Opinion

The critical social impact of VSAT

VSAT connectivity is crucial to develop the socio-economic conditions of rural communities, as well as to empower the mobility sphere, say industry experts.
Andrew Bond, Sales Director at ETL Systems.

VSAT connectivity is crucial to develop the socio-economic conditions of rural communities, as well as to empower the mobility sphere with on-demand fast, reliable connectivity.

VSAT is absolutely crucial for those communities where terrestrial infrastructure is minimal, in many cases giving them access to services such as video and the internet. Often these communities are remote and lack communications infrastructure. Having a connection can have a major impact on the socioeconomic aspects of a community.

VSATs are by definition small and easily installed, making them extremely valuable for many applications and environments. Especially in rural areas where few people live, and which therefore have fewer reasons to attract telecoms providers, VSATs can be the only cost-effective way to keep communities connected.

Andrew Bond, Sales Director at ETL Systems, explains: “Not only does VSAT deliver a connection into those communities, it is a more cost-effective alternative to conventional satellite communications services. VSAT can be implemented quickly, has a relatively low up-front investment, and per minute operating costs are low. Reliability of VSAT terminals is also increasing with the advent of HTS and spot beam technology, due to the higher power density under the spot beams.”

“VSAT can be implemented quickly, has a relatively low up-front investment, and per minute operating costs are low. Reliability of VSAT terminals is also increasing with the advent of HTS and spot beam technology”Andrew Bond, Sales Director at ETL Systems

Martin Coleman, Executive Director, Satellite Interference Reduction Group, agrees and adds that VSATs are providing a lifeline and bridging the digital divide.

“For one, they can deliver coverage where no other services exist, and two, they are quick and simple to set up. They are generally easy to use and new tools being launched make them easier to operate.”

John Finney, Founder of Isotropic Systems, chimes in with some figures to substantiate the degree to which VSAT is a necessity in rural areas. He says fixed broadband penetration remains below 1% in Africa, while nine million households in Europe remain unconnected. At the end of 2016, 53% of the world’s population was offline. Even in the US in mid-2017, satellite providers only delivered broadband to approximately two million consumers, leaving more than 16 million households with weak connectivity.

According to him, new HTS satellites can help serve these communities with lower costs for reliable and ubiquitous broadband: “This is provided that a suitable ground terminal solution sufficiently reduces the cost of current market offerings. Isotropic Systems and its optical technology will revolutionise data transmission with a truly disruptive terminal. These will help to create faster, higher capacity backbone networks; high-performance, low-cost mobile devices; and rapid digital adoption and inclusiveness, making possible explosive growth in data volumes. Areas where VSAT was unprofitable or unimaginable will now move forward and be connected via low-cost antennas.”

Martin Coleman, Executive Director, IRG.

Finney also thinks HTS is starting to disrupt the satellite industry and launch into its next generation. For geostationary (GEO), medium and low-Earth orbit (MEO, LEO) HTS satellites, the industry has invested approximately $16 billion. These satellites will enable faster connectivity, but more importantly, they will also change the pricing model for satellite bandwidth by supplying the market with hundreds of Tbps of capacity.

Keith Murray, Product Manager, Maritime and AERO at Thuraya, says: “HTS and extreme throughput satellites [XTS] shall deliver very high data speeds, between 10 and 20 times that of a normal VSAT wide beam satellite. These tend to have smaller spot beams and presently appear to be concentrated in a few areas close to land and around the Asia Pacific area. These shall deliver very high data rates but also allow those requiring lower data to use much smaller terminals, allowing the terminals to be more compact and lower cost.”

“They also promise that the cost per MB shall be lower in comparison to other satellite technologies, but that still has to be proven. A key area where they may be of use is in the aero market – with aircraft connectivity growing and cabin connectivity being more and more popular with end customers, faster data rates are required for the aircraft. The ability to use smaller, lighter terminals has obvious attractions to the aviation industry.”

The eventual emergence of flat panel technology at a price VSAT vendors can afford will be a step change in VSAT design, and growth in all mobility markets is an exciting prospect.” Martin Coleman, Executive Director, IRG

He adds that LEO constellations can deliver the ability to use small terminals with low power requirements and lower latency than GEO satellites, making them particularly suited to user datagram protocol (UDP) internet sessions and mobile applications. The new constellations promise much higher data rates than previously seen from LEO satellites, but still in the range of 1-2Mbps, much lower than Ka-band networks.

