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What is causing the Ka-band Satellites launch delays?

October 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The Ka band is part of the K band of the microwave band of the electromagnetic spectrum. The Ka symbol refers to “Kurtz-above” — in other words, the band directly above the Kurtz (K)-band. The 30/20 GHz band is used in communications satellites. Similarly Ku stands for Kurtz-under band.

In the past two years or so, there has been a lot of furor over the utilization of the Ka band for commercial purposes such as broadband and audio-visual broadcast. The higher operating frequencies of Ka band and the spot beam design mean that the cost per bit transmitted on a Ka band satellite is significantly lower than that of Ku or C band satellites. This fact makes Ka band an attractive alternative to the more expensive Ku and C band and positions satellite communications as a worthy challenger to the now ubiquitous and cheaper fiber optic cables.

This lower cost per bit has seen investors and satellite operators come up with Ka band satellite launch projects such as the O3B project (see my take on O3B here), the ViaSat, Yahsat and the Hughes spaceway. Major satellite operators have also announced plans to launch Ka band birds in the near future with the notable exception of Intelsat who have so far been silent about their Ka band plans apart from its partial investment in the wildblue Ka satellite that provides high-speed broadband in North America.

Intelsat’s non-commitment to Ka band was perhaps the first sign that they knew something other operators didn’t know. As for now it is left to our fertile imagination as to why the largest satellite fleet owner did not jump into the Ka band-wagon (pun intended)

Recent events and realizations however show why Intelsat was right. The Ka band satellite projects have been faced by unforeseen hitches that have caused delays and indefinite postponement of some satellites.

Lack of key components.
During the design of a satellite, very few components are COTS. This means that majority of the components have to be specifically designed and manufactured for that particular satellite and no other satellite will have an exact component characteristics. One of the most important component in a satellite is the Traveling Wave Tube (TWT).  These are RF amplifiers and you can read more about them by clicking here. Apparently the two major manufacturers of TWT’s for satellite application (L3 communications and Thales of France) have run into difficulties in the design and manufacture of Ka band TWT’s. The high demand for Ka band TWT’s is also putting a strain in their manufacturing capacity making the acquisition of TWT’s a critical path in these satellite projects.

Interest from airlines.
One thing that no one foresaw was the strong interest of Ka services from airlines because the cost per bit for Ka band is significantly lower, Airlines could now offer affordable  high-speed broadband on-board flights, The demand for on board internet services is also skyrocketing thanks to devices such as iPads and smart phones. These airlines were willing to pay upfront and sign long-term contracts with satellite operators such as the case between Jetblue and Viasat who signed an agreement early this year. This has sent some satellite designers back to the drawing board to design satellites that are capable of seamless cross-beam and sometimes cross-satellite hand over to enable aircraft’s to be always connected.  The immense opportunity presented by airlines presents a lucrative market in which satellite operators are willing to play in especially due to the toughening competition on land from terrestrial fiber optic cables. In a few years, broadband on aircraft will be ubiquitous thanks to this development.
This fact has made Ka band not as competitive as before for broadband providers  as compared to the existing Ku band satellites because the demand for Ka is now bigger than was before anticipated.

Cheaper CPE’s?
The assumption that Ka band will present cheaper customer premise equipment (CPE) to Ku band was also far-fetched. The assumption that because the antenna is smaller it will therefore be cheaper is wrong.  This would only hold true for receive only systems such as DTH Tv like DStv. When it comes to broadband connectivity where there is need to transmit, a smaller dish presents two problems:

  • The smaller dish being presented to consumers of Ka band present a bigger possibility for interference if not precisely pointed, the small dish avails a wide beam that can cause adjacent satellite interference. Ka band installation technicians will need to be extremely precise in pointing the smaller dishes. Sometimes this extreme precision is lacking especially in Africa and Asia where adherence to standards is lax. I see a situation where Ka band installations will still continue to be done on Ku size dishes such as the 1.2m or 1.8m dish. The smaller cheaper dishes will simply not work well unless they are on automatic pointing or gyroscopic systems on maritime vessels and aircraft or on receive-only systems.
  • Because of the high operating frequencies of Ka band, the tolerances for the RF equipment design will have to be very low. The design of a cheaper and more tolerant RF system is simply not possible. The existing cheap Ka band RF systems are not the best and do not offer good tolerances for the extremely high-speed data transfer figures touted for the Ka band services This is because they introduce noise due to the poor design. You cannot buy a 50 dollar RF system and expect to transmit at 10Mbps.

So far, delays in Ka band satellites launch have been experienced by ViaSat-1, YahSat-1B, the eight O3B satellite constellation and many more.
The market needs to wake up to the fact that Ka band services will come but they will need time to mature into what industry analysts say they will be. It will not be an overnight success story but there is hope that development of Ka band technology and systems will eventually lead to cheaper satellite broadband.

