Low-cost flat-panel phased-array ground antennas may be the sine qua non for constellations of hundreds of low-orbiting broadband satellites. But work under way by antenna designers will benefit GEO HTS networks too. Credit: Space Angels Network

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — The future growth of the satellite communications industry in transitioning from a niche to a mass market for mobile broadband in large part rests on the shoulders of the ground-antenna manufacturers.

How can they break through what Advantech Wireless Chief Executive David Gelerman called the “chicken-and-egg situation: To you get large volumes you need low cost, and to get low cost you need large volumes”?

Numerous antenna builders — AvL Technologies, Kymeta, Phasor, C-Com Satellite Systems, Newtec and AvL Technologies in addition to Advantech — addressed their development plans at the Satellite Innovation conference here Oct. 2-3.

Satellite fleet operators have already begun taking account of the ground segment in ways that are unprecedented in the industry.

For satellite broadband, ground network is more important than ever

Tony Wilke, senior vice president of AvL, said SES Networks’ O3b medium-Earth-orbit constellation of Ka-band broadband satellites, which is working with AvL on a quick-deployment tactical terminal, is an example of the new relationship.

“This is the first time in my career that I can remember a satellite operator realized that their vision of how they satellites can be best utilized won’t work unless it works in concert with a ground station,” Wilke said.

Kymeta, which has been the most visible manufacturer of electronically steered, metamaterials-based flat-panel antennas for mobile applications including mass markets like the connected car, recently announced it had shipped its first 400 units.

“Those units are currently operating in the land-mobile industry today, SUVs and other types of land-based vehicles used in the construction industry. They are on tour buses, on trains in South America, and then naturally they are on super-yachts in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean,” said Richard Hadsall, Kymeta’s vice president of global network operations.

“They are operating on both conventional and HTS [high-throughput] satellites, very successfully. The growth is going into the IoT [Internet of Things] market. They have not started to ship that product out the door yet but it is basically waiting to be released.”

Kymeta’s 400-unit announcement brought various reactions from its competitors.

“Have you seen a data sheet on those? I haven’t seen one yet,” said Drew Klein, director of international business development at C-Com. Klein agreed that the key to capturing the mobile-broadband and IoT markets was to “improve the technology and create the economies of scale to build millions of low-cost VSAT terminals.”

C-Com: Prototype flat panel in 6 months

C-Com, he said, has its own electronically steered, flat-panel design in development “that we hope to develop for every mobile market there is — cars, planes, trains, buses, wearables. Very low cost. We are on that track.

“We are hopeful that a prototype will be available within the next six months and within the next 18 months realistically we should have a working product,” Klein said. “It’s very easy to give dates and then not keep them. It’s a very challenging effort. It’s a real game-changer and we don’t have Bill Gates [an early Kymeta investors] behind us. We are working with what we have and progress has been excellent in the test chamber.”

Phasor is generally throught to be right behind Kymeta in releasing flat-panel antennas for mass markets.

Phasor Chief Executive David Helfgott acknowledged Kymeta’s first-to-market status but said the market is large enough for that not to bother the other manufacturers.

“First to market is good,” Helfgott said. “You get to set the terms. We are probably six to nine months behind them. We are really focused on the higher end of enterprise and commercial passenger connectivity. We go through a lot of Alpha or TRL 7 tests. We have several beta partners lined up in the maritime space and we hope to have additional announcements soon in land-mobile. Aeronautical is harder, but that also is coming.”

Whether flat-panel technology will be adopted by all mobile broadband satellite markets is uncertain.

Speedcast: Flat panels for maritime? For some, not all

P.J. Beylier, chief executive of maritime satellite service provider Speedcast, said the jury is still out.

“From what we can see today, it seems [changing from parabolic to flat-panel] will result in a significant loss of efficiency on the return path — from the remote asset back to the hub,” Beylier said.

Down with domes: Kymeta’s flat-panel product for yachts is in commercial service. Beyond yachts, is flat-panel technology a better fit for maritime than parabolic antennas? Credit: Kymeta

“It’s too early to say what we can do with it. We need to spend more time to better understand what we can do with these systems. For some customers where size matters, form factor matters, aesthetics matters — yachting for example — there will be applications for flat-panel antennas. And in the case of LEO [satellite constellations] we will need them.”

