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What Will 100 Gbps Broadband Satellite Technology Mean to You?

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In planes, trains, ships, and automobiles, the advent of 30-100 Gbps connectivity via satellite will redefine "access." It's not just consumers either, as 50% of enterprise terminals are predicted to use high-capacity satellite platforms by 2020. What does the advent of 100 Gbps over satellite mean to us—and what will it cost? Technical futurist Leo Wrobel explains in this article.
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On planes, trains, ships, and automobiles, from consumer living rooms to corporate boardrooms, the advent of 30-100 Gbps connectivity via satellite will redefine broadband “access.” Indeed, more than half of the world’s satellite operators have ordered (or plan to order) high-capacity satellites, and 14 million households and 50% of enterprise terminals are predicted to be using high-capacity satellite platforms by 2020. Part of this is due to pure economics associated with the cost of such services.

For example, some broadcasters have seen the price of satellite news feed slide from more than $100,000 to less than $20,000—an 80% reduction in price. The other driving factor, however, is the desire by various market segments to access any service, any time, anywhere. From this perspective, satellite boasts some significant advantages.

Emergency responders have powerful new options to deploy after disasters. Wireless operators are broadening their footprint and tapping markets that were previously unreachable through satellite back haul. And for consumers in particular, this is all good news as well. These days, regardless of proximity to major population centers, affordable broadband connectivity is within reach of everyone.

So who will be the players? What does the new bandwidth capability mean to consumers, the mobile workforce, and the enterprise user? What will it cost? In order to gain a perspective, let’s take a cursory look at the technology itself, its potential users, and some upcoming market opportunities.

What Is High Throughput Satellite? (HTS)

High throughput satellites (HTS) is a classification for communications satellites that provide at least twice (and often 20 times or more) the nominal throughput of a classic satellite in the same amount of orbital frequency spectrum. Packing more bits into the same frequency spectrum significantly reduces the cost per bit. Leading-edge technologies such as ViaSat-1 and EchoStar XVII (also known as Jupiter-1) are capable of providing more than 100 Gbit/s of carrying capacity. Stated another way, this technology represents more than 100 times the capacity offered by a conventional Ku-band satellite. In fact, the 140 Gbit/s ViaSat-1 launched in October 2011 had more capacity than all other commercial communications satellites over North America combined.

HTS opens up a wealth of opportunity for a wide range of applications, often in locations that were previously unreachable. Consider the Internet service that you like to access while on a long flight. United Airlines is in fact discussing plans to use Ka and Ku-band satellite for in-flight connectivity. International consulting firm Euroconsult cites such connectivity as strong growth. Many other applications are already benefiting from HTS based on the ability to get wide bandwidth, anywhere. In the consumer market, HTS provides broadband access where otherwise there just isn’t any, as well as a competitive alternative to existing broadband services.

Overcoming the Perception

Despite the technological hoopla, for some there is still a feeling that satellite services are not quite up to the task. This is rooted to some extent with consumers, who find that their satellite TV service washes out in heavy rains. The industry has responded specifically to this issue. In an effort to assure that rain attenuation has minimal effect on the service being provided, companies are employing the following techniques.

Site Diversity

In this case, a satellite operator will ensure there are separate satellite “uplinks” in geographically diverse locations. Another name for this is space diversity. Space diversity helps ensure that if one uplink is being impacted by heavy rain, the other geographically diverse uplink can pick up the load. This is not a new approach; indeed, it has been applied with good effect for decades with other technologies such as microwave radio.

Adaptive Coding Modulation (ACM)

Like space diversity, ACM is also not a new concept. ACM has been used for many years in other wireless communications applications, including microwave radio. More recently, ACM has found favor in use over satellite links. The primary function of ACM is to optimize throughput in a wireless data link. ACM adapts the modulation order used, and also employs the Forward Error Correction code rate, which both affect spectral efficiency expressed in bits per second per Hertz. The adjustments take place based on the noise conditions or other impairments on the link. In this manner, ACM maximizes throughput regardless of link conditions such as noise, rain fade, etc.

