Satellite Communications Special: Satellite moves into uncharted territory

08 July 2013

New opportunities are emerging across a range of vertical sectors for satellite service providers, which is pulling the industry into uncharted territory.

The traditional strengths of satellite communications – markets like broadcast and media - remain generally solid, even where challenged by terrestrial alternatives. But operators of satellite networks are looking beyond these secure revenue generating applications, and driven by improvements and innovations in satellite technology and changing dynamics in the pricing of services, are now making inroads into a new world of possibilities.

In some instances these are entirely new opportunities in markets where satellite has barely had a role before, and in other cases there are sectors where satellite has a longstanding reputation but where a much broader applicability of the technology is being tested. There has also been a rethink on how satellite capacity should be acquired and deployed, for example, by governments which are in many instances switching from launching their own space hardware to taking the less expensive option of paying a third party according to need. "I would urge governments to talk to us about leasing satellite capacity rather than launching their own," says Romain Bausch, CEO of satellite operator SES. "We need to work to convince carriers also that with leased satellite capacity they can make services available to their customers by combining it with their own terrestrial networks."

Bausch says that governmental use of satellite is blossoming into new areas such as connecting with troop deployments and controlling unmanned aeronautical vehicles in war zones, particularly in remote regions.

Sanford Jewett, vice president of marketing at UAE-based satellite service provider Thuraya, says that encryption and security are at the top of list of requirements for the company’s growing base of government and defence customers: "This compares with ease of use, portability and reliability which are of the utmost importance to our broadcast news customers," he observes.

Industrial strength

Dirty, dusty and geographically remote industrial sectors like oil and gas as well as mining have discovered, like governments, that their well tested use of satellite can be augmented with a new range of applications that would before have either been impossible or unaffordable.

As mining and oil and gas exploration take energy companies to new and unfamiliar territories, satellite connectivity, in the form of VSAT or Mobile Satellite Services (MSS), is providing a critical communications link enabling them to capture and send information like seismic data.

These industries are often drawn to working in regions prone to interruption of terrestrial services, says Jewett: "Disruptions to terrestrial networks can happen, either intentionally as in the Arab Spring, where submarine cables were cut, or by natural disasters which can have huge financial consequences for users," he says.

Oil and gas companies have soaring capacity needs, and furthermore are demanding a high quality of data service to match, with many of their networked applications now mission critical. But the needs of their employees are just as likely to drive demand for good connectivity these days. Workers in mining communities now expect more and better connectivity so that they can stay in touch with home, and use YouTube when they want in their leisure hours – not mission critical exactly, but essential to the smooth running of the overall operation and an area where satellite can deliver.

The lowest possible latency matters in all such instances. Latency has not historically been a major selling point for satellite services, but that is changing. The medium earth orbit of satellite operator O3b will offer very low latency when services launch at the back end of this year, it claims. O3b says it has the power to be a key link for oil and gas companies when the immediate and real time transport of information becomes vital. Real time sending of data from platform to shore allows, for example, drilling for new wells to be steered more effectively. At the moment, this data often gets flown by helicopter and decisions taken later.

"In oil and gas, you have ERP systems on the rigs that don’t work unless latency is down to a few milliseconds," says Steve Collar, CEO of O3b. "The whole system hangs up and becomes unusable. Any fix to this situation is music to rig operator ears. Communications are important to them so they don’t have a lot of important gear sitting idle. Some are looking to deploy fibre to rigs, but that’s not needed."

Casting off to new markets

Maritime is another market where satellite’s historic role is mutating into something bigger. O3b has tapped into this with the recent signing of a multi-million dollar agreement with Royal Caribbean Cruises to provide high-speed satellite-delivered broadband service aboard the world’s largest cruise ship. Collar says that 8,000 passengers, staff and crew members aboard the flagship vessel Oasis of the Seas will in fact be the first to enjoy O3b’s connectivity at sea, giving them internet services of a quality they might well be used to at home. "Until now, these floating islands have had to make do with just 4Mb of bandwidth," he says. "I’ve got that at home just for my daughter. These ships are competing with on shore resorts with excellent connectivity, so they need to step up."