Phasor: Flat-panel needed for IoT, cars and in a future LEO environment

Helfgott said flat panels have natural advantages over parabolic antennas that will be indispensable in mass-market applications, especially if LEO constellations are deployed. Here’s how he made the case:

“You can do multiple beams and beam-switching. You can do satellite interference mitigation. Things you can do electronically with a software-defined antenna are not possible with a parabolic antenna,” Helfgott said. “We’re headed into that environment now, much more in a 5G mentality of beam forming, frequency reuse and that kind of stuff.

“For the part of the industry that is projected to grow very rapidly, which is broadband mobility, IoT, putting wideband in areas where you couldn’t before, like the connected car for example, or 200 Mbps to a cruise ship, or 100 mobs to an A380 — those kinds of things are not feasible, or very difficult to do, in a non-electronically steered [antenna] use case.

“And all the broadband low orbit constellations all require highly sophisticated beam switching to move from one satellite to the next, or dual illumination, looking at two satellites at the same time, or interoperability between GEO and LEO satellites. You cant do that with conventional antennas. It has to be beam-forming antennas. When you put that into the growth part of the industry, with the higher end use cases and the lower-end IoT, I think it is critical for those markets to grow and thrive.”

Kymeta: Connected-car market closer than you think

For Kymeta’s Hadsall, the connected-car market for antennas is “not that far off. There will be vehicles coming in masses for the 2020 year. We’re talking millions of vehicles being delivered.”

Among mobile satellite broadband applications, the connected car promises the ultimate market. How to get antennas to the price points required for the mass market? Credit: Intelsat

To serve the millions of connected cars, satellites will need to evolve.

“Today, there are a few hundred coming off the line in Europe, soon to be a few thousand. Those are sustainable as I see it today. I am still a little worried about 2020 and beyond, about the satellite operators — Intelsat and SES and the other majors — being able to support those masses with the current satellite designs they have today and be able to operate in a global environment to fill all the gaps you will see.”

Early indications are that satellite networks, which want to address a market as big as cellular networks, are adopting some of their practices.

“A lot of the emerging HTS business models do incorporate the terminals as part of the monthly fee,” said Kevin McCarthy, vice president of market development at Newtec. “The concept of selling a terminal is going away. It’s part of the the service.”

If the ground segment is more important than ever for a broadband satellite network, should satellite operators adopt the ViaSat and Hughes models and vertically integrate with antenna manufacturers?

Vertical M&A more likely than horizontal

Several industry official said such vertical integration is much more likely than horizontal integration among antenna builders, many of which use different technologies that would limit the synergies of a merger with a competitor.

Here’s Newtec’s McCarthy:

“The fundamental issue is satellite operators realizing that the ground segment is strategically critical to their business plans,” McCarthy said. “And if they don’t have control over it, it gets very difficult. So I think you are going to see partnership and maybe vertical consolidation.

As the number of terminals increases rapidly, being able to manage the scale of orders of magnitude and being able to manage a market of that size in a relatively short period of time is going to be a challenge.

“When you have a handful of beams and a couple of hundred terminals, it’s relatively manageable. When you’ve got thousands of beams and millions of terminals, and different combinations with overlapping beams, managing all of this is a challenge. One of the trends that we feel strongly about is that intelligence has to move from the terminal to some sort of centralized process. Today the beam switching and the logic resides in many cases on the terminal.”

Advantech’s Gelerman agreed.

“Vertical consolidation is more important than horizontal, it’s more beneficial to consumers. The days of having large satellite operators with huge EBITDA, 80 percent, it’s not going to happen anymore” as they are forced to move downstream, he said.

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Peter B. de Selding
Peter B. de Selding
Peter de Selding is a Co-Founder and editor for SpaceIntelReport.com. He started SpaceIntelReport in 2017 after 26 years as the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews where he covered the commercial satellite, launch and the international space businesses. He is widely considered the preeminent reporter in the space industry and is a must read for space executives. Follow Peter @pbdes