Smallsats and the rise of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations have generated attention and media coverage in recent years. At the same time, orders for large satellites in Geostationary Orbit (GEO) fell drastically. While orders for big birds have picked up once again, albeit not with the same gusto of the 2010 and earlier, the industry is also seeing GEO taking to the big trend in “small.”
Microsats in GEO are doing big things, far more than the excitement of 2006 when the two ultra-suspicious MiTEx satellites were roaming about at an unknown orbital position in GEO. How about serving a nation’s video and data demands? And all with 5 kilowatts, compared to what would have typically taken much more energy, time, and money to manufacture, launch, and operate previously.
Of course, size isn’t everything, it’s about what you can do with it that counts most. And here, the question applies to all birds, large and small, being sent into the sky: is it software defined? Can it enable the network control and efficiency now being touted by network operators? What is happening in GEO to realize the satellite operator’s promise of flexibility? What enables them to not only adjust to changing customer demand over the life of the satellite, but to see in-orbit servicing potentiate extended missions?
The software-defined payload could be the game changer that sees GEO satellites become one of the most efficient and lowest cost technologies to deliver services to end users. The value is that with software-defined satellites, no spectrum or power need be wasted covering areas that are not demanded by end users. Power, spectrum, and coverage can be dynamically assignable as demand, customers and usage patterns shift.
This should impact pricing, says Tom Choi, CEO at Saturn Satellite Networks, the company that designed and developed the Nationsat communications microsatellite to efficiently provide a country’s data and video services with 5 kilowatts.
“Software-defined high-throughput satellites (HTS) from GEO will most likely reduce the pricing to end users by at least one order of magnitude than current pricing. It will be a very compelling proposition versus LEO systems that are priced higher than GEO HTS and require much more expensive and power-hungry terminals,” says Choi. “LEO broadband will have its niche, but the bulk of the future connectivity via satellite will belong to software-defined radio HTS in GEO.”
Currently, Saturn Satellite Networks is working on developing its SDR fleet for GEO, the Intelligent Space Node (ISN), and has built a backlog of more than $1 billion in end-user commitments.
The Economics of GEO
More than half of all GEO orders since 2019 have been for software-defined platforms and at the same time, the case for microsats is growing.
“This will only increase over time,” says John Gedmark, CEO and co-founder of Astranis, which develops what it calls MicroGEO satellites. “We believe smallsats are the future. Dedicated is better than shared. Fast is better than slow. Custom is better than one-size-fits-all. For customers, flexibility and resiliency are increasingly important, so GEO satellites are getting smaller, more agile and less expensive. These days, a customer can have their own dedicated communications satellite in GEO for very little cash up front. Modularity, expandability and the ability to play nice with other infrastructure is also increasingly important because customers don’t want to be locked in to a technology that requires substantial investment in new ground equipment.”
With such innovation going on in GEO, how is this orbit driving the market? According to Northern Sky Research, the fixed satellite service (FSS) market today is about $13 billion per year, and is expected to grow to about $20 billion by 2030. Of this $20 billion, it is projected that about $15 billion will be from FSS in GEO and the remaining $5 billion in LEO.
Within this context, what are the contributing applications and how will the servicing of satellites come into play? While data and connectivity are the growing segments of the FSS market, satellites play a significant role in the distribution of broadcast content. However, will this be the case in the next 10 to 20 years, as video continues to shift online and appeal for on-demand content continues to grow? Here, an operator’s ability to extend the life of a broadcasting satellite greatly changes the game. Conversely, how could the operator justify investing some $200 million today to support a diminishing application?
“Especially when entering a new orbital slot or developing new market segments, the economics of smaller GEO satellites will outweigh the investment of larger GEO satellites,” adds Choi. “Multiple companies have announced plans for GEO satellite manufacturing, but the use of heritage components are a must when providing technology to customers who depend on GEO satellites to last 15 to 20 years. Instead of reinventing every component, Saturn Satellite Networks is only using heritage components for our satellites.”
Trends in GEO: Then & Now
According to Euroconsult, there was an average of 20 new satellites per year in the late 2000s when the order rate of GEO communications satellites decreased to less than or equal to 10 from 2017 to 2019. Then came the exceptional boom: year 2020 saw 18 orders, of which 13 were for the accelerated C-band clearance plan of the FCC in the U.S. accepted by SES and Intelsat. Excluding these 13 C-band satellites, the other five orders were replacement satellites of five regional operators.
Euroconsult expects a return to an average of 12 orders per year from 2023, based on a replacement or expansion scenario that considers both market drivers and inhibitors, such as 5G networks deployment, competition of broadband constellations and introduction of life extension services.
“This number may prove too optimistic if the 10 largest commercial operators adopt a replacement or expansion strategy that favors non-GEO investment, such as terrestrial networks, HAPS and LEO constellations, or if the investment is in more capable and larger satellites,” says Maxime Puteaux, principal advisor at Euroconsult.
