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Commercial Satcoms On The Move: Technologies and Emerging Markets – EXTENDED VERSION

By | August 1, 2009

      In the past two years, the development of new satellite communications-on-the-move products and service offerings has been heating up. Whether live news video streaming from moving vehicles, rear-seat entertainment for cars or new in-flight and in-train broadband services, these applications face similar technical and market challenges.

      Industry players are innovating with an exciting variety of new solutions that take advantage of the relative strengths of Ku-band satellite: ubiquitous wireless coverage and ample cost-competitive bandwidth. The key challenge with on-the-move communications is maintaining the required line of sight to the Ku-band satellite. This means that ground antennas must continuously steer and track the satellite while the vehicle, vessel or aircraft they are serving moves about. A number of players supply the critical antenna systems for these kinds of applications, including maritime segment suppliers SeaTel, KVH Industries and Orbit; land-focused suppliers such as TracStar and RaySat’ aeronautical-focused players such as Rantec, Starling, AeroSat and EMS Satcom; as well as a growing field of new and existing market entrants, including ThinKom, QEST and Commtact. The prospects for new markets are driving traditional maritime suppliers towards land and air, aeronautical antenna-makers towards land, and vice versa. Also important to maritime and new airborne Ku-band on-the-go business opportunities is the supply of increasingly powerful Ku-band satellite coverage around the world, including major ocean traffic routes.

      Maritime Crews and Cruise Connections

      “The maritime segment for motion-stabilized FSS (fixed satellite services) antenna systems represents an annual market of about $150 million in size. It has seen rapid growth over the last five years, and we expect it to start growing again fast,” says David Provencher, president of Cobham Satcom, of Orlando, Fla. Cobham subsidiary SeaTel, is a supplier of marine stabilized antennas that has shipped more than 20,000 systems for commercial cruise, private and military vessels, and oil platforms.

      Better employee retention is a key motivator for commercial maritime companies as is maximizing time at sea, and giving crews broadband access to friends and family helps. “Oil rigs may have 200 to 300 people living there for a month or more and can have similar requirements,” says David Myers, executive vice president of CapRock Communications, which provides on-the-move maritime services for its energy industry clients via Ku-band FSS and uses SeaTel stabilized antennas.

      Industry players see a trend in the maritime field to connect ships as remote offices, providing everything from the latest weather forecast to dealing with customs filings and records, or maintenance. “However, as soon as you make it a corporate office extension, the price for per megabyte usage with traditional pay-per-use Inmarsat BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) or similar services goes through the roof,” says Richard Deasington, director, vertical marketing, iDirect. More than 1,500 ships at sea employ specialized mobile VSATs from iDirect. “Compared to Inmarsat service costing $4.50 to $11 per megabyte, service such as one using iDirect VSATs over Ku-band can cost on the order of 75 cents to $2 per megabyte. Broadband VSAT over Ku-band can be order of magnitude lower in cost,” he says. An example is the global VSAT IP network provided by Orange Business Services to support French marine services company Bourbon. The new VSAT service using iDirect networking made it affordable for Bourbon to provide its crew with expanded Internet access and to improve other ship and fleet management operations.

      It should be noted however, that equipment costs are substantially lower with Inmarsat, and Ku-band capacity over ocean areas is quite limited. “Our users know they are gaining access to the only truly seamless global satellite network, powered by a brand new fleet of Inmarsat-4 satellites, that is guaranteed to work when others fail and offers global coverage and longevity that cannot be matched by VSAT or Ku,” says Piers Cunningham, director of maritime business for Inmarsat. “This is why we have over 200,000 maritime terminals in operation today and continue to activate terminals at a record rate. It is also why seafarers, who absolutely must have reliable communications for safety reasons, all use Inmarsat,” he says. End-user airtime prices for Inmarsat services are set by its distribution partners, and users are able to continuously monitor their usage in real time.

      Challenge: Efficient, Smaller, Lighter Antennas

      Implementing antennas small, light and low-cost enough to fit on a vehicle, train or plane able to track a satellite while in motion poses technical challenges. “If you go to very small antenna sizes, there are two problems,” says Deasington. “One is the gain decreases. On the transmit side, the smaller the antenna reflector, the wider the transmit beam width, so if your beam width is quite wide you could cause adjacent satellite interference, and violate [U.S. Federal Communications Commission] and [International Telecommunication Union] sidelobe rules.”

