Satellite technology has constantly evolved in the past 60 years since its inception, from primarily government-funded projects to, more recently, commercial ventures for many enterprises to provide data infrastructures to some of the most remote areas of the world.
Along with the increased competition from space launch providers in recent years, one of the most talked-about development is of high throughput satellites.
There are a few key differences between high throughput satellites compared to their conventional counterparts:
Firstly, HTS offers increased capacity with high-level frequency re-use and spot beam technology enabling multiple narrowly focused beams. While conventional FSS (fixed-satellite service), MMS (mobile satellite service) and BSS (broadcasting satellite service) conventionally use wide beams to provide coverage over a large area (over thousands of kilometres), HTS uses spot beams that focus on a narrower area (hundreds of kilometres). This reduces the range of a beam from covering entire continents or countries to towns and regions. However, HTS has multiple spot beams to cover a large area.
Secondly, because of the narrowness of using a spot beam, they are able to focus the beam on producing a throughput of up to 20+ times more than a conventional FSS. This reduces the cost per bit significantly. A conventional Ku band FSS satellite could cost $100 million per gigabit per second, ViaSat-1 could supply similar for $3 million.
Compared to a conventional Ku-band FSS satellite, HTS are capable of carrying over 100Gbit/s – 100 times more than the conventional satellite. ViaSat-1, launched in 2011, could carry up to 140 Gbit/s. This was a higher capacity of all FSS satellites serving North America combined.
With many new launches happening every year, the number of high throughput satellites in orbit is only going to increase. While the price for launches is dropping, they are the same for both HTS and conventional satellites, nearly 20-100 times capacity but only a 50% increase in manufacturing an HTS satellite, it is a no-brainer which satellite manufacturers will choose to create.
Total investments from the 25 operators, who have combined to order nearly 100 HTS systems to date, are estimated to be over $17 billion. Another 123 HTS systems are expected to be launched over the next decade; about 78 have yet to be officially contracted and are still open to the market. Given this level of investment activity, global HTS capacity supply is set to more than triple from 680 Gbps in 2015 to 3 Tbps by 2020.
With capacity no longer a stranglehold on what businesses can use satellite technology for, we will likely see the emergence of new industries that could previously not afford the high prices. It is certain to increase the uptake of VSAT from both business and consumers along with increased backhauling for cellular providers in rural areas to name a few. Recently, ViaSat has signed a new contract with Qantas Airways to provide passengers with In-Flight connectivity using a hybrid Ku/Ka-band antenna. It is likely that these deals will only increase in the future and expand to other ventures.
In terms of market value, HTS capacity lease revenues are forecasted to jump from $1.1 billion in 2015 to -$4.9 billion by 2024, generating over $26 billion in aggregate revenues over the period.
While this increase in capacity can reduce cost per bit and provide more efficiency, they are still hindered by common problems of satellite technology.
Using high throughput satellites, you’ll need multiple spot beams to cover an entire country. For each spot beam, you will need hub infrastructure serving each. To be able to access those spot beams, you will need to be able to access the different gateways through terrestrial means, meaning that you need terrestrial (fibre) links between each of these hubs along with a central network operating centre (NOC).
Ka and Ku-band suffer more from rain-fade compared to traditional C-band beams – a common complaint among satellite TV subscribers. Despite many solutions addressing this issue (such as site diversity, adaptive coding modulation), there may still be hesitations from consumers.
Alongside this, latency will still be an issue for high throughput satellite users. While it is an improvement compared to conventional satellites, the latency is higher compared to terrestrial voice and broadband services. This has a particular effect on user experience, especially for interactive internet content – such as online gaming or OTA desktop access. O3b is addressing this issue with an MEO (mid-Earth orbit) satellite to reduce latency.
While HTS has a lot of promise and could spell the demise of the current FSS, this may not be the case (yet). A lot of mission-critical programmes still use FSS and C-band satellites due to their large footprint and reliability to manage a network from end to end. Despite the higher costs, the continued reliability could save a company from huge losses if disruption occurred.
With the increase of capacity, it does provide one problem. The capacity can only be sold cheaply if you can sell lots of it. While the capacity has increased, the problem now for satellite operators is finding the users to fill that volume. The next task for satellite operators and communication providers is marketing and filling this extra capacity to ensure promised fall in cost per bit.