A growing trend: software-defined satellites are getting traction. Airbus has already sold seven since 2019. In 2022, four of five orders were based on Thales’s new Space Inspire bus, which supports fully reconfigurable, software-defined payloads, emphasizing operators’ need for flexibility in a changing satcom market.
When it comes to the value proposition of software-defined satellites, the key word is flexibility. They allow operators to adapt to changes in market demand and business plans. As these satellites are reconfigurable in orbit, operators can change coverage, frequency and bandwidth allocation to changing demand patterns.
“This mitigates the market risk for satellite operators that are investing in satellites with a 15-year lifetime,” says Nathan de Ruiter, managing director at Euroconsult. “We certainly expect a more efficient use of the satellite bandwidth and hence higher utilization rates on software-defined satellites. The next question is whether software-defined satellites can provide a pathway to achieve significant cost reduction and better integration with 5G terrestrial networks, two of the industry’s biggest challenges today. If able to achieve both, it can be a game changer for the satcom industry.”
Life Extension Services a Niche Market
There is, however, also the question of keeping old tech in an ever-changing world. Satellite is pitched as a means to extend the lives of in-orbit satellites that are functionally well but running out of fuel.
“I don’t think satellite servicing changes the economics of GEO at all,” says Gedmark. “Think of it like this: if you had a laptop from 20 years ago and the battery died today, what would you rather do –spend $1,000 to buy a custom replacement battery, or spend $1,000 for a brand-new, state-of-the-art machine?”
Beyond microGEO, how can any older satellite compete with the new game-changing capabilities of software-defined payloads? Airbus was the first to market with its new generation of software-defined satellites. The OneSat spacecraft features a fully reconfigurable, processed payload enabling capacity to be reallocated and the broadcast footprint dynamically changed to suit the market. This enables operators to completely change what their satellite does in orbit: adjust the coverage area, capacity, power allocation and frequency to meet short- and long-term evolving mission scenarios.
“Some companies will pay to extend the lives of their satellites, but there will be a trade off in extending the life of a 15-year-old satellite, or investing in more flexible and efficient state-of-the-art spacecraft such as OneSat. Some of our ultra-reliable Eurostar GEO satellites have already operated perfectly in orbit many years longer than their 15-year design life, but we would expect operators to look to maximize their returns with the most modern technology offered,” says Jean-Marc Nasr, executive vice president of Airbus Space Systems.
Simply put, without software-defined payloads, you’re up against a significant disadvantage, one that diminishes the benefits afforded by microGEO, adds Nasr. “MicroGEO spacecraft may appeal to operators looking to serve smaller market segments with fewer targeted services. However, without the flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions, it may make them a harder business case to justify in the longer term,” he says.
Euroconsult believes the life extension services market will remain a niche, despite growth in adoption rates modelled over the next decades.
“A growing life extension services adoption rate among the satellite operators does not compensate for a structurally decreasing GEO market,” says Puteaux. “There is a window of opportunity, driven by chemical satellites, for the life extension services market between today and 2040, but the market beyond 2040 remains uncertain. The global reduction of manufacturing and launch costs, coupled with the relatively low cost of capital, drives continuous CapEx efficiency improvements, facilitating the feasibility of financing and launching replacement satellites rather than procuring life extension services.”
LEO also plays a complementary role for the industry to offer multi-orbit service. When combined with GEO, customers can get the best of both worlds – or rather, the best of the GEO and non-GEO satellite parking lots. While LEO can provide lower latency and ubiquitous global coverage, GEO adds a significant amount of high capacity over concentrated high-demand fixed areas. Of course, as LEO’s ubiquitous coverage and lower latency comes at a higher cost and lower availability, it’s somewhat limited to a market willing to pay a premium.
Because GEO is very efficient in delivering non-latency sensitive traffic such as video streaming for consumers, in a multi-orbit future, latency sensitive traffic would likely flow over LEO or Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and video traffic over GEO. This would all need to be enabled through intelligent traffic routing software.
When combined, service providers can mix and match both GEO and non-GEO satellite capacity to meet the requirements of end users. Mobility and government seem like likely verticals for the multi-orbit market as this service aligns well with their user requirements. However, the ground segment has to play an enabling role here.
“The actual market adoption of multi-orbit services will largely depend on the ground segment. The performance, reliability and price of the multi-orbit user terminals will define the applicability across different user segments. There will always be the trade-off between additional flexibility versus cost, and appetite can significantly differ between user segments,” says de Ruiter.
The software built into the satellites answers the growing demand for more capacity and more flexibility. And supporting this total system is the software within the ground platform, explains
Adrian Morris, executive vice president of Engineering at Hughes Network Systems. With its software suite, the Hughes Jupiter System is scalable and configurable for a variety of GEO satellites around the world, with some features and applications implemented via software.