The Consumer Business Opportunity

In order to fully appreciate the consumer business opportunity, let’s look back at the rollout of first satellite consumer service: Direct-To-Home (DTH) satellite broadcasting services. These services, including Dish Network, DirecTV, and others like them were among the first rolled out to consumers in markets such as Japan, U.K., and the U.S.

At first, the expectation was that satellite DTH broadcasting would be limited only to consumers who would purchase the satellite service only when there was no terrestrial access. That expectation turned out to be true, but only to a limited extent.

The real surprise to the industry was the phenomenal interest from urban and suburban customers. It turned out that satellite TV was a well-suited competitive offering for consumers, who were often fed up with the cable company. This eventually led to the tooth-and-claw competition between satellite TV providers and cable companies that still exists today.

These days, the satellite industry is doing very well in the broadcast market, and the outlook is even rosier when one factors in a new broadband choice for consumers. Will today’s DSL customers dump the incumbent phone company—or cable company—in favor of a new, cost-effective alternative? All things considered, they just might. A little competition never hurt anyone, right?

Coming back to HTS, like the earlier debut of Digital TV, there has similarly been an expectation that satellite broadband connectivity will be a “last-resort” offering for folks who have no terrestrial broadband service available. However, if you were to talk to some of the satellite operators rolling out consumer DTH broadband, you would discover there is a similar trend starting to play out as occurred for satellite broadcasting. The satellite and terrestrial industries will once again be in a pitched battle for hearts and minds of consumers everywhere.

All in all, more competition is good. For the consumer, this creates a huge opportunity as both industries will refine and offer the most competitive pricing and bandwidth for the consumer.

The Enterprise Business Opportunity

The terrestrial industry has predicted the imminent demise of the satellite industry in enterprise communications almost every single year, without exception. Despite this fact, the satellite industry delivery of services in the enterprise market has grown. One reason is that the more “point to multipoint” the application, the more satellite looks like the best option (such as for credit card terminals, etc.). The fullest expression of this can be seen in markets such as the U.S., where there is the highest amount of terrestrial services, but also the largest installed base of enterprise VSAT terminals. Terrestrial is the preferred transport technology on point-to-point communications, but for point-to-multipoint applications, the advantages of satellite are undeniable.

In addition, based on the experiences of people using Ka-band right now, users are not experiencing significant degradation or signal loss due to rain that plagued bygone days. That said, it is still important to remember that, as with every other service, Ka-band is well suited for some applications, but not others. It is a question of having another tool in the kit from which to choose.

Pros and Cons

On the pro side, HTS transmits more power and packs a large amount of data into the signal than its counterpart, C Band satellites. HTS provides a powerful spot beam as well as excellent VoIP quality. Dishes are smaller in size, generally 2-5 feet in diameter in comparison to C band’s “hard-to-hide” 8-foot dishes.

If you are looking for a con, rain fade (when it occurs) is more prevalent with the higher Ka band high frequencies than on classical C-band. However, as stated earlier, Ka band is improving. Ka band coverage is also not as wide-ranging as C band satellites. Latency can also be a problem, especially if you are into online gaming.

What Does the Future Hold for High Capacity Satellite?

While the future looks bright for HTS, a number of questions remain. We now need to draw on the experiences of those doing it already to find the best way forward. The GVF High Throughput Satellite Conference serves as a forum where these trends, companies, and customers will provide insights into how this exciting new chapter in satellite communications is being written. Suffice it to say that HTS offers an exciting new the way for applications to be delivered in the world today. For example, new alternatives for airlines will provide faster, cheaper, and higher quality Internet to customers on long flights. JetBlue announced just such a deal with ViaSat.

For more information, contact the Global VSAT Forum (GVF). GVF is the leading international advocate to facilitate the provision of satellite-based communications solutions throughout the world. GVF works closely to support national, regional, and global-level policy makers as they formulate state-of-the-art satellite regulatory frameworks. GVF also fosters greater awareness of the commercial, economic, political, and technological advantages that satellite-based communications provide.

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