In avionics too, there are also practical demonstrations of how broadband can be deployed in planes, beamed into the cockpit, to passengers and even put to M2M use in areas like cargo security. Back down at earth level, banks that have for a long time used satellite connectivity to supplement regular networks are putting it to a whole new range of uses, like e-banking via cell phones. "Financial services organisations are also using satellite for transactional purposes, such as date and time stamping," says analyst Robin Duke-Woolley, CEO of Beecham Research.

The growing popularity of VSAT technology in particular is driving whole new uses of satellite. VSAT data rates typically range from 56Kb up to 4Mb, and are most commonly used to transmit narrowband data, making them perfect for retail applications such as point of sale transactions, credit card checking or RFID data. Even in broadcast, arguably the oldest satellite application of them all, innovation is possible. Rarely among carriers, Telekom Austria has a long history of operating a satellite-based network of its own, having built earth stations many years ago to take advantage of Austria’s place in the centre of Europe, says Stefan Amon, head of wholesale for the Telekom Austria Group. "We’re now finding satellite useful outside of our usual markets, for broadcasting and media communications in countries without 100% network coverage in southern and eastern Europe for example. Satellite communications are helping bring whole economies forward in these places." Among Telekom Austria’s new satellite services is SkyReachSM, an MPLS-like IP service delivered via satellite and designed to overcome terrestrial limitations. "It’s mainly used for VPNs and internet access. And we have DataLink, a fully duplex-capable point-to-point or point-to-multipoint connection, based on single channel per carrier technology," says Amon.

Such is the pricing of satellite connectivity that it is even now affordable to the individual consumer, well beyond familiar point to multipoint apps like sat nav. "I can see more consumer applications emerging, like satellite-driven personal trackers and SOS equipment," says Schneider.

Entering a new orbit

So what of the future? Can pricing go even lower and bring even newer uses of satellite in reach? Collar of O3b says there is a direct correlation between the number of satellites launched and downward pressure on prices: "Ours is a scalable solution, where the cost of a launch has a large cost benefit," he says. "Each new satellite will bring down the cost of services for every customer. First we need to fill the capacity of the first launches. When costs come even lower I expect there to be more and more verticals we can address. I’m sure we haven’t even found half the possible applications for the satellite fleet we’re about to launch."

Jewett of Thuraya says the operator has set up a special development team to seek out fresh opportunities in new markets or new uses in familiar markets: "We’re focussed on addressing the specific requirements of verticals including energy, media and broadcast, government, humanitarian and NGOs and maritime."

The biggest constraint on satellite’s use would appear to be neither technical nor commercial – it’s in the imagination and ingenuity of the satellite operator community. Watch this space.


A horizontal view: Satellite's relationship with M2M

Satellite is proving a natural fit with the emerging field of M2M communications, says Patrick French, senior analyst with satellite consultancy Northern Sky Research.

"Most M2M involves many end points, narrowband applications without multi-megabit connectivity needed," he says. "It involves end points that move around a lot – a truck or some earth moving equipment or perhaps a smartgrid where information is constantly turning over. In all these cases, the point to multipoint ability of satellite becomes a very strong asset."

Romain Bausch, CEO of SES, agrees that there are endless potential satellite M2M applications featuring smaller bandwidth requirements: "Satellite can connect off shore wind turbines, solar energy in the desert and other areas where satellite can bring connectivity in a cost efficient way," he says.

Israel-based satellite operator Gilat Satcom has a strong M2M focus. Ami Schneider, its vice president of mobile satellite and voice services, says satellite-enabled M2M naturally complements cellular networks, creating the widest possible geographical coverage.

"Growth in satellite M2M is being driven by a lot of operators, like Globalstar with its SPOT product," he says.

"Others like Iridium have helped make form factors smaller, reducing pricing of services and moving M2M from familiar applications like metering and security to new ones, like consumer. We’re seeing more and more use of dual mode in receiving devices, combining GSM with satellite in applications like fleet management. If the device loses the cell, it switches to satellite. This is becoming popular, and making connectivity more reliable."

Schneider says he is already seeing satellite M2M in use in helicopters and other aircraft, and at high altitude locations in places like Alaska and Asia.

Topics: Satellite Communications Special, service providers