A powerful new generation of enhanced satellites is placing more stringent requirements on antenna manufacturers as satellite operators look to gain the next-generation of antenna technology without incurring huge extra costs. Are antenna manufacturers able to meet these new multi-faceted demands from government and commercial customers alike?
The launch of ViaSat-1 in October represents the first in a wave of next-generation Ka-band satellites featuring antenna and other system architectures that promise to dramatically alter the economics of delivering broadband Internet and other services to the masses. Specifically, the new systems will make satellite bandwidth and performance competitive with terrestrial services.
Analyst firm NSR estimates that 24 satellites with some type of Ka-band payload are already launched or under construction with five others expected to be ordered soon. They include Inmarsat’s Inmarsat-5 constellation, Yahsat IA, Hughes’ Jupiter-1, Eutelsat’s Ka-Sat, Avanti Communications’ Hylas-1 and O3b’s 12-satellite Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) constellation.
The higher frequency Ka-band spectrum offers many advantages, including a narrower beam width, enabling smaller footprints and frequency reuse through a multi-spot-beam architecture. Not only does a Ka-band system use a smaller footprint antenna, but the reflector dish is also 30 percent smaller.
“The new generation of Ka-band satellites is getting a lot of buzz, but perhaps more interesting than the frequency band are the other technologies that these new spacecraft are pioneering. Multi-spot beam architectures for example have the potential to significantly improve the throughput and cost-effectiveness of satellite communications in general,” says David Myers, president of government solutions for Harris CapRock.
ViaSat-1’s satellite bandwidth spanning 1900 MHz transmit and receive is a “game changer” in the commercial industry, says Don Runyon, antenna engineering lead for ViaSat. Prior commercial systems, including WildBlue-1, span 500 MHz.
“What excites me is we are pushing the envelope on performance, cost and functional capabilities. We are producing antennas that have milestone-setting cost points and greater capabilities.”
A key difference, Runyon explains, is the highly integrated electronics. ViaSat has an airborne version of its transmit-receive integrated assembly that will go on the operator’s JetBlue offering. In addition, the U.S. government recently has engaged ViaSat in a study contract to better understand ViaSat-1 and the possibilities for dramatically reducing their cost of satellite capacity and improving their end-user performance, ViaSat officials said.
“The introduction of Ka-band to commercial users who have primarily used Ku-band is very reminiscent of the introduction of Ku-band to C-band users in the 1980s,” says Jim Oliver, who has founded two antenna companies and currently serves as CEO of AvL Technologies, a producer of transportable carbon fiber antennas used by the U.S. military, the American Red Cross and FEMA, among others.