Technology Preview: Satellite 2013
A lot of executives believe flexibility and intelligent payloads could be key technology topics at SATELLITE 2013. These topics are now frequently on the agenda, and satellite operators are looking at the next generation of satellites offering more flexibility than ever before. “I think the most interesting topic that will be talked about is the flexibility that is being added to multi-spot beam satellite architectures. A lot of this flexibility is coming from military satellite technology that is now migrating to the commercial satellite arena,” says Doron Elinav, VP of strategic accounts, Gilat Satellite Networks. “For example, Intelsat EpicNG’s technology is similar to that of the military, enabling support for multiple applications in multiple spot beams, which, up to now, has not been possible. Another example is steerable beams which have been more common in military satellites and now are also appearing in commercial satellites.”
David Bettinger, CTO, iDirect, believes we are at “a very interesting time” in the industry, and likens the situation to “a perfect storm.” According to Bettinger, “with the emergence of High Throughput Satellites (HTS), another key issue is emerging, and that is intelligent payloads on satellites. Traditionally, the satellite industry faces a major challenge in that satellite operators need to place a significant bet on capacity demand before they launch a satellite. With wide beams, the industry would eventually find a way to use all the bandwidth across a wide geographic region.”
He added that intelligent payloads will address these issues and that one of the first developments in this area is channelizer technology. “Channelizers in spacecraft allow the satellite operator to move the bandwidth from one beam to another. Intelligent payloads are being used more and more often. We saw some channelizer technology being used on the WGS satellites. Clearly, Intelsat EpicNG is one of the first open commercial satellite operator approaches to intelligent payloads that we think will pay off to them. They will be able to move the bandwidth around.”
Certainly, the speeds of capacity now available on high-powered satellites are changing the dynamics of the satellite industry. “To have a 150 Gbps satellite is a tremendous advance. That allows us to provide services at a reasonable price for cellular companies,” David Hershberg, CEO Globecomm, says. “For example, a ski area gets a lot of business in the winter at weekends, but not necessarily all year round. We can buy Gbps of backhaul traffic off these satellites at a reasonable price. This opens up a whole new market for us, since we can now provide services to the people who visit these lodges. These new Ka-band satellites allow you to use them in creative ways.”
While Ka-band and HTS will be key technology talking points at 2013, there will be others. Satellite interference is another topic where the industry definitely needs to see technology advances, as this issue still costs operators millions of dollars per year through lost revenues. While Carrier ID is a start, there is clearly more to be done here. “I expect that we’ll hear increased discussion about the problem at SATELLITE 2013 and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear about new technology angles for characterizing, quantifying, locating and mitigating its effects. It’s certainly an area that our SAT Corporation subsidiary is investing R&D dollars behind. By the way, I think the same thing will be true around cybersecurity in our industry for similar reasons. Even though the technologies and drivers are very different, the effects are similar and the costs and risks are on the rise,” says Stuart Daughtridge senior vice president of advanced technology, Kratos.
Bandwidth efficiency and standards could also be a topic of interest this year, as the market looks to move beyond the DVB-S2 standard. Thomas Van den Driessche, director of vertical markets at Newtec, believes this will be the number one technology talking point for the satellite industry in 2013. “Despite having been up there for many years in the satellite communications industry, bandwidth efficiency is still on top from service providers and manufacturers point of view. With the new DVB-S2 standard coming in 2013, we are entering a new era and so it will be a major trend and talking point in the industry in 2013. This will be the absolute talking point. We are talking about a new standard to follow-up DVB-S2,” he says. “It is linked to the core markets of the DVB industry, so the broadcast market as well as VSAT, government and high-speed throughput. It is coming from being a niche topic to being a number one topic of the next year. If there is going to be something of that magnitude, it will be around new satellite standards.”
Gai Berkovich, VP of research and development, Gilat Satellite Networks, also believes bandwidth efficiency, as a technology topic, will be up front and center this year and says that over the past year there have many improvements relating to bandwidth efficiency, specifically in better DVB-S2 waveform. “This has come mostly from modulator vendors, bringing ever higher data rates and much better efficiency. This is all part of the process of defining a new standard: DVB-S3. I expect to see this trend continue and be implemented in VSATs as well, and not only in the high speed modems which we see today. A lot of work is being done here to improve efficiency still further,” he adds.
Technology Trends in 2012
Certainly, 2013 has a lot to live up to compared to 2012, where there was a flurry of announcements. So, what technology trends stood out in 2012? Daughtridge says, “We are closely following the trend associated with WGS-like satellites and the digitized payload approach. WGS has been around for years, so it’s been more an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary effect. Still, it may very well become a game changer given some of the interesting paths that commercial satcom providers are heading down.”
For Bettinger, 2012 was all about high throughput with a number of announcements regarding the delivery of higher throughput and a much higher performance to single end users than what we have seen before. Bettinger believes that as prices come down and performance goes up, each end user is going to be demanding more and more bandwidth. “You have cruise ships which are little mini-cities that want to be connected. We are being asked to provide hundreds of Mbps into these ships. The same goes for mining, oil and gas. All the industries are moving up the food chain in terms of throughput demand,” he says.
Daughtridge also believes that should another hosted payload deal be signed, this could be a topic that might come back into the spotlight in 2013. “I’m not much of a prognosticator, although I would say that given all of the current attention around hosted payloads, I think that if a unique or bold hosted payload mission were to be announced between now and then it could cause that kind of effect,” he adds. “In fact, something that might affect this is the disaggregation trend, which seems to be picking up steam with the U. S. government. This is where you split up a mission, such as SBIRS, to make it more survivable and flexible. It can also enable the ability to leverage hosted payloads or microsats to get additional sensors and capabilities into space.”