      One solution to the problem of adjacent satellite interference with small Ku-band dishes is to spread the signal across a wider bandwidth. By using spread spectrum technology, ViaSat is able to use the compact KVH TracPhone V7 antenna, which is 75 percent lighter and 85 percent smaller by volume than traditional 1-meter VSAT antennas, according to KVH. The larger VSAT modem manufacturers, including iDirect, Hughes and ViaSat, also are introducing spread spectrum products. iDirect uses DS-SS (direct sequence spread spectrum) technology to enable transmissions to smaller on-the-move terminals. ViaSat’s ArcLight technology also includes spreading, as does Hughes’ broadband-VSAT-for-mobile solution. Spread spectrum requires more transponder bandwidth than conventional transmission formats. “Even so, it’s still far less expensive and offers much higher data rates than Inmarsat broadband service, for example,” says Provencher. Also, modems can compensate for the bandwidth increase in other ways. For example ViaSat’s CRM (code reuse multiple access) technology saves bandwidth through reuse, countering the spread spectrum increase.

      Doppler compensation is another technical challenge with on-the-move systems. “If the aircraft or fast vehicle is moving, the frequency it receives will go down or up, so you need features in your terminals to deal with the changes in frequency as vehicles or aircraft approach or recede from a satellite at up to hundreds of miles per hour,” says Deasington. For its new in-flight services, Panasonic has licensed iDirect technology that addresses the Doppler effect .

      Uplinking While Driving: Operations Nightmare or Profit Center?

      Driven in no small part by military on-the-move requirements, two-way, vehicle-mounted systems have cost upwards of $100,000 until recently. But with manufacturers seeing growing demand for commercial applications, prices for gear are trending down as more suppliers enter the market with a variety of products tailored to specific applications. These range from receive-only entertainment systems to low-profile vehicle-mount newsgathering systems, to emergency first-responder communications vehicles.

      TracStar is a supplier of transmit-stabilized on-the-move antennas for land-based communications-on-the-move applications. Provencher estimates the addressable market for this kinds of system to be on the order of $60 million to $70 million a year, with TracStar’s share about $30 million for ground terminal equipment today. “A lot of the growth in TracStar has been for public safety and law enforcement, such as border patrol. First responders, like fire, and other emergency teams going in to disaster areas when normal communications are down can also require on-the-move systems. “You can drive this equipment in, stay in communications while driving and when there, you can have communications for first responders,” says Provencher. “For example our antenna was one of the first links on the scene in China after the [May 2008] earthquake, a TracStar 450, was transmitting the vice premier touring the zone to communicate back to Beijing.”

      Another application is transmission of live video from moving satellite newsgathering vans. RaySat Antenna Systems Inc. is another manufacturer of low-profile on-the-move antennas. Fox News deployed RaySat’s StealthRay on its ElectionLink SUVs to cover the U.S. Democratic and Republican presidential primary races for on-the-scene reporting. The roof-mounted system employs flat-panel phased-array antenna technology used elsewhere in military applications.
      Terminals for satellite TV reception in cars are about to enter a new paradigm with the introduction of new mass-market antennas for cars. AT&T CruiseCast, a joint service of AT&T Inc. and RaySat Broadcasting Corp., is launching satellite-delivered, in-car entertainment service in the United States that will include a lineup of 22 satellite video channels and 20 radio channels. “Out of the 70-milion-plus vehicles with rear seat passengers, safely 10 million had rear-seat entertainment system a year or two ago,” says AT&T CruiseCast COO Mike Grannan. Subscriptions start at $28 a month for a service, and AT&T CruiseCast expects healthy consumer adoption of its offer. Grannan cites a McKinsey & Co. market study: “Based on consumers who owned a [rear-seat entertainment] vehicle or were ‘in the market to buy one,’ it found that 49 percent were interested in buying AT&T CruiseCast,” he says.

      The service is delivered through a small pod-shaped roof-mount antenna system for cars, SUVs and larger vehicles that is capable of reception on vehicles moving up to 175 kilometers per hour. The T7 phased array antenna dynamically tracks the satellite using mechanically steered azimuth tracking and electronically steered elevation. RaySat claims the antenna is the most compact (29 centimeters long by 26 centimeters wide) and lightweight (2 kilograms), one-way, low-profile (12 centimeters) in-motion satellite antenna on the market. Like other on-the move systems, it has GPS built-in and is able to orient to a satellite based on the GPS coordinates. RaySat has contracted to use more than 12 transponders on Intelsat’s Galaxy 25 satellite, plus uplink services. An advantage over terrestrial service such as MediaFLO, which licenses 6 megahertz of spectrum nationwide to deliver mobile TV services, is that AT&T CruiseCast can expand its bandwidth and programming with new open-market satellite capacity in the future, RaySat says.

