Earlier this year Telecom Review interviewed Terry Bleakley, Vice President for Asia Pacific at Intelsat. The magazine wanted an update on the dramatic changes that will come to the market once the first two Epic high-throughput satellites are launched by Intelsat in the first nine months of 2016. In addition to a massive increase in throughput, Bleakley shared that these satellites’ digital payloads allow bandwidth to be switched between transponders incrementally, rather than today’s all or nothing.
There is no gateway, you can go up any beam and down on any beam and it is fully compatible,” Bleakley said. “Once you go to a digital payload it becomes incredibly flexible.”
Another big advantage for customers will happen on the ground. The higher power due to the smaller, more focused spot beams of the Intelsat Epic platform, will allow for much smaller and more affordable antennas on the ground. This lower cost has unleashed a wave of innovation in the market, with a prime example being much smaller antennas that are flat and automatically lock onto satellites. These are much cheaper and easier to operate than traditional dish antennas that require manual orientation. From the article:
This technology comes from a company called Kymeta, majority owned and chaired by Bill Gates. Its flat antennas are made from “metamaterial” elements that scatter RF energy when activated. Software activates a pattern of these elements to generate a beam… The company claims its products can cost about 10 percent of the equivalent dishes and less than one percent of electronic phased array antennas.”
This sort of innovation is shaking up the mature satellite market and attracting interest from entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley. It’s analogous to the explosion of innovation that resulted from the growth of Internet connectivity and the move of functionality from hardware to software. The initial Intelsat Epic satellites are a first step towards software-defined satellites which will deliver immense benefits for customers. The move to fully reconfigurable – on orbit – satellite payloads offers the revolutionary possibility that satellite design and launch can be standardized and streamlined. When the beam coverages can be done via software, market drivers shift dramatically.
You can change the beam forming from the ground if your market changes,” Bleakley said. “You can effectively change the satellite to meet market demands. It also means that the time to build a satellite will be much less. It takes about three years to build a satellite today. We believe that will come down to about a year.”
Clearly the move to digital payloads fundamentally changes the cost structure of the satellite market. As we’ve seen with terrestrial networks, when available bandwidth increases, more and more applications and services are fostered. This innovation wave seems primed to hit the satellite space, greatly enhancing the value delivered to customers.