The explosive growth of satellite communications
What does it mean for land mobile communications
Satellite communications will be generating revenues of $35 billion a year by 2005, according to Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA.
What does this growth of satellite communications mean, and how will it impact land mobile communications?
The questions are simple. The answers are a bit less so. The reason is that change is coming about so quickly, and it’s hard for technical professionals to keep up. Naturally it’s even harder for average people who are attempting to incorporate this technology into their daily lives.
In the beginning, the granddaddy of satellite communications was INMARSAT, started in 1978. It originally stood for the International Maritime Satellite Organization. As these communications spread from ships to land vehicles, the name was shortened to the International Satellite Organization, although the acronym remained the same. Eighty-three different countries are now involved in the INMARSAT consortiums.
The INMARSAT satellites cover the globe, except for the polar regions. Some other organizations, such as TMI and the American Mobile Satellite Corporation, with one satellite each, cover only North and Central America.
The land mobile communications feeding off these satellites have oriented to specific vertical markets such as trucking, oil and gas, mining, governmental and non-governmental aid agencies and military peace-keeping organizations. But over the past few years, a new generation of satellites is scheduled to populate the skies. It is these new satellites that promise to revolutionize this industry.
Two main technological advancements have made these new satellites possible. The first is that they fly much lower, as opposed to the original stations that orbit 360 miles above the equator. Consequently they are called Low Earth Orbiting Satellites (LEOS). The old ones took a half-second to transmit a signal from earth. The new ones, much closer to earth, transmit almost instantly. The half- second delay is all right for broadcasting, but it is not well suited for interactive exchanges.
Jack Prichett, manager of public relations for TRW Space and Electronics Group, Redondo Beach, CA, said that the shorter distance has resulted in the need for shorter antennas. “The trend in this field, as in all electronics, is toward more capability in smaller packages” he said. The previous systems had been reduced to about 10 pounds and the size of a laptop computer, which was suitable for the traditional vertical applications. For instance, such a size and weight could be conveniently built into a truck.
However, the real revolution now is that these systems are reduced to the size and weight of hand-held cellular phones. And this miniaturization, again, was made possible though the smaller antennas, which are acceptable to the not-so-distant LEOS.
What does this portend? Nils Helle, vice president, sales and marketing, Stratos Mobile Networks, Ottawa, Canada, said that currently, cellular covers only 20% of North America. The new technology will make the other 80% feasible, especially in all those areas where it’s not feasible to set up cellular stations.
Stratos is a service provider, linking end users, such as commercial shipping, oil and gas producers, and land transportation companies, with satellite owners. The 18-month-old company has entered into multiple serv-ice partnerships with satellite firms so that it can provide its customers with the most efficient mix of services required by bandwidth needs and geographic location. Stratos also has developed some proprietary satellite communications software and can perform custom integration work for large users.
But the global ramifications are even greater. “To put this matter in perspective, throughout most of the world, you cannot place a telephone call,” said Roger Nyhus, spokesman, Teledesic, Kirkland, WA. “Most people in the world live at least two hours travel time to a telephone. There are now more phones in Manhattan than in all of Africa. The new satellites will provide the same quantity and quality of service in Africa as there now is in the U.S. and Europe.”
There are three major types of LEOS. The first are the little LEOS, such as ORBCOMM, which are the satellite equivalent of a paging store. Big LEOS are the equivalent of cellular with low data rates and narrow bands. The furthest along are the satellite equivalents of fiber optics, which are fundamentally different from the little and big LEOS: The only thing they have in common is their lower satellite orbit.
Teledesic, a company backed by the U.S. cellular pioneer Craig McCaw and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, offers the third type. This is not a mobile hand-held, but rather a fixed broadband service, offering a data pipe for connecting computer networks through wireless links at super-high speed to the Internet, along with services such as videoconferencing and interactive multimedia.
Although this technology will not relate directly to hand-helds, it will be handling more and more telephone traffic as the latter moves into the Internet.
As reported by Forrester Research, “Global Mobile Personal Communications by Satellite (GMPS), to use the phrase coined by the international Telecommunications Union, is expected to allow ‘seamless global mobile fax, messaging, data and two-way voice and broadband multimedia on small, hand-held phone sets, computer-mounted terminals, and laptop computers.’
“A crucial agreement signed at the ITU on July 18 last year has paved the way for worldwide cooperation enabling GMPCS systems to be introduced quickly. There had been serious worries about loss of revenues by developing countries which saw the satellite systems by passing their Earth-bound networks.”
The major interest for land-based mobile communications lies in the big LEOS. Currently there are three main contenders. A leader is Iridium, a consortium led by Morotola. It is developing a network of 66 low-orbit satellites. Iridium’s competition includes ICO, a subsidiary of INMARSAT, and GlobalStar.
Forrester reports that these LEOS are expected to be in strong demand for three specific markets: global mobile voice, rural conventional telephone services and international broadband data transmissions. Again, the global mobile voice and data, offered by the big LEOS are attracting the most attention.
If you’re interested in these new mobile satellite hookups, where do you go? Here the answers become a bit fuzzy because, so far, it’s all promise, with nothing contrete created, yet. This is not to suggest that what is being offered is a satellite equivalent of vaporware. The big effort to date has been the financing and building of the infrastructure. The new satellites will begin to be deployed this year. Iridium is scheduled to be deployed in November, as of this writing. GlobalStar and ICO will add to their systems in 2000.
The main differentiation in services may be in the form of data, rather than voice. Those satellite operations that can offer sufficient bandwidth, efficient file transfer protocols and access to the Internet and corporate Intranets may be the winners. Systems with low throughput, designed solely for voice transmission, may find it more difficult to compete.
But the real sources of information and specific array of services to be offered will probably best be sought through the service providers. Soon, there will be many of them to choose from. Helle, of Stratos Mobile Networks said, “The new consortia are knocking on our doors very hard now. Now that they’ve made all those big investments, they are wondering how they will get their products to market and are facing the reality of these customers who need to be dealt with.”