Some of the recent business for Wavestream that we did not have previously, now targets cruise ships and airlines,” he says. “We have launched an airborne product which is going on commercial airlines. People want to stay in touch now. If you go on a flight when you have access and then all of a sudden you don’t have it, you notice it. Once you have experienced high-speed satellite Internet in the sky, you can’t them live without it. That is a trend that is growing very rapidly.”

Generating cost savings for customers is also at the heart of CPI’s satellite communications strategy, says Tafler. “One good example of state-of-the-art technology on the tube-based amplifier side is what is called a SuperLinear amplifier, which we introduced in our high-power rack mounted models a few years ago, mainly for commercial applications. We have been expanding this product line for outdoor and lower power products, for commercial and also for military applications. SuperLinear amplifiers provide significant savings in power costs.”

Miteq is looking to improve its range of SSPA amplifiers as it looks to meet customer needs going forward. The company is developing a broad range of SSPAs, typically with an integral L-band block up converters, for fixed, mobile and airborne satcom applications. “Improvements in linear power, efficiency, thermal management, minimizing size and weight are crucial product development objectives which we are pursuing. GaN devices are a major help in achieving some of these objectives,” says Hausman.

Damian sees new technologies like Gallium Nitride (GaN) based Solid State Power Amplifiers as a perfect match for the trends it sees in the market. “We expect them to profoundly change the landscape of satellite communications in the near future,” she says. “At the same time, highly bandwidth efficient, small- to medium-size, dual architecture SCPC or DVB-RCS TDMA networks seem to be the choice of a large number of operators.” 

SSPA versus TWTA

One of the key talking points in this sector is weighing up the benefits of Solid State Power Amplifiers (SSPAs) versus Traveling Wave Tube Amplifiers (TWTAs). Some vendors are hedging their bets, while others are adopting a more aggressive approach particularly towards SSPAs, which some vendors see as a potential game changing technology. While the market may be moving in this direction in a broad sense, many still see a strong demand for TWTA products.

There are a lot of deciding factors when making a choice of which amplifier technology to use. While certain situations will call for a TWTA, and likewise a SSPA, Echo admits there is a place in the middle where the two technologies meet. “Depending on the application, one makes more sense than the other in many cases. There are also cases where they are interchangeable. The differences are then much more subtle. In such cases, the application does not drive the decision, but the individual’s tastes. An SSPA has no warm-up time. If I have an amplifier on an SNG truck, I can pull up to an event, and with an SSPA, I can be online in a matter of seconds. The TWTA has 5-10 minutes warm-up time,” says Echo.

However, SSPA’s can offer significant benefits to customers compared to a TWTA. Echo cites an example where the company spoke to an teleport operator and that they saved $40,000 by using an SSPA solution, rather than a TWTA. Explaining how such costs benefits come to pass, Echo says, “More often than not, they back-up every amplifier with another amplifier. If an SSPA has a cold start, the back-up amplifier does not have to energized. It is consuming zero power. The TWTA solution, you have to keep that tube warm, because if that primary goes down, you can’t afford for HBO to go down for 10 minutes. Those back-up amplifiers have to be kept on, and you are consuming twice as much power. The key here is, TWTAs are always on, consuming power and consuming valuable tube life. SSPAs offer instant on features, helping save power, time and improving efficiency.”

Tafler echoes these sentiments and adds that his company will continue to invest in both tube and solid-state technology and products. “There are many different satellite amplifier requirements, including many different power levels, different linearity requirements, different frequencies, etc. This matters more to customers than what the technology itself is.”

Miteq also has a foot in both camps, and while it is looking to develop its SSPA range of amplifiers, it still believes there is strong business for its TWTA range. “TWTAs are an important business for us with our MCL Corp. subsidiary supplying superior TWTA across all bands — L, X, Ku, K, Ka and Q. In the higher bands there is no rival to TWTA in efficiency or power, either now or in the near future including what is optimistically projected for GaN or whatever innovative semiconductor device being considered,” says Hausman.

Some companies have a more definitive presence in the SSPA camp, and by placing more of an emphasis on these products, believe they have some compelling advantages. Damian says, “GaN based SSPAs are outperforming all existing technologies, beating other solid state technologies like GaAs, LDMOs or TWTs. GaN now allows design and manufacture of RF power levels which were only possible in the past with TWT technology. These new generation SSPAs have much higher reliability, higher linearity and better efficiency then their TWT counterparts. With size reduced by 80 percent, energy consumption reduced by 40 percent, double the linear power of all solid-state previous technologies, they offer a strong and commercially viable alternative, which is being very well received by the market. We do not believe that we will be able to see in our lifetime a better or more promising technology.”

The amplifier technology mirrors the satellite industry as a whole. There is huge competition among the different players, but with businesses and customers wanting more bandwidth rich applications than ever before, this is likely to remain a vibrant market for the players involved. Like most markets, new technologies are impacting this market, and it is clear from talking to the different players that there are a wide variety of strategies being developed. What is perhaps most interesting about this market is the intense competition, and while the market remains in a strong period, it seems each company is targeting specific niches. Like a number of markets within satellite, it remains to be seen what will happen in the amplifier sector if there is any kind of slowdown.

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