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  • 02 Nov 2023 by Elisabeth Tweedie

    In 1945 a young engineer by the name of Arthur C. Clarke, had a letter published in Wireless World, in which he wrote about his vision for an artificial satellite that would be at such a precise elevation that it would appear to remain stationary over a fixed point on the earth.  This would mean that only three such artificial satellites would be needed to cover the planet.

    In 1964 Dr. Harold Rosen, then an engineer at Hughes, (whom I had the privilege of working with, later in his career, when we brought him out of retirement to work on a different project), translated Arthur C. Clarke’s vision into reality, when Syncom 3, a satellite that he had designed was launched. This was the world’s first geostationary (GEO) satellite.  59 years later, according to the satellite monitoring website Satellite Signals, there are now 563 GEO active satellites.  That number alone, is evidence of the continued importance of GEO satellites, in spite of the recent proliferation of non-GEOs (NGSOs).  Emphasizing the continued importance of GEOs, NSR are projecting that by 2031 of the ~US$30 billion in satellite revenue, two-thirds will come from GEO satellites.

    For some of us, mass market low-earth orbiting satellites (LEOs) are a relatively new phenomena, for the younger members of our industry, they are the mainstay and GEOs are a thing of the past.  So, for their benefit and as a refresher for the rest of us, let’s consider why GEOs have been popular for so long, and why they are still being launched.  Two high-capacity ones have been launched this year: ViaSat 3 and Jupiter 3.

    Firstly, there is the fact that the footprint of a GEO remains stationary over the earth.  For the majority of applications this means that a relatively simple fixed antenna on the ground will suffice.  This simplicity translates to a lower priced antenna as there is no need for the complexities of a tracking antenna.  For earth observation it means that it is easy to monitor changes in a specific location.

    Secondly, there is the size of the footprint itself.  This is usually tailored to a continent (or continents, given that there are multiple transponders on a GEO) or group of countries and/or a shipping route if maritime is a prime target market.  This also means that there is no wasted capacity over empty oceans or deserted land masses.

    Thirdly, there is longevity.  A GEO will last for 15 years or more.  Historically, many have lasted for several more years.

    Fourthly, advances in technology mean that the latest satellites are not only very high capacity - ViaSat 3 was built to provide 1Tbps and Jupiter 3, 500 Gbps, they are also flexible.  Viasat 3, assuming it is able to go service (its antenna failed to deploy after launch), is a software defined satellite and will be able to move capacity around between beams, allocating capacity to a particular beam if that area is experiencing a surge in demand.

    Finally, one cannot forget, satellites’ inherent advantage, broadcast capability.  Admittedly, with the increase in streaming, this is declining in importance, but still remains very significant.  At World Satellite Business Week, last month, Euroconsult presented charts indicating that by 2032 Video will still account for the majority of satellite revenue (US$70 billion vs US$53 billion for data).

    At the same time as technology on the satellite has been improving, so too has technology on the ground.  As Kerstin Roost, Director Global Accounts and Strategic Partnerships, ST Engineering iDirect, pointed out in a recent SSPI WISE presentation on The Enduring Value of GEO, advances in technology mean that the latest ground systems offer the ultimate in scalability, enabling operators to scale from a few terminals to many thousands, whilst offering total flexibility by dynamically allocating bandwidth at SCPC like efficiencies.  Advancing capabilities even further, advanced ground systems are becoming virtualized, ultimately moving towards a fully integrated end-to-end cloud control service.

    However, these advances on the ground are obviously not confined to just GEO systems, they can be applied to NGSOs as well, and that is exactly what is happening.  SES-17 a GEO satellite shares a ground system with O3b mPOWER, a medium earth orbit (MEO) constellation, and capacity can be dynamically allocated between the satellites as necessitated by demand.  Similarly, some Service Providers are integrating Starlink, a LEO constellation, into the managed service that they offer their customers.

    However, one can’t write in praise of GEOs, without addressing the elephant in the room: latency.  There is no getting away from the fact that, all things being equal, the round-trip propagation delay from a GEO is 540 milliseconds, i.e., a little over half a second.  That begs the question, for how many applications is a delay half a second significant?  According to a recent report from Sandvine, ~66% of internet traffic is video, primarily streaming.  The delay may be noticed at the beginning when loading the video (but local storage of popular content eliminates this), but is non-existent after that, so hardly relevant.  Applications where the delay may be significant include, voice and online gaming, accounting for ~1% and 6% of internet traffic according to the same report.  Internet of things (IoT) is a rapid growth area, but since most applications are very low data rate, as yet IoT doesn’t merit a mention in traffic breakdowns.  Nevertheless, IoT includes remote operation of machines and vehicles, where half a second’s delay would not be acceptable, but for the majority of IoT applications GEO is already a major service provider.

    To coin Mark Twain: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  So too, I believe have reports of the demise of geostationary satellites (GEOs).  At World Satellite Business Week in 2015, all the major operators, with the exception of Steve Collar, then CEO of SES (which had recently launched O3b) were sporting black t-shirts emblazoned with the words: “GEO is cool.”  Is GEO still cool?  I think so.

    Elisabeth Tweedie’s entire career has been focused on commercial satellites, telecommunications and broadcasting, specifically in the highly specialized area of evaluating the long term potential for new ventures, initiating their development and finding and developing appropriate alliances.

    During the course of her career she has advised and worked with senior stakeholders in global and international businesses, governments and regulatory bodies. Her core expertise is in understanding new technology and its practical applications; identifying key drivers for both B2B and B2C markets and identifying, evaluating and developing JV opportunities.

    Elisabeth has an MBA in International Marketing from the University of Aston (UK) where she graduated top of her class; she is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s Advanced Management in Telecommunications Program. Early in her career she authored numerous published multi-client reports on the market and economic aspects of telecommunications and media industries in Europe, Asia and North America and is currently Associate Editor of Satellite Executive Briefing.