Growth of Flat Panel Terminals Depends on LEO, Large-Scale Deployments, and Reduced Terminal Cost

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1Q 2023 | IN-6797

This ABI Insight covers the recently announced OneWeb acquisition of 10,000 Hughes Low Earth Orbit (LEO) terminals for Satellite Communications (SatCom). These terminals are flat panel terminals that feature Electronically Steerable Antennas (ESAs). This ABI Insight further explains the electronically steerable antenna technology, types, and the markets it could service. Challenges remain for ESAs in cost and adoption, but developments in the LEO and connected cars industries can create positive spillovers.

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Flat Panel User Terminals' Demand for Satellite Communications Picking Up


OneWeb recently announced that it will be acquiring 10,000 Hughes Low Earth Orbit (LEO) terminals for Satellite Communications (SatCom) connectivity globally. This is in addition to the previously announced partnership with Kymeta, a flat panel antenna vendor, to provide LEO connectivity with Kymeta antennas. In both cases, OneWeb will be tapping into flat panel antennas that feature Electronically Steerable Antenna (ESA) technology to provide connectivity. While Hughes is expecting to start production in 2H 2023, Kymeta will be providing services from March 2023 to the superyacht market.

Both terminals have managed to meet performance requirements with the Hughes’ HL1100 achieving 195 Megabits per Second (Mbps) download and 32 Mbps upload, and the Kymeta u8 reaching up to 200 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload. These solutions enables providing voice calls, streaming, and gaming applications where previously not possible or ideal.

How Do Flat Panel Antennas Get Their Low Profile?


Flat panel antennas are a new type of antenna solution that differ from the legacy parabolic antennas (e.g., from Intellian Technologies). As the name suggests, the flat panel antenna features a compact and streamlined design compared to parabolic antennas. To achieve this size, flat panel antennas tap into the ESA technology. What sets the two apart is how each achieves connectivity differently. The traditional parabolic antenna points, in a fixed manner, to the satellite that it establishes its main beam with. The ESA flat panel antenna electronically scans the sky to identify the satellite toward which its main beam will be pointed. In addition, there are a few key advantages provided by ESA flat panel antennas. For example, being flat means that the product will be an optimal solution in use cases with high aerodynamics requirements, such as in aviation (including drones), or on mobility vehicles aiming to keep their equipment well-integrated.

There are at least two approaches to make an ESA: the first is by using phased array and the other is to use metamaterials, such as liquid crystal. Phased array can steer the main beam toward where the satellite is located with phase shifting components. For example, Intellian’s flat panel antenna used phased array to steer the beams. The second approach tapped into metamaterials, which are man-made materials modified to exhibit certain characteristics, to steer the Radio Frequency (RF) signals by altering the characteristics, rather than physical mechanisms. Kymeta’s u8 is a prime example of a flat panel antenna using metamaterial technology.

Electronically Steerable Antennas Are the Future for Satcom-on-the-Move (SOTM)


For Satcom-on-the-Move (SOTM), the ESA feature makes it an optimal solution both from the perspective of capabilities and from total cost. SOTM requires constant tracking of the position of the satellites to establish the communications channel. As the object (vehicle or vessel) moves in elevation, latitude, and longitude, ESA will be able to maintain connectivity without any physical adjustment to the angle where the antenna points. This is on top of the aerodynamics and well-integrable design of the ESA. Given the lack of moving mechanical parts, an ESA would reduce the cost of maintenance and potential failure associated with mechanical parts. This also means reduced downtime for companies (e.g., aviation) and minimized loss of potential income from business operations.

In addition, ESAs are expected to open new markets previously not possible, such as the automotive industry with the increasing number of connected cars. Based on ABI Research’s Connected Car market data (MD-CCAR-109), it is expected that connected cars will grow to about 97 million by 2028, recording a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 7.1% from 2022. Certainly not all connected cars will be equipped with ESAs, but this represents a new market that ESA vendors could capture. This comes as automotive manufacturers are seeking more efficient systems to deliver critical software updates to the vehicles and enhanced infotainment systems. For example, BMW recently announced its intention to incorporate satellite-based communication services for its vehicles.

While the advantages ESAs can deliver has garnered investments and will potentially attract more investment in the technology, there remain challenges that ESA technology faces. These challenges are interlinked with each other; for example, the cost of an ESA needs to be lower to meet certain markets, such as consumers. At the same time, the scale of adoption will also reduce the overall cost of production. To drive up adoption and reach scale, ESA vendors will need new markets (e.g., automotive) or a large number of adoptions from their traditional markets (i.e., government & corporate networking/enterprises). The success of SatCom, especially in LEO, will create positive spillovers toward the ESA market and the vendors.

Nonetheless, it is certain that ESA will play an important role in the future of SOTM, given its technological advantages and flexibility. The challenges of cost and adoption are expected to be resolved as the technology and product are further tested. The current uptick in ESA adoption for next year signals a great start for the industry and ESA vendors. In addition, competition is heating up in the ESA market with more companies (e.g., ALL.SPACE and C-COM Satellite Systems) focusing on this technology, which hopefully will drive greater innovation.



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