Alvaro Sanchez, Sales and Marketing Director at Integrasys, says: “We are already seeing 200Mbps in HTS payloads using existing HTS ground infrastructure, which is a great deal more than achievable using other satellite technology. LEO satellites will be able to achieve much higher connectivity speeds, so coupled with HTS technology, this will increase significantly in the coming months and years. Indeed, even in the near future I strongly believe that we will see 500Mbps and 1Gbps using a 1.2m parabolic dish.”

Keith Murray, Product Manager, Maritime and AERO, Thuraya.

This increased capacity and faster connectivity speeds will give rise to a lot more applications than previously possible. We are already seeing a rise in connected cars and mobility applications in maritime vessels and aeroplanes.

According to Sanchez, Toyota and Honda are already working on this and looking into how satellite can help. One key aspect is the multicast capability of the satellite. This will be crucial because it means a car software upgrade can be received by all vehicles at the same time, having minimum bandwidth requirements for large-scale deployments. Maritime and aerospace will continue to be strong markets, but in the future, the new constellations will make it easier for polar flights and ships.

Murray feels both new types of satellite constellation will increase connectivity on vessels in the maritime, aircraft and land sectors: “For vessels, it shall bring greater access for crew welfare and applications that move towards smart ships, tracking, remote management and monitoring of equipment onboard. This is already underway with applications such as the roll-out of ECDIS and engine monitoring.”

VSAT is mainly used in the early stages of a field’s life. As the field comes into main production, then the rigs often have fibre or microwave links to them” Keith Murray, Product Manager, Maritime and AERO, Thuraya

“For aero applications, a greater choice of live streaming video/TV, as well as a move to safety services driven by the FAA and EASA for the cockpit, including tracking, remote black box and electronic flight bags. On land, the greatest predicted growth area is in M2M/ IOT, with particularly the LEO networks giving the ability to use small, low power terminals in cars and remote locations such as utility infrastructures for pumping stations, meters, floodgates, etc. Also agriculture for the monitoring of crops and livestock.”

Coleman thinks we will also see advances in other IoT applications, and increased demand for OTT services. VSATs are well positioned to integrate all types of new ideas and remote locations that lack infrastructure.

With new satellites appearing over Earth and a variety of terminals offered by manufacturers around the globe, there is a high risk of interference and reduced efficiency. Finney believes new VSAT terminals will support HTS high-power spot beams. These satellite beams reuse spectrum very efficiently and lower chances of interference. The interfering party would need to be within the small area of the specific beam providing connectivity to have an impact.

Murray, however, hints that erring terminals could cause unintentional interference.

“Regulations and standards set up by the ITU and IEEE ensure that these terminals should not interfere with other appliances or have interference from other devices or ground networks. The difficulty is that, due to the worldwide coverage of these satellites, the terminals have to work in various countries that may have slightly different regulations and spectrum use. Terminal equipment manufacturers must consider this during the design process. The other aspect is that the majority of countries require some sort of type approval to be undertaken when a new satellite terminal is imported to its country.”

To combat interference, there are a number of tools available on the market. This includes tools to detect it when it happens, as well as better monitoring to predict it before it happens. As with anything, when it comes to reducing errors and increasing efficiency, one of the most effective methods is to ensure quality products throughout the satellite chain.

Alvaro Sanchez, Sales and Marketing Director at Integrasys.

Bond says a major contributor to interference is poor quality. Satellite operators are increasingly realising this and investing in ensuring all equipment is manufactured to the highest quality possible, in order to reduce errors such as interference.

Coleman also thinks the problem can be eradicated through the help of tools such as Satmotion Pocket and education of the entire chain: “Human error is a significant cause of interference-causing terminals, so ensuring error-free set-up is essential. Satmotion Pocket, a downloadable app from Integrasys, has been highly effective at doing so.”

