Charting the Course: How Advances in Satellite Terminals Are Fueling the Global Rise of Satellite Applications

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By Andrew Cavalier | 2Q 2024 | IN-7340

Satellite Communication (SatCom) applications (such as broadband Internet, Internet of Things (IoT), or cellular backhaul) may be on the brink of a transformation as ground terminals, historically known for their restrictively high costs and energy consumption, are undergoing a disruptive evolution. Underpinning this evolution are several ground terminal vendors that are not only exploring more affordable and lightweight advanced phased array designs supporting multi-orbit agility, but also new Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces (RISs) or meta-surface antenna arrays, which could drastically reduce complexity and energy costs. This ABI Insight explores a new wave of SatCom terminals that offer improved economics and performance, and explains how they may impact the industry and penetration of SatCom services.

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Emergence of Low-Cost ESAs and RIS Antennas in the SatCom Market


Satellite Communication (SatCom) terminals have long been one of the more challenging aspects of establishing a satellite-based communications network for end users. Progress has been made in reducing the costs and Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) for the land-fixed segment, with the advent of mass-produced, low-cost, and phased array antennas from SpaceX and Amazon. These terminals, however, fail to service other more specialized segments such as aviation, maritime, and land mobile as effectively due to the high energy demands of Electronically Steered Antennas (ESAs) on the power supply capabilities of vehicles. This problem is exacerbated with the inclusion of multi-orbit functionality. As a result, the SWaP and terminal cost often suffer and act as a barrier to access for many wanting global, always-on connectivity via satellite.

Recent developments in the SatCom terminal industry, including Reticulate Micro’s introduction of low-energy, ruggedized multi-orbit VALOR terminals, Greenerwave's advancements in Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces (RISs) antenna arrays for fixed and mobile segments, and Intelsat's collaboration with Case New Holland (CNH) to deliver Smart Farm connectivity in Brazil using ruggedized multi-orbit terminals and the Flex Move network, signify a notable shift in capabilities and costs for mobile applications.

Improved Terminal Economics Is a Boon for Mobile SatCom Applications across Industry Verticals


Global SatCom service penetration is likely to see a positive uptick with the introduction of new and improved ground terminals hitting the market. This is especially the case in emerging markets where satellite connectivity is needed the most, such as South America, (estimated to have 230 million people unconnected in 2023) or Southeast Asia, where Internet penetration rates can be as low as 44%. Furthermore, it makes SatCom connectivity more attractive for mobile connectivity applications (such as vehicles, drones, or airplanes), which are usually restricted to more costly and energy-restrictive solutions; for example, fixed-wing aircraft using SpaceX Aviation would require SpaceX terminals costing US$150,000 each.

In this way, lower energy requirements and terminal purchase costs would enable more users from consumer, enterprise, and government segments to access satellite connectivity. Now, more than ever, there is a pressing need for such a proposition from the perspective of a satellite services provider and the consumers of such satellite services. Geosynchronous Orbit (GSO) giants like Eutelsat Group, Viasat, and the newly merged entity of SES and Intelsat are engaged in fierce competition for market dominance against emerging Non-Geostationary Orbit (NGSO) operators such as Amazon and SpaceX. In the face of such competition, the incumbent strategy seems to have shifted toward the adoption of new multi-orbit SatCom terminals that enable land, air, and sea assets to connect to both NGSO and GSO systems. While introducing impressive capabilities, like the ability to prioritize network traffic between simultaneous NGSO and GSO links, many suffer from high costs and unfavorable SWaP, relegating deployments to niche applications.

The shift toward SWaP-optimized and cost-efficient satellite terminal design marks a positive stride in enhancing the accessibility and utility of satellite connectivity across various market applications and industries. This progress is also particularly significant when coupled with the falling costs for satellite capacity and the abundance of supply occurring throughout the industry. Enhancements in equipment affordability and an abundance of satellite capacity (in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and from High Throughput Satellites (HTSs) in GSO) offer promising synergies for SatCom connectivity. However, with a highly competitive terrestrial and non-terrestrial connectivity landscape, it's vital to maintain a superior value proposition compared to adjacent technologies like cellular or non-cellular Low-Power Wide Area networks (LPWANs). This necessity is particularly evident in mobile and vehicle connectivity where all these connectivity technologies compete.

Interoperable, Standardized, and Mass "Production Ready" Terminals Are Needed


The industry needs ground equipment that is continuously innovating in SWaP and cost efficiency. Companies like Reticulate Micro or Greenerwave show that the terminal market continues to trend in this direction, but not enough companies in the industry are bringing costs and SWaP down enough. As is being seen with the success of NGSO networks in LEO, low cost and the easy deployment of the ground terminals virtually anywhere is a key to their commercial success. In this way, the ability to mass produce satellite network ground terminals and sell them for a low cost become increasingly important for enhancing satellite services adoption.

In the case of rising NGSO networks, Starlink (SpaceX) and  Project Kuiper (Amazon Web Services (AWS)), this means vertically integrating terminal manufacturing into the business to help optimize the costs and performance of the terminals. Using this model, it is estimated that SpaceX has shipped more than 1.5 million flat panel terminals from the end of 2022 to the end of 2023, amounting to a minimum revenue generation of US$900 million (a conservative estimate based on the assumption that all terminals shipped were the standard residential model). With the entry of Project Kuiper and eventually other mega constellations using the vertically-integrated terminal manufacturing model, the outlook for SatCom terminal shipments is expected to show strong growth.


Companies Mentioned