As emerging and established satellite fleet operators bank on the promise of Ka-band broadband to deliver fast, cheap Internet service, Intelsat has remained largely unconvinced. But with demand for smartphone and tablets growing at an astonishing pace, the world's largest operator of fixed-satellite services is taking aim at the mobile broadband market nonetheless.
Intelsat says it is about to order the first of a new line of satellites, dubbed Epic, that will feature characteristics associated with the Ka-band portion of the radio frequency spectrum: High throughput, frequency reuse and the ability to utilize multiple spot beams. But the company says it will use its plethora of existing C-, Ku- and Ka-band frequency allocations to do it.
Intelsat is already in the process of launching the first Ku-band network provided by a single fleet operator for global maritime and aeronautical mobility coverage, a constellation of seven satellites with 10 beams covering the entire globe. The network is slated for completion in early 2013.
The first of the Epic satellites, to be ordered from a yet-to-be-identified manufacturer, takes Intelsat's mobile play one step further by adding broadband to its portfolio. With Epic, Intelsat seeks to buttress its entry into a mobile sector already dominated by industry heavyweights Inmarsat and Iridium, while established fixed-service competitors including SES and Eutelsat move toward the mobile markets in search of growth.
New entrants like ViaSat are also a threat, although they are constrained to the limits of frequency rights in available Ka-band spectrum, where signals can often fall prey to atmospheric conditions.
“Many of the recent high-throughput projects were from new entrants that had no choice but going to Ka-band because those were the orbital rights they had access to,” says Thierry Guillemin, Intelsat senior vice president and chief technical officer. “It led to, in my view, a confusion in peoples' minds between Ka-band and high-throughput.”
Over the past decade, intense crowding in lower-frequency C- and Ku-bands has spurred satellite broadband providers to explore the electromagnetic wilderness of the Ka-band, a portion of spectrum offering orders of magnitude more capacity compared to lower frequencies.
Unlike some new fleet operators, Guillemin says, Intelsat is not limited to Ka-band. “High-throughput is not Ka-band; it is frequency reuse, it is spot beams, and it can be done in a range of frequencies.” Frequency reuse allows satellites to communicate with multiple ground stations using the same frequency by transmitting in narrow beams, which can be adjusted to cover areas as large as the U.S. or as small as the state of Rhode Island.
But Guillemin says frequency reuse can be just as effectively applied in the lower-range frequencies such as C- and Ku-band. “It means we are actually opening a wealth of bandwidth capacity that was there in our orbital rights ready to be used,” he says. “So far, the C- and Ku-band user has been underutilizing the potential of the orbital slots by not doing frequency reuse in these bands.”
With Intelsat expected to select a manufacturer for Epic in the coming weeks, Guillemin declined to discuss platform specs. The company is also in a quiet period associated with a planned IPO. With 25-60 Gbps of throughput, Epic will be “the largest type of satellites you can find in the fleet of an [fixed-satellite services] operator,” Guillemin says.
“Beyond the throughput aspect, the open architecture will offer a level of connectivity and flexibility customers do not have otherwise,” he says. And, in addition to backward compatibility with existing infrastructure, Epic is designed to be forward-compatible over the 15 years of each spacecraft's design life. “Ground technologies will change and evolve many times in ways we cannot even predict, so you need to have a design that is very open to these changes in order to remain relevant,” he says.
Combined with existing satellites and an extensive terrestrial network, addingEpic's broadband overlay positions Intelsat more squarely in the market to offer high-speed broadband for aeronautical and maritime users. That means customers can use existing C- and Ku-band terminals, within existing networks, and the same automatic beam-switching technology to achieve higher throughput where mobile traffic is heaviest.
“In these bands, you have a large base of hardware technologies that have been deployed already,” Guillemin says. “They have huge investments and they want to be able to leverage them and to grow. If we go to another frequency, you can't do that. Then it's two separate systems.” Intelsat says existing customers with outsized C-band satellite dishes will not necessarily need to upgrade existing ground networks.
“Right away, the customer with this existing infrastructure can take advantage of a step change in the throughput they have access to,” he says. “Then Epic also provides better performance, higher power, so it's up to them when they decide to go to smaller terminals, cheaper terminals and save money on that front.”
But in order to reap all the benefits of Epic's high-throughput offering, some customers will have to upgrade.
“If they're having transmit limitations to the terminals that are deployed now, there may be cases like that and they would have to evolve,” he says.