Public demand for mobile broadband is engineering a convergence between the fixed satellite service (FSS) and mobile satellite service (MSS) markets. Ahmed al Shamsi, CTO of Thuraya, has called it the “battle of the bands.” He argues that each market has its own sweet spot, but other market analysts disagree. Will convergence happen? Let’s take a look at the driving factors.
FSS vs. MSS
During the 1970s, FSS was first used to deliver satellite television in the U.S. Satellites in orbit beam radio frequency signals to fixed stations on the Earth’s surface. The sweet spot of FSS is currently using satellite news-gathering vehicles to broadcast from events like sports competitions and news conferences. FSS also delivers paging services and POS support for credit card transactions and inventory control.
MSS involves the collection of satellite signals in devices that do not maintain a fixed position on the Earth’s surface. For example, emergency personnel responding to a natural disaster may deploy a very small aperture terminal (VSAT), which is a mobile station with an antenna less than three meters in length that can serve as a communications relay if cellular networks go out of service.
NSR predicts that the MSS market will grow to $10.2 billion by 2020. This growth represents a doubling of today’s revenue volume. Even though many MSS operators when through bankruptcies in the late 1990s, they’ve come out of the 2008 recession with a growth rate of about 8 percent. FSS is also growing even faster than MSS, with growth of 20 percent.
Convergence or Overlap?
Instead of seeing FSS/MSS convergence, the industry is actually seeing overlap in data capabilities and cost. FSS can provide services at a lower cost-per-bit than MSS, for now, because FSS possesses more spectrum. The size of VSAT terminals also limits the penetration of MSS. On the other hand, in settings where VSAT size doesn’t matter, such as on a ship or in a plane, MSS eliminates the need for steerable or flyaway antenna/modem combinations. Also, VSATs are constantly getting smaller, and MSS data rates are improving to match their FSS competitors.
FSS providers typically concentrated their signals on specific geographic areas. Now, people want to use their phones, smartphones and tablets anywhere, whether they’re on a trans-Atlantic flight or enjoying a cruise off of the Alaskan coastline. FSS is getting more flexible in terms of serving the railroad, airline, maritime and shipping industries where MSS used to reign supreme. However, MSS companies aren’t giving up this space easily. Inmarsat, for example, has partnered with Cisco to develop an off-the-shelf router that will work with Inmarsat terminals.
The convergence of FSS and MSS is largely driven by consumer demand for faster broadband connections. In the cellular industry, carriers are struggling to update their networks to meet consumer demand for data. Satellite carriers face similar challenges, and high-throughput satellites (HTS) may provide some solutions.
HTS works by distributing satellite signals over a geographic area using multiple small spot beams instead of the large beams used by traditional satellites. Each of the spot beams covers an area that’s about 1 to 2 percent of the area of a conventional satellite beam. These smaller, more concentrated spots deliver better performance than the single conventional beam. Spot beams also support frequency reuse for higher data rates.
HTS, like FSS, functions in the Ka-band and Ku-band frequencies. MSS has carved out its space in the L-band frequency. HTS in the Ka-band frequency has issues related to attenuation, link margin and rain fade, but overall, HTS delivers higher throughput at a lower cost per bit despite its challenges. HTS, when combined with user-friendly solutions and products, may be crucial to expanding the overall data and video streaming markets.
The Market Outlook
The FCC recently sought comments on whether FSS providers like Intelsat were monopolizing space and ground services. For instance, some have accused Intelsat of refusing to ground obsolete satellites so that the company doesn’t have to cede frequency bands to its competitors. Also, competitors have accused Intelsat of barring them from securing satellite bandwidth capacity. The competition for satellite broadband between FSS and MSS is definitely heating up. However, as data costs go down and coverage grows, the ultimate winner will be the consumer.
About the Author:Steve Manley is the president of Globalcom Satellite Communications, a leading distributor of satellite phones for both purchase and rental. To learn more about available products and network packages, visit GlobalcomSatPhone.com.