      With typical Ku-band networks, service drops out when the antenna’s line-of-sight to the satellite is blocked, as can occur when passing through tunnels and bridges. With its patented blockage protection technology, AT&T CruiseCast antennas can handle up to two minutes of continuous blockage and still provide uninterrupted, high-quality live television, the company says. AT&T CruiseCast achieves this by using very high forward error correction rates — up to 1:10, building up an optimized buffer over time and statistically interleaving the digital signal. It also simultaneously feeds multiple program streams at offset times. This increases the probability of video reconstruction at the mobile receiver side. AT&T CruiseCast also spreads each NDS-encrypted signal over a full 36-megahertz band transponder. Each Harmonic Inc. encoded MPEG-4/AVC video bite rate is just over 500 kilobits per second, optimized for rear-seat entertainment screen sizes, 95 percent of which are 18 centimeters or less in size. The system also gives viewers a fast channel-switching experience between programs, akin to the home direct-to-home experience, the company says.

      In-Flight Services Taking Off — Again

      After a false start several years ago, the market for commercial Ku-band broadband services to aircraft has been developing quickly in the past year. According to a market study by In-Stat, nearly 800 passenger planes will feature in-flight broadband by the end of 2009, generating $49 million in worldwide passenger revenue. The emerging in-flight broadband market will grow well beyond $1 billion annually by 2012, according to the forecast. Companies creating in-flight broadband and TV offerings for passenger airlines include Panasonic Avionics Corp. and Row44, both of which use Ku-band on the move, and Aircell, which employs terrestrial wireless. Using these services, several U.S. and international airlines have committed to full fleet Wi-Fi deployments, including American, Delta, and Southwest.

      Panasonic Avionics, unveiled its Panasonic Airborne Television Network, which will offer an in-flight cable TV experience worldwide via Ku-band satellites. The company already boasts a large installed customer base of aircraft with its in-flight entertainment and communications systems and is bundling the TV services with eXConnect, its Ku-band-delivered in-flight broadband offer for airlines. “As such, we anticipate that a large percentage of the airlines who have eXConnect will subscribe to the Panasonic Airborne Television Network service,” says Chuck Albright, product marketing manager, Panasonic Avionics. The first European airline to equip its fleet with high-speed in-flight broadband will be Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA, Europe’s fifth largest low-cost carrier. It is equipping its entire fleet with in-flight broadband using a Ku-band service from Row44, which offers downlinks around 30 megabits per second (Mbps) and 620 kilobits per second (kbps) uplinks. Alaska and Southwest airlines fleets have been trialling Row44’s services since 2008. In April, Alaska Airlines announced initial results of its Inflight Wi-Fi service trial. According to the airline, more than 78 percent of those who tried the Inflight Wi-Fi service are either “extremely likely” or “very likely” to recommend it, and 75 percent felt the service was either “excellent” or “very good.” Steve Jarvis, Alaska’s vice president of marketing, sales and customer experience, says, “The initial feedback we’re getting is overwhelmingly positive.” The airline plans to set a final price for the service later this year. Passengers will be able to purchase the service using all major credit cards via the Inflight Wi-Fi secure payment process.

      How does the business today differ from Boeing’s venture in this market several years ago with Connexion? Panasonic credits the technical advances that are available today. “Key differences are: First, we have a much better modem with DVB-S2 and adaptive coding in both directions for much more efficient use of satellite resources. Second, we are partnering with industry leading companies instead of redesigning in house,” says Albright. David Bettinger, chief technology officer of iDirect, agrees. “The core capabilities for in-flight broadband have existed for years, but until recently they were far too inefficient and costly for airlines to operate profitably.” Panasonic will license iDirect’s satellite IP router technology as a core component of its eXConnect broadband service. It has contracted to use Intelsat’s GlobalConnex network for global Ku-band satellite and teleport services.

      Another key technical enabler, says Panasonic, is its antenna subsystem from EMS. “The antenna has been optimized for aeronautical mobile satellite services, especially for high latitudes and equatorial regions, using the latest technology to reduce power consumption and optimize bandwidth and beam management,” says Albright. EMS’ antenna integrates the MIJET Ku-band aeronautical antenna employing Compa (coherent multi-panel antenna) technology from Starling. Starling’s MIJET product uses small wideband elements containing the whole global Ku-band, and inside, a flat panel antenna capable of very narrow beam, high efficiency, low side lobe transmission around the world, says Jacob Keret, Starling’s vice president of sales. For its part, Row44 uses AeroSat Corp. to supply antennas and has a deal with Hughes for broadband VSAT Ku-band services.

      Current in-flight live TV solutions such as JetBlue’s DirecTV service use DBS signals designed for consumers on land, not aircraft in-flight. Content rights are limited to specific geopolitical boundaries. The new services like Panasonic Airborne Television Network and Row44 use made-for-aircraft delivery networks, with content rights that include international flight paths so passengers can enjoy virtually continuous viewing as the aircraft moves from one coverage area to another. For intercontinental aircraft and sea travel, an on-the-move terminal can pass through multiple satellite beam coverage areas. Automatic beam-switching in the system ensures continuous service as the ground terminal passes through different satellite coverage areas. iDirect, for example, provides a network routing solution that addresses this on-the-go challenge for its customers.