“Network monitoring is essential to ensure good quality of service and therefore reduce interference. Several of IRG’s members, including Integrasys, Kratos and Siemens Convergence Creators, have developed sophisticated monitoring technology. The SatGuard solution from Kratos, a real-time VSAT interference monitoring tool, accurately identifies and geolocates an interference-causing VSAT by decoding its terminal ID, the same as using carrier ID elsewhere.”

LEO satellites will be able to achieve much higher connectivity speeds, so coupled with HTS technology, this will increase significantly in the coming months and years” Alvaro Sanchez, Sales and Marketing Director at Integrasys

Terminals are becoming flatter, lighter, simpler and smaller – but not cheaper. The industry has already invested a great deal in HTS developments, and this will likely continue in the coming months and years. Today, we already have terminals in every band. Although the majority are currently in Ka-band, we will see more and more in other bands. At the same time, terminals will become more and more automated, according to Sanchez.

“The industry is working towards making operation of satellite terminals much simpler, to the point where you can operate it the same way you operate a mobile phone,” he believes.

Bond thinks terminals are under increasing strain to deliver more services than ever before. The increase of HTS satellites in Ku- and Ka-band, coupled with demand from the broadcast industry for OTT content in the traditional bands, means teleports are delivering more services, in more bands, under more time pressure. There is also a lot less tolerance for any degradation of signal.

Finney agrees and says today’s electronically steerable antennas cost tens of thousands of dollars, which he sees as one of the biggest inhibitors of the growth of HTS use.

“Fully integrated terminals such as those pioneered by Isotropic Systems are evolving to support the new HTS satellites and harness the large volumes of bandwidth they can supply. In addition, new terminals have become smaller and lighter, as nearly every mobile platform has limited space for another piece of equipment.

“As we talk about evolving technology, I strongly believe it is time to disrupt the current satellite terminal model. Isotropic Systems has developed a very innovative technology that strongly differs from existing satellite antennas. By introducing optical elements, Isotropic Systems has drastically reduced the complexity of the electronics and improved the capability of the antenna such that the cost, power consumption and size are dramatically reduced. Even with these changes, we increase the functionality measure in terms of gain, instantaneous bandwidth and simultaneous connections.

“Isotropic Systems is poised to enter the market with new, highly efficient terminals allowing users to choose one frequency, either Ku or Ka, but also shortly after that, they will be able to automatically access any available frequency from multiple operators,” he explains.

Oil fields and Maritime applications

Oil fields are extremely difficult to connect. In many cases they need to move, and as they do so, reconnect with the satellite. The stabilisation of oil prices helps significantly in this vertical, and connectivity demand will grow significantly in coming years. Connectivity to vessels that can monitor the rig, and in the case of exploration send data back to it, can only be carried out by satellite communications.

John Finney, Founder, Isotropic Systems.

Murray explains: “VSAT is mainly used in the early stages of a field’s life. As the field comes into main production, then the rigs often have fibre or microwave links to them. It is used on vessels supporting the operations for various tasks, including receiving engineering drawings or instructions on tasks, sending survey results, as well as crew welfare. New applications in this sector could increase remote operations and support. Specialists would be able to support more rigs from onshore, reducing costs and increasing efficiency if their tasks are carried out remotely. For this, good, reliable communication is required, and this can be provided by satcom.”

According to Coleman: “VSATs are a perfect solution in their various ruggedised guises. Compact terminals make them ideal for stabilising on moving platforms. However, the eventual emergence of flat panel technology at a price VSAT vendors can afford will be a step change in VSAT design, and growth in all mobility markets is an exciting prospect. Adding LEO constellations into the mix will increase the use of VSAT when deployed in the polar regions, especially useful for both the maritime and aero industries.”

The crew and passengers on these platforms need to access the internet for various data-driven applications. These include WiFi, entertainment,social media,equipment tracking and monitoring, AIS systems, weather reports, onboard sales and services” John Finney, Founder, Isotropic Systems

Finney concurs and adds that the driving force is the quick deployment of VSAT terminals, no matter how remote the location. The HTS satellites and coverage available today and rapidly coming online will reach all major offshore routes and remote regions, supporting maritime and other offshore vessels for leisure and commercial operations.