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O3B and Google tag team: Rural Africa’s redemption?

April 26, 2011 2 comments

O3B networks is a nextgen company founded by Greg Wyler in 2007. O3B is an acronym for the Other 3 Billion denoting the 3 billion people in the world who still lack reliable means of communication.

O3B has a plan to launch Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellite constellation to offer low latency fiber quality broadband connection to regions in the world without much terrestrial infrastructure such as Africa, South Asia and the Pacific. O3b has a strong financial backing by big guns such as by SES World Skies, Google, HSBC, Liberty Global, Allen and Company, Northbridge Venture Partners, Development Bank of Southern Africa, Sofina and Satya Capital.

Their plan is to launch a constellation of 8 satellites into medium orbit by 2013 and offer connectivity to mobile operators and internet service providers. They will be a wholesaler and will only sale bulk capacity to providers of video, data and voice and not directly to end users.

O3B believes that the MEO satellites will offer lower latency (and therefore higher throughput) to most undeserved markets where fiber capacity has not and will never reach in a long time. To see how low latency is related to higher throughput see this tutorial here.
The O3B idea is a great one and deserves all the support it can get so as to make it a success.

Déjà vu.

A while back several investors financially backed the Iridium project. This project was to offer mobile voice communication via 66 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites from anywhere on earth. However the project was a failure even before it started and was bogged down with project delays, design problems and poor marketing. Iridium estimated that it would easily get about 600,000 customers to break even and that the market for their service would be massive. At the end it only attracted 22,000 customers hence failing to even break even. With calls costing about $7 per minute and the handsets costing about $3000, the project was doomed from day one.

The Iridium project failed not because the concept did not work, It did. The failure was due to the managers of this firm underestimating the impact the GSM technology would have on the voice market. It is GSM technology  that killed Iridium as it offered very cheap calls from small cheap handsets that could be used even in a building or car (as opposed to iridium sets that could only be used outside in open space).

Many a pundit have expressed fears that the O3B project will also join the likes of iridium in the not so envious club of spectacular project failures. I would however like to differ with the critics of O3B who have predicted its failure based on the failure of previous projects such as iridium and teledesic. This is because O3B is being implemented at the right time in history. This is because broadband internet and voice are now a mass market products unlike when Iridium was being implemented. When teledesic and iridium were being launched, broadband and voice were niche markets and very expensive for the average person. When iridium was launching, mobile communication was classified as a luxury and data transmission was only done by big corporations such as banks and oil companies. Today, things are very different and i think this is what makes the O3B different.

Last mile challenge.

On of the biggest problems in African telecoms is the availability of a reliable and extensive last mile. Africa has never been attractive to investors wishing to invest in last mile because of two factors:

  • The African rural population density is very low meaning that traditional last mile access technologies such as wimax will not return on investment and therefore not commercially viable.
  • The African continent is massive. The African land mass is equal to USA, India, China, Europe and many other countries put together. The image below says it all. Click it for a bigger and clearer version of the image
True size of Africa

As a proponent of the enhancement of African rural communications, I believe the O3B project will help bridge the existing gap in the rural and city populations of Africa by overcoming the last mile commercial viability challenge and leveraging on the satellite footprint to offer cost-effective coverage to nearly every spot on the continent. This means that everyone in Africa will have instant lower latency access to the Internet. According to O3B, they will avail fiber quality satellite connections that will offer lower latency of 190ms (due to MEO satellites), high-capacity links at a low price of about $500 per Mbps. This is very competitive by any standards in developing countries. This capacity can then be distributed via methods such as 3G, LTE, Wimax, WI-Fi etc.
Apart from providing the rural population with broadband internet, the O3B satellites will also provide cellular operators with the much-needed GSM trunking services at a lower cost and therefore enable faster deployment of mobile networks in rural Africa.The cost of network expansion to rural Africa will therefore drastically reduce and this will speed up connectivity and spur development. To see how connectivity aids development in rural Africa, download the Commonwealth rural connectivity report here.

The Google dimension

Many people were surprised when Google decided to back the O3B project. People failed to see the interest Google (which to many is just a search engine) had on provisioning of affordable connectivity in developing countries. I believe the backing from Google was the game changer. On their blog, Google say their mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Well, Google has succeeded in organizing the world’s information and O3B will help it make it universally accessible. Google believes that by funding such projects, it will extend its reach to the whole world and increase its market for Google phones, OS’s such as Android and Chrome OS, cloud services, advertising and search engine. Google’s backing for open source software development will also mean that cost barriers to ICT implementation will be eliminated for the other 3 Billion people in the world.

I therefore believe that the Google backed O3B project has come at the right time in history and will play a much bigger role in bridging the digital divide in Africa than fiber optics whose extended coverage is less than 20% of the continent. The participation of Google in this project will also reduce the cost barrier to adoption of ICTs in the developing world such as Africa.

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