April 17, 2020

OneWeb’s Departure Reveals the Importance of Solving the Ground Segment Challenge

Blog: Satellite broadband pioneer weighs in on OneWeb's bankruptcy and the ground segment challenge.

Lessons from One Broadcast Satellite Pioneer

By Robert (Scott) Zimmer

As Space News gathered leading satellite industry analysts together via a streaming webinar on April 7 to discuss impact of OneWeb’s bankruptcy on the satellite industry, a key point all three panelists agreed on: the critical importance of solving the ground segment challenge.

Janice Starzk, partner with Bryce Space and Technology, observed that as her firm assesses investors for space, and looks at what’s lacking, “it’s clearly ground. We need more investment in ground.”

“Ground is definitely the thing that will have the biggest impact,” agreed Claude Rosseau, research director at NSR, who noted that in the short-run the industry is hurting because of its focus on supplying antenna solutions to the aero-satcom market. “They are going to have to pivot.” Rosseau said that 25 or 30 companies are “trying to do something in this area.” Airborne and government are the toughest markets for developing electronically steered flight hardware.

“At the end of the day, if someone can make a low-cost flat panel antenna, they’re going to print money,” stated Chris Quilty, president of financial banking firm, Quilty Analytics.

Why is this such a tough challenge to solve? And where will the next innovation come from, especially in an environment where new space and aviation players, like most of the world, are in COVID-19 crisis-mode? The key will be found in an agile, affordable antenna solution that the market has yet to see.

The power of today’s HTS satellites allow for a smaller antenna. Installing these antennas into hundreds of millions of homes, represents the potential for a cost-effective broadband consumer market to blossom. In addition, the market is moving toward connectivity and receive-transmit that LEOs, given their lower latency, are uniquely well positioned to address with the right ground solution.

Lessons from the Broadcast Satellite Industry

As one of the original employees of EchoStar, we cut our teeth in the satellite broadcast industry by distributing the ground segment first and then moved into launching our own satellite later. In the 1990s when EchoStar already had many thousands of home owners using our equipment and many hundreds of satellite dealers installing our equipment, the company decided to vertically integrate and create our own direct-to-home satellite network, designing and building our satellite ecosystem with the ground segment in mind. We already knew the dynamics of the ground piece and could make it lower cost over time as subscriptions increased.

Scott Zimmer (center) visiting a cable/satellite company in Bator, Mongolia, in the early 2000s as head of EchoStar International Corp.

When the satellite broadcast industry was coming into its own, we looked at our competition at the time, mainly the cable companies, which were spending thousands of dollars per household to dig up entire neighborhoods to install their cabling, with no guarantee that even one homeowner would agree to be their customer.

Launching our own network, we had a very good idea what the ground segment would cost. The project was a half billion dollars and would connect more than 100M homes. That translated to connecting all the homes in America for $5 each, taking advantage of the inherent ‘point-to-multi-point’ economics unique to satellites, with an additional investment to install a dish only after we had a customer.

Contrast this to the LEO market: Constellations like OneWeb have spent billions of dollars, yet no one knows what kind of market there will be because there isn’t cost-effective ground equipment yet. LEOs, which need an antenna to track each satellite as it crosses the sky, require a new kind of electronically steerable antenna solution that startup after startup has struggled to bring to market. Legacy mechanically steered antenna solutions simply won’t work given the inherent demands of fast-moving, LEO satellites. Also, getting to the scale of Direct to Home (DTH) and other global fixed and mobility market opportunities requires this type of ground solution.

Flat panel or electronically steered antennas are not a new idea: I’ve been looking at the technology since the 1990s. EchoStar was interested in these antennas for ease of installation, because if you have an electronically steerable antenna, you don’t need an expensive and complicated polar mount to change the dish back and forth – you can do it all electronically, making it much easier to shift antenna position and install equipment.

However, current flat panel antennas today cost much much more than their traditional counterparts and no homeowner is going to pay that kind of price.

Driving Price Down

These antennas are fundamentally expensive because they require a lot of silicon chips and silicon is expensive. In my 20-plus years looking at this technology, the largest hurdles have been expense and complexity. Until you build millions and millions of units, you can’t get the price down.

One company well positioned today to address the unique technical and market challenges of electronically steerable phased array antennas is NXT Communications Corporation (NXTCOMM).

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This Georgia-based company is leveraging fragmented aperture technology developed by Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). What’s refreshing for me is the fact that NXTCOMM hasn’t invented something new; rather, they are optimizing a proven technology that is flying on thousands of US government classified and unclassified platforms today.

NXTCOMM is led by industry veterans with satellite and connectivity in their DNA; they have worked in the industry and know the limitations of current technologies on the ground.

NXTCOMM’s eying not only aero connectivity but also transportation, government and eventually the consumer broadband, Internet of Things (IoT) market. I believe they’ll get there, with a lower power, more RF efficient solution combined with a manufacturing model that promises to drive down costs, making it the potential holy grail for LEOs and a host of other applications, from aviation to defense and connected cars.

NXTCOMM, more than any other player in the market, is set to disrupt the connectivity industry by bringing a viable ground solution to a broadband-starved market.

About Scott Zimmer

scott grey

A satellite sector veteran, Scott Zimmer was an early executive of the EchoStar group of companies, where he launched EchoStar International Corp, serving as its president for a decade and overseeing the launch of EchoStar’s first satellite in China. He’s advised Charlie Ergen, chairman of EchoStar Communications Corp. and The Dish Network, as well as a host of international technology firms. He currently serves as a strategic adviser to NXT Communications Corporation (NXTCOMM), a Georgia-based provider of breakthrough broadband connectivity, products and services.