Satellite Communications Special: Uniting the satellite ecosystem

08 July 2013 | Guy Matthews


The satellite industry needs to visualise itself as an ecosystem, and work with a greater sense of common purpose says Steve Spengler, Intelsat’s president and chief commercial officer.

   
 
Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, saw space as the perfect backdrop for his parable of universal brotherhood and peaceful human endeavour. In space, we can work together for the common good, free of the shackles of earthly prejudice.

Steve Spengler, Intelsat’s president and chief commercial officer, also has a vision, and it too involves togetherness and common purpose. Put simply, he thinks that satellite operators can achieve a lot more for themselves and for their customers if they learn to think holistically about their industry.

“I see satellite as an ecosystem, and I think that innovation is increasingly a collaborative effort,” he says. “We’re seeing satellite operators engage with each other to provide an enhanced approach to customers, and that’s good. It’s an exciting time right now. We are seeing technical advances like higher performance and better throughput, and we’re seeing the industry getting stronger with different elements getting integrated into more powerful solutions.”

Spengler has a problem with those who believe that the traditional alignment of interest between telecoms carriers and satellite operators is weakening, and that given time terrestrial build out of fibre and cell towers will inevitably render space-bound connectivity marginal or even obsolete.

“Satellite has always had a place in the telecoms market, but you hear some people say that it is a relationship with a limited life span,” he says. “I beg to differ. I think we’re seeing satellite operators innovate and create new types of solutions for carrier customers. Sure, we’ve seen certain satellite applications migrate over to fibre, but we’ve also seen new applications come along that are uniquely suited to satellite. With new ideas like High Throughput Satellite (HTS) technology we’re seeing new ways for satellite to address challenges like broadband rollout, and consequently new customers.”

Intelsat, he points out, was the first commercial satellite operator to offer services to the market on a global basis, and says telecoms operators were among its first customers.


The early bird gets the worm

In 1965, the company’s inaugural launch, called Intelsat 1 but widely nick-named Early Bird, was put into geostationary orbit high above the Atlantic Ocean. Spengler says this hunger for innovation and for ‘industry firsts’ still drives the company’s ethos, and excites him personally.

“At Intelsat we’re used to big things,” he enthuses. “We already own and operate the biggest satellite, teleport and fibre infrastructure in the world. But we’ve got even bigger plans.”

One of these plans has recently come to fruition in the form of Intelsat Epic, a next-generation satellite platform that Spengler says delivers global HTS technology while allowing full user control of service elements and hardware. Epic’s innovation lies in a new style of network architecture that uses C-band, Ku-band and Ka-bands, wide beams, spot beams and frequency reuse technology all as part of the same solution. He says Epic overlays the existing Intelsat fleet in a complementary style, and also works seamlessly with IntelsatOne, the company’s terrestrial network with its fibre reach around the planet.

It is not unfair to say that in the past, the satellite industry has not been particularly welcoming of open standards, leaning naturally towards proprietary technology that shares little with other providers by way of common standards. The suspicion is that for many operators, this is exactly the way they want things.

Intelsat Epic, explains Spengler, is different, being based on open architecture and engineered for backwards compatibility allowing, he says, broadband, media, mobility and government organisations to realise the cost-efficiency of using existing hardware. Intelsat’s customers will be able to offer their end users customised, differentiated solutions, setting their own service characteristics in areas like speed and hardware and network topology.

“We’ve designed Epic as an open architecture solution for two main reasons – to help our existing base of customers extend the life of their investment and not have to change out hardware, and also we want to engage with a broader community of other operators,” he adds. “This is innovative – a breakthrough for us. We’ve moved beyond the theoretical with this solution. We’re focussed on today’s customers and providing carrier-grade services for the future, recognising that our connectivity is now mission critical to our customers, essential to their businesses.”

He says Intelsat has already signed a number of customers for Epic. These include Panasonic Avionics, a specialist in in-flight entertainment and communications, which has contracted for up to 1Gbps of capacity to be used in the delivery of aeronautical consumer broadband and live TV services. Another major signing is Harris CapRock Communications, a provider of managed communications for remote and harsh environments, which will use Epic to support a number of fixed and mobile services for the energy, maritime and government markets. And MTN Satellite Communications, a provider of communications, connectivity and content services to remote locations is deploying Epic in the luxury cruise and yacht sectors, particular for its Caribbean operations.

