What's New in the Satellite Orbit

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  July 08, 2014

The FCC’s planned Incentive Auction, growth in the Internet of Things, LTE (News - Alert) build outs, and Wi-Fi proliferation have been grabbing a lot of headlines lately in the wireless sphere. But another hot area of wireless expansion these days is satellite.

As you probably have heard by now, Google (News - Alert) in June purchased Skybox Imaging for $500 million. Meanwhile, several of the satellite network operators have been investing richly recently to expand their capabilities, as noted by industry pundit and TMCnet satellite expert Doug Mohney.

“If it is broadband/communications Ka-band and O3b, for M2M, Iridium and ORBCOMM are both putting in new satellite networks, with Iridium also supporting voice services and some broadband,” says Mohney. “Globalstar (News - Alert) has a new set of satellites up, they do all the SPOT stuff and also cheap sat phones. They’re literally giving away sat phones to promote the voice service, depending on what contract you want. For non-Internet telephony, but still cool and [with] big data, Planet Labs is going to put up over 100 breadbox satellites to do Earth imaging at 3- to 5-meter resolution. We’ll be able to watch the polar icecaps melt in near real time.”


SPOT LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary of Globalstar Inc. focused on supporting satellite messaging and emergency notification for aviation, enterprise, government, and outdoor recreation applications. It enables users to track their assets and use location-based messaging and emergency notification beyond the boundaries of cellular networks.

The SPOT service launched in 2007, and as of this May, there were more than 200,000 SPOT units in service and SPOT was used in 3,000 rescues worldwide.

“Lifesaving rescues around the globe are now a daily occurrence for our SPOT products. SPOT is an absolute must for the outdoor recreation market and aviation, as well as an essential government and enterprise solution,” said Jay Monroe, CEO and chairman of Globalstar, which in the first quarter saw a 6 percent year-over-year revenue increase (at $20.5 million), and in April began trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

SPOT services include SPOT Gen3, a rugged device providing off-the-grid messaging, emergency alerts, extended battery life, and GPS tracking at 2.5-minute intervals; SPOT Global Phone, a satellite phone available via retail channels for $499, that allows users to make calls virtually anywhere; SPOT Trace, a GPS tracking device commonly used to track the whereabouts of person vehicles; and the SPOT App, a web-based interface allowing users to easily view their SPOT messages, show their track points, and monitor their assets via smartphone or tablet.

Duplex equipment sales revenue for the first quarter 2014 at Globalstar increased nearly 22 percent from the first quarter of 2013, which the company reports was driven primarily by the SPOT Global Phone. SPOT equipment sales revenue increased 54 percent, or $0.5 million, due to sales of SPOT Gen 3 and new SPOT Trace.


As for Google, as Doug Mohney reported for TMCnet on June 13: “Skybox Imaging has built a company around high-resolution satellite imaging, HD video from orbit, and big data analytics services to dig meaningful results out of all the imaging it plans to take and archive.  The key to Skybox is information, specifically imaging and being able to process it. Customers can get good imagery today, but want the ability to measure changes over time. Skybox has built the systems and tools to catalog a flood of imagery from the constellation of satellites it will put into orbit, then be able to compare those images.” That, he said, will enable Google to keep Google Maps up to date and accurate. 


Global mobile voice and data satellite communications network operator Iridium Communications Inc. in April announced the completion of what it calls an extensive upgrade to its ground station infrastructure in preparation for the launch of Iridium NEXT, its next generation constellation. The NEXT launch is expected to begin in 2015 and be fully operational on Iridium’s constellation of 66 satellites in late 2017 or early 2018.

The ground-based upgrades involved deployment of a new architecture, called TelePort Network, that allows for dynamic traffic routing for improved performance and reliability. The build also entailed the installation of new antenna and pedestals from L3 Datron in the feeder link terminals; the use of Radisys T-Series gear for autonomous failover and increased reliability; and the implementation of software-defined modems from RT Logic.

Satellite technology is being quickly outdated because advancements in ground-based technologies are moving so fast, says David Wigglesworth, vice president and general manager, who adds that the NEXT deployment will enable Iridium to keep more up to date. NEXT will enable Iridium to get more out of its spectrum due in part to improvements in encoding and modulation schemes.

