March 20, 2020

iDirect and Newtec: The Merger and its Impact on Mobility Markets – An Interview with Chief Commercial Officer, Thomas Van den Driessche

From Satellite Mobility World

ST Engineering completed the acquisition of Newtec on October 1, 2019. Both companies are leaders in different technologies. iDirect has been the leader in TDMA and Newtec has developed a very strong position as a pioneer and leader in Dynamically Allocated SCPC or Mx-DMA. Can you address the impact of the combined product lines on the following mobility markets: 1) maritime cargo vessels, cruise vessels, 2) commercial aircraft and business aircraft, and 3) land mobility.

Through the consolidation of two companies, we have created one business with a strong portfolio of products across all mobility markets. We are well prepared to serve both high- and low-demand bandwidth markets as well as enabling multi-service operators with the combination of iDirect TDMA, and Newtec Mx-DMA and high-speed SCPC.

The cargo market is more suited to the iDirect TDMA platform, which can handle IoT applications such as the transmission of sensor data, in addition to broadband for the crew. In the high-demand cruise market, the Newtec Dialog platform is an excellent fit. In the commercial aero market, we believe there are use cases for both the iDirect Velocity platform, which is deployed by Inmarsat, and Dialog, which is the product of choice for Panasonic’s service.

In the land market, we are currently focused on first responders. Our ATDMA, SCPC and Mx-DMA implementations support low signal-to-noise ratios, while maintaining efficiency for higher speed applications. Here we offer Kymeta’s flat panel antenna with an iDirect modem embedded that also works with our Newtec modems.

Satellite technology is advancing very rapidly. The latest developments include real- time beam-switching in LEO and MEO markets. What challenges are you facing in upgrading existing modem technology to adapt to these changes, and how do you plan to resolve them?

We have been accommodating LEO and MEO for a while. In fact, our first tests were with Telesat over a year ago. Both our AMC 5001 and the iQ 800 have multi-beam capabilities. So, we can switch between MEOs and GEOs and do “make before break” in aero. Furthermore, our aero and maritime modems are software-defined. This creates the flexibility to add new multi-orbit capabilities in the future.

We continue to hear about the advantages of satellite hub and modem infrastructure based on 5G standards, especially in relation to leveraging the volume economics generated by the global emergence of 5G. Is this possible and, if so, how can it be achieved?

A key objective of our development program is to integrate with telcos and enterprises. We are architecting our infrastructure in compliance with 5G to assure compatibility with 5G terrestrial networks. One goal is connecting our hubs to the Cloud. Another is meeting terrestrial standards for transport systems so that a service provider can easily connect through the transport layer.

We believe that 5G will dramatically change how satellite is integrated to achieve full interoperability within the end-to-end 5G network. This creates the ultimate opportunity for the satellite industry to break out of its niche and for satellite service providers to offer a much wider range of services and empower end-users anywhere in the world with consistent, reliable, high-performance experiences.

Telecom companies will be able to leverage the orbital planes and access additional endpoints based on our 5G interoperability. When our technology is embedded in their network it looks no different from their existing operational network. We are driving towards a virtualized capability that enables our services to be deployed overnight. As our technologies evolve, we will bring them forward with us in a seamless way. Our customers are excited about a move towards virtualization because they can seamlessly migrate from the physical infrastructure in their gateway to the Cloud in a gradual way that makes sense for their business.

To this end, we are actively driving the industry forward to ensure satellite is represented in all the telecom forums.  We are also involved with consortia dedicated to the integration of satellite into 5G networks such as SATis5 and the ESA Artes OSMOSIS project. We have been involved in several successful demos to showcase how content at the edge and multicasting can help offload traffic for some of the MNO’s valuable 5G edge capacity. The work that these consortia are driving will ultimately contribute to easier integration of satellite into terrestrial and wireless networks. And it will help service providers worldwide reach significant new markets. We make it our mandate to foster industry collaboration that ensures satellite’s place in the future 5G connected world. We are working diligently on several advancements to promote satellite’s full interoperability in 5G networks.

IoT is fast becoming a major application for satellite connectivity. What challenges does it present for hub and modem infrastructure, and how will the company resolve them?

We are introducing a Platform-as-a-Service model for IoT applications. It features a set of IoT terminals designed specifically for narrow-band communication, both in Ka- and Ku-band configuration. The terminals will address both fixed and mobile applications, and they will be integrated into our hub infrastructure. With them, maritime and aero customers can do both broadband and IoT applications on GEO satellites utilizing their existing infrastructure and capacity investments. This offering will help our existing satellite operator and service provider customers to capture some of the fast-growing IoT market. We will be announcing and showcasing the offering at Sat2020 so stay tuned for more details.

You have recently released the iDirect iQ LTE, a software-defined hybrid modem that offers high-efficiency connectivity over satellite or LTE

The iQ LTE modem can switch between satellite and LTE automatically. With the VSAT and LTE IP streams consolidated under a single IP network and no user intervention required due to the automated switching, the user can stay in constant communication.