The satellite industry is at inflexion point right now with satellite companies across the globe looking at industry verticals like oil and gas, maritime, and enterprise offering nteresting new growth opportunities. Elinav believes that these new growth markets are having a strong influence on new systems and satellites. Elinav talks about most satellites being designed to be as generic as possible and the focus has been to provide the most capacity over target markets, but that this is now changing. “What we are now seeing more of is that verticals are really shaping satellite architecture and technologies,” he says. “There are now more satellites geared towards specific verticals. One example is Inmarsat with its Global Xpress, which is really focused on the maritime and airborne markets, as well a few other verticals.”
Serving these markets better is key behind iDirect’s strategy going forward. Bettinger talks about maritime, oil and gas and aero companies having an increasing need for a global network, and that these end users are demanding service wherever they are and wherever they need to go. This presents a number of challenges to technology vendors. In terms of how iDirect is overcoming these challenges, Bettinger says, “they may be getting service from service provider in one region, but then need to use another in a different region of the world. Piecing this together can be cumbersome. It may require multiple contracts with regional service providers. To make global connectivity seamless, we are working on the concept of ‘roaming.’ We are not talking about moving from one satellite to another or one beam to another, but rather inter-service provider roaming. It is similar to what the cell phone world conquered years ago. We think that same thing needs to happen in the satellite world to drive the move towards mainstream technology.”
For VSAT operators, the challenges are also becoming more complex as customers become more demanding. “One of the big challenges for VSAT vendors is that the systems are now much more integrated and complex than previously offered. For most enterprise customers, the basic offering is comprised of VSATs and a baseband hub. Now, you have to provide a completely integrated system that includes various parts, such as self-install capability in the VSAT, the ability to manage multiple beams/gateways in a simple manner, deep integration with billing such as Fair Usage Systems, and of course, the constant demand for lower cost terminals,” says Elinav.
While a lot of talk has been around maritime and oil and gas, particularly with deals signed with the likes of Royal Caribbean, it would be foolish to ignore traditional verticals like DTH and broadcasting, and how new technologies could impact these verticals. Hershberg sees “the big issue” for satellite is in the broadcast area. “Around 80 percent of space segment is used for video, and I think that is going to be about for a long time,” he says. “What you are going to see is a transition to broadband Internet from DTH, and things like that. We will have to provide OTT kind of stuff. That is going to grow very quickly. A lot of the DTH systems will transfer to a robust Internet connection. So, that people can have many more options for media,” says Hershberg.
In 2012, we saw a plethora of services around broadband and data services based on Ka-band satellites. However, according to Van den Driessche, having the infrastructure in place is something the industry needs to get a better handle on. “Not many of the terminals or systems that were introduced into the market were application aware. They were not optimized by the application. Over the next 12 months, you will see more companies looking at the application in the vertical market, and making sure the terminal is more and more suited towards the application. That is key. We are also taking a platform approach to these scenarios. A multiservice approach to mitigate risk is also key for 2013. People are asking for platforms that can handle different vertical markets and terminals to make sure they are not putting all of their eggs in one basket,” he says.
One of the trends we have seen emerge this year is satellite looking for more of a role in the overall communications eco-system, and there has even been talk of satellite technologies competing more with terrestrial technologies going forward. Van den Driessche believes the demand for satellite technologies is on the increase. “There are also multiple applications where satellite is the most viable solution,” he says. “We recently helped to provide Burkina Faso with a communications backbone to facilitate transparent elections. In a 24-hour news culture, digital satellite newsgathering has also been in growth, particularly with new Ka-band services requiring smaller and smaller antennas. Governments are also demanding more and more from satellite networks for tasks like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It is fair to say that I see satellite as continuing to play a central role in the communications ecosystem going forward.”
Hershberg says that Ka-band satellites can now make the industry more competitive with terrestrial and fiber, because of the huge amount of bandwidth available. Hershberg says this will help in a lot of areas where companies such as Globecomm could not compete before. “A Mbps would usually cost $5,000 – $6,000. We can’t make any money going into certain areas charging these kinds of numbers. But, if we can cut that by an order of magnitude, that opens up a new market for us,” he adds.
Bettinger echoes these sentiments believing that the industry needs to get away from being a “niche” technology, and move more into the “mainstream.” He adds, “I truly see satellite meeting the needs that get us to a mainstream industry rather than a niche industry. The key components are end user demand, satellite technology that is lowering the cost of putting up the satellite, as well as the ground segment and the different business models there. If you look at the projections of the HTS satellites going up across multiple frequencies over the next 10 years, it is staggering. We are looking at 1.5 – 1.7 Tbps of capability being put into the sky. This will lead satellite moving into a much more mainstream capability which means it fits in more directly with what is going on in the terrestrial IP networks.”
However, while satellite may offer more compelling solutions than before, with global communications’ systems getting ever more complex, the industry could have to accept its role in more over-arching communications systems. “More and more we’ll see satcom being looked at as one subsystem within a larger, complex, inter-dependent and integrated communications network. After all, if customers lose service during the World Cup or the Super Bowl they don’t care whether the failure was in the RF or IP segment of the provider network; they’re just angry about it. If that failure occurs between headquarters and a military unit in the field, the consequences can be substantially worse than mere anger. Service delivery will increasingly depend upon tighter integration between satellite and other systems to assure availability, reliability and security of the mission,” says Daughtridge.