      Take a Trip on a Train

      Unique challenges in serving the emerging railroad segment include high voltage overhead electric power cables, speed and vibration, accelerations, and terrain blockage. But Ku-band on-the-move technology is being deployed to bring broadband to trains moving at up to 320 kilometers per hour to allow onboard Wi-Fi hot spots for passengers. For the past few years, National Express, a U.K.-based rail service carrying 18 million passengers per year, has offered onboard Wi-Fi using a hybrid 3G and a 4 megabit-per second satellite downlink provided by Icomera of Sweden. Also in Europe, 21Net of Ledbury, England, is delivering broadband to trains via Ku-Band on-the-move VSATs. It teamed up with Nokia Siemens and Telenet to implement the ThalysNet service on Thalys’ TGC high-speed train network between France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. A first for North America, VIA Rail Canada, Canada’s largest rail operator, recently replaced its terrestrial delivery network for broadband on passenger trains running between Windsor, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City with a satellite-based solution from 21Net.

      Moving Forward

      Near-term growth in some of the exciting new consumer-driven on-the-move entertainment and broadband applications coming into the fore could be slowed by current automotive and airline industry problems. But there is no question that on-the-move is generating significant new demand for commercial Ku-band satellite network solutions and bandwidth. It is also bringing promising new ground systems technology and innovations into commercial markets.

      On the Move Technologies

      • Mini Amplifiers

      Innovation in the design of low profile, lightweight and low-power-draw amplifiers has helped make on-the-move services via Ku-band more viable. A case in point is the solid-state power amplifier (SSPA) and block-up converter (BUC) technology found in on-the-move systems from TracStar, SeaTel, RaySat ThinKom and others. Technology supplied by WaveStream of San Dimas, Calif., employing the company’s patented spatial-power combining technology, allows WaveStream to deliver uplink amplifiers that are about half the size and weight of comparably rated SSPAs while drawing about one-third less power of conventional Ku-band SSPAs. “In many systems, the difference between a solution that will or won’t operate or make business sense is an issue of the temperature, size or weight,” says Gary Echo vice president of business development for WaveStream. “We overcome that challenge with our Ku-band technology.”

      • An Array of New Antenna Options

      Electronically steerable phased-array antenna technology, long-used in military space applications, promises flat panel antennas – perfect for low-drag or low-profile on-the-move communications, but opinions differ on its commercial viability. According to Bill Milroy, chairman and CEO of ThinKom of Torrance, Calif., “People are working on low-cost phased arrays, as are we, but there are two problems. First, they are too expensive. Second, they are not very efficient. You have to use a lot of area to get the same performance.”

      ThinKom is bringing to market what it says will be the most efficient low-profile, commercial, two-way, on-the-move antenna system on the market. The ThinSat300 antenna will offer a 40 percent to 65 percent lower profile and 4 times to 10 times higher spectral efficiency than competing on-the-move products, ThinKom says. “Only 11 centimeters high, it can deliver comparable performance to a typical 90-centimeters by 50-centimeter parabolic dish,” says Milroy. “Also, because of its efficiency, low sidelobes and very narrow beam width, no signal spreading is required even at Ku-band.” The product, which goes into beta trials in cars and SUVs later this year, uses a variable inclination continuous transverse stub (VICTS) array technology, proven at X-, Ku-, Ka-, Q-band in years of military applications. The VICTS array is 100 percent mechanical anduses a stack less than 11.5 centimeters high of two circular metal-coated plastic plates which rotate.

      Zachi Bejerik, CTO of antenna manufacturer Commtact, agrees that phased array technology is too expensive. “Until phased arrays are mature — probably several more years — and until it introduces good efficiencies, we believe our reflective technology is the best in terms of performance and price. We see the market ranging from $125,000 down to $40,000 to $45,000 for considerable quantities of terminals, and this is where we come into the picture.” An advantage of Commtact’s reflector and feed array approach compared to phased array-based products is that converting from Ku-band to Ka-band only requires replacing the feed.

      • DVB-S2 with ACM:

      Another technology seen as important in getting the most efficient usage of capacity is DVB-S2 with ACM (adaptive coding and modulation). On top of the 30 percent improvement over DVB-S systems, a gain of 50 percent in bandwidth efficiency is possible by adding ACM to DVB-S2 systems, manufacturers say. With ACM, a specific VSAT in a broadband network can adjust its transmit data rate on-the-fly to accommodate its site-specific link parameters. “This can be very useful for maritime where you often have bad weather, and have ships in different areas,” says Deasington.