These improvements will allow Iridium to deliver higher speed data and more of it, he says, to power voice, SMS, circuit-switched data, short burst data, higher speed aviation and maritime, and new higher data rate (up to 512kbps) services. Today, before the NEXT launch, Iridium’s data rates top out at 120kbps. But Iridium is not so much about delivering the fastest connections as it is about providing customers with reasonable speeds at reason cost, he adds.

Iridium customers, to which the company provides services exclusively through its distribution channel partners, are mainly enterprise companies in various vertical markets, especially those in the aviation and maritime areas. That includes organizations in fisheries management, supertankers that need data communications connectivity to send data to their offices, communications systems used in airplane cockpits, and military use cases.

M2M is also an important focus for Iridium, which provides connectivity for such applications as asset and fleet management. For example, an aftermarket integrator packages Iridium into a solution used for cargo theft prevention in Brazil, says Wigglesworth. You could just use cellular communications to track moving assets and vehicles, he says, but thieves tend to know where cellular coverage does and does not exist, so they often attack trucks when they pass through cellular black holes, he says. To prevent that, the solutions provider Zatix added satellite connectivity to its solutions so vehicles never fell off the map.

Iridium aims to be as easy to integrate as possible, so its partners and their customers can easily add its services into any mix. Its adoption of IP via NEXT will help with that, he says.

“As we go toward NEXT, we’re looking at making everything IP addressable, that’s where we’re heading toward,” he explains.

Iridium’s network is unique in the world in terms of its breadth of coverage, adds Wigglesworth.

“We cover the open oceans, the Poles, all the land masses, everything,” he explains.

Connectivity from Iridium is available in outdoor environments in which end user devices are within line of sight of its satellites, he says, while some competing satellite solutions are based on a bent pipe architecture in which the satellite must be in site of the ground station and the endpoint must be in line of the satellite. Iridium is also unique because it has the lowest latency in the satellite business, he adds, saying Iridium’s short burst data latency is a consistent 5 to 15 seconds.

Wigglesworth says the satellite industry tends to go in cycles with its launches. In the mid to late 1990s, he notes, there were lots of launches and new satellite companies, some of which never made it off the drawing board. But getting into the satellite business is a capital-intensive exercise, he says, so there is unlikely to be much in the way of new satellite entrants.

ORBCOMM (News - Alert)

However, as indicated above, there are a few existing players, one of which is ORBCOMM, which bills itself as an M2M solutions provider that delivers devices coupled with global satellite, cellular services, and web applications.

The company in April announced plans to launch six OG2 satellites May 10. Did the launch happen? On schedule? ORBCOMM anticipates launching the remaining eleven OG2 satellites and enhanced OG2 services in the fourth quarter of 2014 to complete the constellation.

These new satellites, which ORBCOMM says will drastically increase network capacity, will enable faster message delivery, larger message sizes, and better coverage at higher latitudes.

“Launching our first OG2 mission is an important milestone in advancing our global satellite network to a higher level of performance, coverage and efficiency,” said ORBCOMM CEO Marc Eisenberg in April. “Our customers are looking forward to our new constellation, which will enhance their M2M applications, as well as new partnerships in the multiple additional markets for which OG2 is well suited.”

ORBCOMM customers include Caterpillar Inc., Doosan Infracore America, Hitachi (News - Alert) Construction Machinery, Hyundai Heavy Industries, I.D. Systems, Inc., Komatsu Ltd., Cartrack (Pty.) Ltd., and Volvo Construction Equipment, among others.

Planet Labs

Meanwhile, a lesser-known entity called Planet Labs out of San Francisco, early this year launched its 28-satellite constellation of Earth-imaging satellites.

“Planet creates commercial and humanitarian value with the market's most capable global imaging network,” according to the company’s website. “Fresh data from any place on Earth is foundational to solving commercial, environmental, and humanitarian challenges. Our global sensing and analytics platform unlocks the ability to understand and respond to change at a local and global scale.”

The company, which declined to return INTERNET TELEPHONY’s request for an interview, is led by former NASA scientists.

Edited by Maurice Nagle