The combination of LTE and satellite in a single modem is very useful in the context of business continuity and resilience and that brings a lot of value to the end-user customer. For example, if LTE connectivity is disrupted, Automatic Teller Machines can use satellite as a backup. The automatic switching from primary cellular coverage to satellite and back can serve the banking, maritime and enterprise markets efficiently, ensuring that real-time communication for critical operations is never affected.

In addition to backup functionality, the modem has the ability to combine both LTE and satellite IP data steams to achieve higher bandwidth transmission. This functionality is especially useful in applications such as video transmission, where high-quality video is a requirement. We are seeing great market acceptance for these applications.

I understand entire networks – from satellite to end-user – are now moving to software-defined infrastructure. Can you explain the significance of this transition as it relates to your target markets? What are the benefits for the end-users?

Software-defined infrastructure provides unique flexibility and extends the useful life of the hardware. We can customize the modem to support future applications. For example, our early modems were designed to be software-defined before there was much talk about LEOs and MEOs. Today, we have the potential to update them to support LEO and MEO requirements. In addition, a software-defined architecture allows us to accommodate the different payloads on the many types of satellites. If we were to design a satellite specific modem, that sort of accommodation would not be possible. Of course, with the availability of new, high-power, and lower-cost processors, there will still be justification to upgrade the hardware platform.

DVB-S2X is the latest standard for downlink broadcast. As all modem hub and modem companies are employing this technology, can you explain how ST Engineering iDirect’s implementation differs from that of other manufacturers?

Different manufacturers employ the standard in different ways. Here’s how the implementations differ. First of all, not all manufacturers deploy DVB-S2X across all of their modems. On our Newtec and iDirect platforms it is fully implemented across all modem types, not just the high-end modems.

The second differentiator is the capability to handle the new, extreme wide-band satellite transponders. The Dialog technology can handle 500 Mega Symbols across the forward links, which means it can manage the ultra-large, 200 MHz transponders across both hubs and modems. You don’t have to break up the beams, which harms efficiency.

The third differentiator is whether the full capabilities of modulation inherent on DVB-S2X are used. For example, it is critical to be able to deploy both high and low levels of modulation. In our hardware, for most applications, we can go up to 256 APSK. This capability allows maximum efficiency in clear weather and in cloudy weather you can still use the lower levels of modulation to go through clouds and rain. If you compare products from different vendors, you will find that not all vendors have the ability to work at such high levels of modulation.

The last element is energy efficiency. How much power do you need to close the link? If you compare the amount of power needed to close a link at 256 APSK, you will find that the amount of power required to close the link differs from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Newtec, working with Panasonic, developed an ultra-high-speed aero modem. While modem technology has developed, antenna technology is lagging. In particular, the flat panel steerable antennas necessary for LEOs and MEOs have yet to emerge. ST Engineering has recently formed a JV with Satixfy named Jet-Talk Limited. Can you tell us more about the JV, the ultimate objective and how it is progressing?

The goal of the JV is to build phased array antennas in both Ka- and Ku-Band with advanced tracking capabilities for MEO and GEO satellites. The first antenna will be in Ku-band and will be available at the end of 2020. In 2021, there will be a Ka-Band aero antenna. Once the antennas are completed, through our partners, each will go through the certification process for aero.

Despite success in mobility and broadcast markets, ST Engineering and Newtec combined have a relatively small share of the cellular backhaul market. How will the combined resources of iDirect and Newtec help you gain a larger share of the cellular backhaul market?

Recently, our position in the cellular backhaul market has grown. If you analyzed all of the available market data available for 2018, you would find that we have a fourteen per-cent market share. However, if you looked at a 2019 study, you would see that we have an over twenty-five percent share. Our competitors have a large percentage of the legacy market. By contrast, we are the market leader in 4G, and we are getting a 50 per-cent share of the new installs.

Steve Collar, SES CEO, often speaks about the need for interoperability of networks. As we know, it simply isn’t practical for satellite operators to continue to duplicate assets. Now, with Comtech’s acquisition of Gilat, and ST Engineering’s acquisition of Newtec, most of the hub and infrastructure market is split between the two companies. Given the competitive divide, what are the chances we can see interoperability between the two competitive sets of technologies and inter-network roaming across platforms?

We very much agree with Steve Collar’s vision and the need for interoperability of networks. Today, we are tightly focused on enabling interoperability between operators and service providers that have invested in our platforms which enable roaming across networks and constellations with ease, utilizing the best available bandwidth for the application at hand.

In the future, we will enable a satellite remote or user endpoint to roam across constellations, orbits, access technologies and autonomous service provider networks as part of the complete end-to-end 5G network.

We have been very bold in collaborating with technology partners to push these innovations forward, but this is not something that we will achieve on our own. Like with 5G, we strongly believe that to create the complete end-to-end network and seamless connectivity experience for end-users—through roaming and otherwise—we need to commit to active, industry-wide collaboration on a large scale. It is only through industry collaboration that we will be able to reach satellite’s full potential and create new opportunities for our customers—in any market.