“The crew and passengers on these platforms need to access the internet for various data-driven applications. These include Wi-Fi, entertainment, social media, equipment tracking and monitoring, AIS systems, weather reports, onboard sales and services, video on demand and augmented reality applications for training.

“No sector will function effectively worldwide without the connectivity that satellites can provide,” says Finney.

Challenges

The VSAT industry has many challenges facing it; terminal manufacturers and regulatory bodies need to come together to ensure standards are met. The aim is to provide consistent error-free service, but the plague of interference is bound to play havoc with customers constantly demanding lower costs and manufacturers flouting guidelines in order to deliver products at these costs.

Coleman says: “VSATs remain the single largest cause of satellite interference; some figures estimate that 40% of all worldwide interference is caused by VSATs. On top of this, many of IRG’s members state that when VSATs are installed in an area, incidents of interference markedly increase. Unfortunately, with cost being continually driven down, the spectre of poor quality products is inevitable.” “IRG is working with the industry, raising awareness of the problems and encouraging manufacturers to excel in network design (automation and closed-loop) and produce quality products, yet continuing to develop new methods and tools to manage the complexities of a VSAT network.”

Another major issue is overcapacity due to the rising number of constellations, leading to a drop in revenue for operators. Murray explains that there is a natural lag between take-up of available capacity, due to the advent of new applications and the launch and investment in satellites and associated infrastructure. This could mean greater consolidation within the industry as companies merge to reduce costs and broaden their offering. The encroachment of other technologies such as GSM, fibre and Wi-Fi is also reducing the areas that make satellite communication attractive.

The issue of signal degradation is also being addressed by the community.

“The biggest challenge right now for VSAT operators is ensuring no loss or degradation of signal, even in the harshest environments. We have a range of solutions aimed specifically at this sector, which are ruggedised to avoid any weather damage. We have also introduced a VSAT over fibre solution, which enables a fibre link from the antenna to the remote control room. It is capable of delivering connections for links up to 10km apart, without the need for extra amplification. This means that it can drastically reduce signal loss, by a factor of approximately 500 at L-band, and ultimately ensure a much higher quality feed. In addition, unlike copper cable, optical fibre is immune to EMC from lightning and other natural causes,” explains Bond.

The Future

Regardless of ongoing challenges and methods of rectifying interference and other issues, our industry gurus think the future certainly holds some amazing possibilities.

With ever more services being squeezed onto VSATs, one thing that must change is the way satellites are accessed.

“We highly believe this will change significantly over the next decade, moving to much simpler, fully automated methods,” says Sanchez, reiterating that connectivity to satellite must become simpler, akin to a mobile phone accessing a GSM signal.

Coleman of the Satellite Interference Reduction Group thinks that everything from satellite access to IP routing is simply going to be complex.

“To manage our future of fully connected devices will require new advances in technology not seen in our industry so far. We in IRG believe that the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques within network management in the shape of tools, smart routers, switching, scheduling using real-life customer demand statistics – will be the true way forward if we are to successfully manage this super network.”

For Bond, the next decade looks exciting, but without challenges. He thinks there will be a great deal of change for the satellite industry, driven primarily by both GEO and LEO HTS.

“For one thing, we believe the demand for services will increase as the consumer demand for constant connection and higher throughputs increases. This will fuel the need for more bandwidth and for the efficiencies afforded by HTS. This in turn will create a number of challenges for the VSAT sector, which will be handling even more services, but with even less tolerance for errors. This will drive requirements for existing and new products with high resilience and reliability, which will be able to handle future requirements satellite communications,” he says.

Finney is of the opinion that companies like Isotropic Systems will bridge the gap between supply and demand to enable a new wave of satellite business opportunities at any orbit or frequency in consumer and enterprise broadband-centric systems. He believes their antennas will finally allow operators to maximise the enormous possibilities afforded by HTS.

Murray sees greater use of multiple connection methods in one device, with satellite just one of them.

“Smaller, more power-efficient terminals with more built-in intelligence. There is also a shift from the traditional GEO orbits towards LEO constellations, with as many as 6,000 LEO satellites being launched in the next ten years. Also, one of the most expensive parts of the business, the launchers, shall see more competition from private enterprises and countries like India and China helping drive down the cost to launch,” he concludes.