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Isotropic’s Finney on Unlocking HTS’ Growth Potential

By Kendall Russell | March 6, 2018

John Finney, founder of Isotropic Systems. Photo: Isotropic Systems.

The satellite industry is in the midst of a major renaissance, overcoming market barriers that have existed for decades and finding new opportunities in a range of verticals. However, as satellite technology in space improves, so too must the ground infrastructure that supports it.

In this Q&A, Isotropic Systems Founder John Finney lays out the path of evolution next-gen antennas must take, as well as their potential impact on satellite’s customer base. Finney will take the stage at the SATELLITE 2018 Conference & Exhibition on March 12 to discuss future satellite terminals’ capabilities and more in a luncheon keynote.

Via Satellite: How do today’s satellite antennas fall short?

Finney: Today’s antennas are relatively limited in their technology and functionality, but not because they lack innovation, but because those innovations fail to enable operators and service providers to meet latent demand. Technically speaking, today’s antennas can only manage one satellite beam at a time; are designed for a single, specific frequency in most cases; have not yet shown strong radio performance; and most important for mass market users, they are too expensive.

We look at the antenna market and know that all of the High Throughput Satellite (HTS) bandwidth available today and coming online in the next few years will not reach the majority of broadband users because they cannot pay for a service where the terminal costs tens of thousands of dollars at the minimum.

Via Satellite: What elements are changing on the satellite side that the ground ecosystem must keep pace with?

Finney: The biggest element on the satellite side is the amount of bandwidth, or data throughput, that is coming to market. Today, we have approximately 2 Tb of throughput available. Consider that, once they reach full deployment, the mPower Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) system and the OneWeb Low Earth Orbit (LEO) system as examples will offer nearly 70 Tb. Ground technology cannot currently support this expansion, especially not with any kind of mass-market economics in mind. New ground technology that is scalable and lower cost will let this capacity reach users that cannot afford to consider satellite connectivity.

Via Satellite: What do the satellite antennas of tomorrow look like?

Finney: I think they will continue to have a low profile, but we need much more adaptable form factors as users will not give up prime “real estate” on their platform for access to broadband. They must also be able to provide instantaneous bandwidth levels that match the largest carriers from existing and new systems, and be able to handle multiple connections, excellent radio performance at extreme scan angles but most importantly, terminal economics that drive new customers onto the satellite ecosystem for the first time.

Via Satellite: How will changes on the ground side affect the satellite industry as a whole? What new opportunities could more advanced antennas potentially unlock?

Finney: With the huge growth in capacity I mentioned, we can finally unlock consumer and other larger markets that do not use satellite at this time. Let me give you an example: today we know that new antenna technology is targeting super yachts. This market has about 7,000 potential users and so the user base is relatively limited, although a highly profitable niche within the mobility sector. This is an interesting market as it is a group of high-end users who like to have the best and newest technology.

I think it is much more interesting to focus on large potential markets, like fishing vessels to go to another extreme, with the objective of adding a large-scale user base to the satellite ecosystem. This market has approximately 4 million vessels with 1 million in excess of 10m in length. Trawling deep water and therefore [unable] access 3G or 4G, [these vessels] must be more reliant upon satellite. Think about the implications for these customers and their end users if they could enhance their business with broadband connectivity and provide new services based on this access.

In each vertical there are two extremes, the limited customer base that HTS systems can tap into with the prevailing cost of phased array, gimbled and so-called flat-panel antennas, and then there is a huge demand potential for a much wider base of customers, provided we can offer the industry a completely new generation in technical prowess matched with the right terminal economics.

Via Satellite: What new markets do you foresee satellite thriving in in the near future?

Finney: I just explained the big opportunity we see in the maritime arena. Think now about enabling the majority of aircraft with connectivity, not just the big, wide-body planes on long routes. I just saw news about the potential growth of the Asia-Pacific region’s air travel market without China. The number of travelers will triple in the next twenty years. I believe that low-cost broadband to travelers will help them conduct more business, relax more with access to feature entertainment, and the plane itself will then have access to much more bandwidth to be more efficient and safe.

Talk about transformation that satellites can offer to users around the world. I did not even mention the consumers that need access to connectivity — I have seen numbers as high as in the hundreds of millions of new users.

Via Satellite: Would you say there will be more change in satellite technology over the next 10 years compared to the last 10?

Finney: From my perspective, we have a major opportunity to join the innovation in telecommunications that is happening as we speak. Two ideas come to mind: growth in mobile connectivity, 5G as a good example, and then on the data side, the Internet of Things (IoT), which will enable businesses and consumers to access data to enhance day-to-day operations and life. Mobile technology providers will not reach every user and market because the investment costs will be too high and the return on these investments will be too small. The recent announcement of the shows that business and wireless and satellite all need to cooperate to bring home the highest level service. We intend to play a very important role in all of that.