“Epic is a good indication that we’re heading in the right direction,” he believes. “We’re in the right position to serve the explosive demand for broadband in every corner of the planet. There’s always opportunities for innovation in a wide variety of areas. You just got to listen to customers and stay true to what you do best. We’re having conversations with customers and also with other operators to see how we can better provide solutions for those customers.”

Spengler is plainly concerned that the efforts of satellite operators to work more closely together, and to integrate different types of satellite technology more efficiently, may be creating better solutions, but that credit for this is not necessarily given by the wider communications industry, let alone in the enterprise arena.

“The satellite industry could do a better job of getting its message out there, and explaining our key role in the communications industry in a better way,” he muses. “The big network operator names understand very well what we do, I think, appreciating how we help serve their customers. But we’re a small part of the overall communications market – a small voice in many respects. The new satellite technology that’s coming online will help with the job of getting that message out.”

The next generation of satellite technology, embodied in Epic but also in other innovations across the satellite sector, should help to make it more obvious that satellite is now a cost effective solution – making it not a replacement to other broadband solutions but as complementary to them, he feels.

“This is the case everywhere, even in a market like the US where there is abundant fibre,” he says. “There’s even a role for fibre in our urban centres in the delivery of content. Its ubiquity is important in many applications – although not all. It’s always going to have a role in developing markets helping telecoms operators deploy there in partnership with other technologies.”


The next-generation of satellite

Spengler’s passion for satellite is longstanding. He’s been in the sector for 25 years, and joined Intelsat in July 2003 as vice president of global sales for the company’s network services and telecom group. He is responsible for Intelsat’s global sales, marketing, strategy, business development, and customer support engineering organisations, which provide services to customers in approximately 200 countries and territories. Intelsat General, Intelsat’s wholly-owned government services subsidiary, also reports to him.

Spengler’s evangelism of satellite takes him to all corners of the globe: “Part of my role is to spend time with customers in a wide variety of locations, which means a lot of travel,” he says. “It’s interesting but at the end of the day pretty tiring. Given all the travel I do it’s hard to find time for much else, but I do commit my weekends to my wife and two kids.”

Just as his career in spent on the move, much of Spengler’s family time is spent travelling, he says: “We see a lot of the world as a family – we’re off to Europe this summer - so for me travel is both an occupation and an interest.”

Spengler may never boldly go the way of Kirk, Spock and Scotty and travel into space. But they would surely look favourably on his ambition to bring harmony and unity to his own industry.


Intelsat

History: Intelsat has been a provider of satellite services worldwide for over 45 years. During this time it has aimed its services at media and network companies, multinational corporations, ISPs and governmental agencies, delivering video, data and voice traffic. In 1965, Intelsat launched the first commercial global satellite communications system in the world. The company, headquartered in Washington DC and Luxembourg, was originally known as International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation, and until 2001 was an intergovernmental consortium whose members between them owned and managed a constellation of communications satellites providing international broadcast services. Now privatised, it has over 50 satellites in space, one of the largest fleets in the industry. It provides service to over 600 receiving stations in around 149 countries, territories and dependencies. Intelsat has offices in Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Singapore, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, the UK and the US.

Ownership: Intelsat was sold for $3.1 billion in January 2005 to four private equity firms: Madison Dearborn Partners, Apax Partners, Permira and Apollo Global Management.

Revenue: Intelsat turned over $2.6 billion in 2011.

CEO: David McGlade is CEO and chairman of Intelsat.

Network: Intelsat operates a fleet of over 50 satellites and has a large, complementary terrestrial infrastructure including eight owned teleports, fibre connectivity and points of presence in around 40 cities.

Services: Intelsat offers satellite coverage and capacity options for point-to-point or point-to-multipoint services. Through its IntelsatOne terrestrial network, it has a portfolio of global, integrated satellite and terrestrial managed services to cover broadband, trunking and media requirements worldwide. It also provides value-added and specialised services including disaster recovery, customer premise equipment programmes, co-location services and consulting and technical management.

Customers: Intelsat is a provider of services to enterprise, internet and mobile network operators. It is able to address around 99% of the world’s populated regions with its reach. Customers include ISPs, telecommunications companies, broadcasters and corporate network service providers.