Bathed in Bandwidth – High Throughput Satellites in Austere Environments

Unprecedented Connectivity

Humans today live in an era of unprecedented connectivity.  Never before in human history – or the history of our planet for that matter – have inhabitants of Earth been so connected to one another.    Video teleconferences that include individuals on all seven continents are possible.  More than half of the world is online, and over a billion people have smartphones. 

Think specifically about how smartphones have changed our lives.  These devices connect humans to the entirety of human knowledge anytime, anywhere they have a connection to the Internet.  Humans literally hold the entirety (or at least the majority) of human knowledge in the palm of their hand.

This connectivity is breathtaking, sure, but it only extends to where our global network reaches.  Many places on our planet have been left out of large communication nets, with the majority of communication infrastructure focused rightfully so on highly populated areas.

Satellites provide the ability to cover the globe in bandwidth, making it possible to provide bandwidth – and consequently human connectivity – literally anywhere on the planet.  But until recently, those satellites could only provide a fraction of the bandwidth and speed required for normal connectivity.  These satellites allow for voice, minimal data, and one-way broadcast (down) video streams. 

But this has all changed in the last three years. 

High Throughput Satellites

A new generation of satellites, referred to as high-throughput satellites, are changing the way we think of satellite communications.  Usually the most expensive form of bandwidth, satellites provided low data rate coverage to austere and remote areas not covered by cellular, HF, fiber, or other terrestrial-based networks.  Costing sometimes upwards of half a billion dollars to launch, satellites are extremely expensive to launch, maintain, and support.  Hence the high cost of operation.

A typical Fixed Service Satellite (FSS) can provide approximately 1 GBPS of bandwidth to an entire hemisphere.  To access normal FSS services in remote locations, a user would need a relatively large antenna – upwards of 1 meter in diameter – to get speeds similar to what a cellphone gets in large cities. 

A Mobile Service Satellite (MSS) provides far less bandwidth but tends to cover geographic regions less-covered by FSS systems, and allows for smaller, less accurately pointed antennas. 

High Throughput Satellites (HTS) changes the equation.  These satellites can  provide nearly two hundred times the bandwidth of last-generation FSS satellites, meaning more bandwidth across the entire coverage area.  These satellites operate at a higher frequency band, which allows for smaller antennas. 

Because of spot-beam technology, smaller areas are illuminated by individual beams, which means the entire frequency band of 2-GHz can be reused 100 times, leading to 2TBPS of throughput out of the satellite. 

Finally, because these satellites cost about the same as FSS and MSS satellites to launch and operate, the cost per Megabyte (MB) is orders of magnitude less.  In some cases, such as the ViaSat-1 Exede Service, users can get 10GB of data at 12MBPS – comparable to broadband options like cable and fiber – for as little as $50/mo.  The same 12MBPS on an FSS satellite used to cost as much as $250,000 per month.

The New Opportunity

While HTS satellites are making things interesting in terms of competition with cable, fiber, and LTE communications, they are also sparking a revolution of connectivity in areas that have always been underserved by bandwidth solutions. 

For example, transatlantic and transpacific flights can now support 50MBPS of bandwidth throughout the entirety of the flight.  Cruise ships can provide upwards of 200MPBS of bandwidth to their 5,000+ guests regardless of where the ships go.  Remote islands, deserts, tundras, and oceans are now bathed in megabits of bandwidth where before they were lucky to occasionally borrow a couple kilobits of bandwidth.

These HTS satellites create so many new business opportunities.  In terms of tourism, remote locations can now offer the same level of connectivity that users crave when they are at home.  For exploration, energy companies can quickly build infrastructure without running thousands of miles of fiber to remote locations.  Cargo and cruise ships that cover our oceans have access to the same services they would normally only receive while in port.  And no plane on the planet need go without a broadband connection while in air.

The satellite communications industry has seen a number of rapid and dramatic changes over the past 15 years.  A huge surge in military satellite communications sales, followed by a nosedive in Government spending.  Dramatic changes in ground terminal technology, such as the transition to L-band IF, solid state amplifiers, block converters, and carbon-fiber reflectors.  The commoditization of many exotic technologies like waveforms and multiband systems. 

It seems that the mood among many satellite service providers and systems integrators is bleak, complaining about these changes in our industry.  But they are all missing the new opportunity that HTS satellites bring to them.

Rarely has a technology so thoroughly impacted the business model of so many companies as high throughput satellites have.  The low cost and far reach of these new satellites brings so many new customers to the table.  These companies lamenting the loss of Government contracts or price pressure on solutions should instead be focusing on finding new opportunities in new markets like energy, exploration, tourism, maritime, and airlines.  Communications systems that cover the Marshall Islands or the outback of Australia, or the shale mines in Canada, are far larger opportunities for service providers than Government contracts due to the sheer number of users available.

Our industry has come a long way in the last 15 years and indeed over the past 50.  I propose that we’re just getting started.  Connecting the entire planet is a job that is far too big for fiber, cable, or LTE.  The satellite industry will always be a cornerstone of global connectivity, and our piece of the pie – in both importance and value – is about to grow significantly.

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