Playing an enabling role in multi-orbit service makes it an exciting time for satellite as it holds great promise for all kinds of applications, adds Morris.
“As good as GEO is at delivering capacity right where it’s needed the most, there are places it does not reach, such as the higher latitudes and poles, where LEO satellites can offer coverage. In this way, GEO and LEO are complementary, but taking the concept a step further, a multi-orbit solution delivering both GEO and LEO capacity to the same premise or business, holds tremendous promise for enterprise, government and residential services,” says Morris.
For enterprise and government solutions, a multi-orbit solution offers redundancy and resiliency, ensuring a connection no matter what may happen. Hughes is leading a private 5G implementation for the U.S. Navy at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Base in Washington State. For global connectivity as well as resilience, the architecture of that network includes both LEO and GEO backhaul.
“Our enterprise customers, including oil and gas pipelines and nationwide retailers, are interested in adding LEO to their networks and SD-WAN deployments. In some cases, the customer wants LEO for site connectivity in remote and rural places. In other instances, the customer wants a LEO overlay across the entire network as either a secondary or tertiary back-up system,” says Morris.
During this year’s SATELLITE show, Hughes demonstrated a seamless multi-orbit GEO-LEO connection using Hughes Jupiter 2 GEO capacity and OneWeb LEO capacity. The multi-orbit solution delivered a visibly “snappier” internet experience that supported a multi-player, fast-twitch video game and web browsing without buffering. The demonstration showcased the best of both worlds, with the GEO link handling background downloads and big files, while the LEO connection gave the service a boost – quickly establishing a video stream, which would then continue transmitting over GEO.
“Make no mistake, GEO is essential to the multi-orbit future. These satellites are the workhorses of the connected ecosystem, capable of transmitting gigabits of data quickly and efficiently, whether for primary or back-up connectivity, backhaul or broadband. LEO is quickly growing crowded; while satellites in GEO have delivered essential connectivity for decades, along with industry and geo-political cooperation and consideration for in-orbit operations. In the same way the transoceanic fiber cables have connected continents for decades, GEO satellites will deliver tried and true connectivity worldwide for many years to come,” says Morris.
Bifurcation: Enter the Big Birds
For Mark Dankberg, executive chairman of Viasat, enabling multi-orbit service is analogous to 5G, and how networks must use different transmission bands, coverage areas, and physical layer techniques to obtain network level results that are not economical, or even possible, when using just a single transmission medium. For multi-orbit service, the underlying principle is to combine different transmission resources with different advantages and disadvantages to achieve a single seamless, aggregate service for users.
“We believe the most effective and highest performing networks will dynamically integrate transmission via multiple orbits, multiple frequency bands, as well as integration with terrestrial components, such as wired or wireless for end-user and infrastructure applications,” says Dankberg.
In stark contrast to the emerging microGEO trend, Viasat is ready to welcome its global ViaSat-3 Ka-band constellation, with each satellite expected to weigh several tons. With bigger is better clout, ViaSat-3 is expected to deliver unprecedented capacity; at least 1 terabyte per second, with download speeds of up to hundreds of megabits per second to individuals, businesses and governments on the ground, in the air and at sea.
A satellite being software-defined is not the be-all and end-all, says Dankberg. Value depends on the type and degree of reconfigurability enabled – and the trade-offs involved in achieving that reconfigurability. Satellites are often constrained in the sense that if they had more resources, such as power, volume or mass, they could increase bandwidth and coverage. Therefore, if the resource consumption required for a software-defined satellite is so substantial that it decreases total bandwidth or coverage, then it might decrease value.
“Also, the rate – microseconds, hours, or days – at which satellites can be reconfigured, and the actual mechanism for allocating bandwidth have a large impact on value creation. And this can be much different in unicast versus broadcast applications,” says Dankberg. “For instance, a mechanically steerable spot beam is reconfigurable and may be software-defined, but may not be as valuable in unicast markets as a dynamic, spatially and frequency agile phased array beamformer. But the phased array may consume so much more power than the mechanically steered beam and reduce total bandwidth or coverage so much as to destroy, rather than create value.”
Because of their very large field of view – a third of the earth – for serving other satellites in space together with how satellites can be designed to serve a very large number of highly dispersed space vehicles simply and directly, GEO satellites are valuable in space relay networks.
“An extremely high-capacity satellite, like ViaSat-3, that can maintain a grid of beams covering the entire planet can support satellites in virtually any orbit below GEO with a simple modular user terminal. GEO space relay service can be acquired on demand to augment other services,” says Dankberg.
In April this year, Viasat was selected by NASA as part of its Communications Services Project to develop and demonstrate space relay capabilities for a variety of applications.
Euroconsult also sees GEO as the pivotal enabler of space relay networks. “GEO is expected to play a key role as the backbone in the data relay market considering the trade-off that the orbit offers in terms of coverage, and line of sight for both space and ground segments,” says Puteaux. VS