Spot beams make Ka-band different

Ka-band satellites will provide much larger capacity and flexibility than preceding designs. This characteristic makes them the first true broadband systems. What is fundamentally different with Ka-band is the satellite’s ability to reuse bandwidth many times over Figures la-1c show the antenna patterns of C-, Ku- and Ka-band satellites on the Earth. For a fixed size antenna on the spacecraft, each doubling of frequency results in roughly a four-fold increase in the number of independent beams, each with a separate data signal, that can be formed on the earth and a comparable increase in capacity.

Bandwidth is one of two limited resources on a satellite — the other is transmit power, supplied by the solar cells that charge on-board batteries. Satellite system designers often use transmit power as a surrogate for satellite cost as most of the cost drivers (solar array size, power amplifiers, spacecraft thermal dissipation, etc.) scale with increased transmit power. Fortunately for the satellite manufacturer, the much greater capacity of Ka-band does not require an increase in satellite power. Since each signal is now focused on a much smaller area, it takes less power per beam to illuminate that area at a given signal strength. Overall, the system transmit power is comparable to that of Ku-band satellites.

Terminal size and cost are also important factors in meeting user needs. The factor that drives the terminal size is the need to point the antenna at a desired satellite while avoiding interference from an adjacent spacecraft. The higher Ka-band frequencies make it possible to reduce user antenna size to one-half the minimum possible at Ku-band — less than 1 meter, which is suitable for residential and small office use. Table 1 shows how the resulting change in these parameters between C-, Ku- and Ka-bands dramatically affects the size and market size of the resulting product.

Mature technology enables broadband satellites

On-board processing payloads have been designed into government satellites such as ACTS and Milstar since the early 1980s. Recently, the technology required has reached the maturity and scale needed to be practical for commercial use. Two breakthrough steps have been the development of high volume monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMIC) and radiation-hardened digital components that approach the speed and density of computer parts used in personal computers. Originally developed for military applications, the rapidly growing use of MMIC devices for cost and performance enhancements in cellular phones and embedded wireless devices has provided the manufacturing volume needed to produce a large variety and volume of satellite transmit and receive components at low cost. Space-qualified digital devices, long hampered by speed constraints that came with radiation hardening, have also reached parity with commercial performance and are enjoying the same gains in volume production. Densities of millions of gates allow development of the highly programmable processors needed to provide the flexibility desired for a long-lived payload design. Upgrades to router parameters and operation are typically made via uploads of new software from the ground.

The need to be at the leading edge has other benefits, with satellite electronics specialists like TRW spinning off their technologies into terrestrial telecommunications markets. Products like high performance microwave chips that extend the talk time of cell phones, high bandwidth radio links that can interconnect buildings without fiber, ultra-high-speed optical communications devices and more are, in reality, the offshoot of extensive government and commercial satellite research and development. Even as these products are bringing ever higher data rates, lower cost and improved functionality to terrestrial markets, the original technologies are well on their way to building the next generation of satellites targeting the same markets but with much broader geographic scope.

Ingley’s Rule

Content is king. “Long live the king,” hath proclaimed the content providers.

Yet, is it? From a satellite carrier perspective, this is an important question. If content is king, then it will always rule. Always. That’s what happens when you are king. No one takes you off the air at will. No one makes an exclusive contract leaving you out. Because content is king. Yet, when you are the system who carries the content, it is useful to know where you stand in the kingdom.

Let’s take the recent Time Warner-Disney scuffle, which found two U.S. heavyweights (the former the carrier, the latter the content) in conflict. When talks broke down, Time Warner, with the cable pipe into the home, put the following on screens in the affected cable TV districts, “Disney has taken ABC away from you.”

The story was obviously more complicated than that. The negotiations that stalled were all about how Time Warner was willing to compensate Disney for carrying Disney’s content — ABC TV stations — on its access or distribution system, the cable into the home.

Disney’s content was king? Clearly not. Of course, these types of disagreements aren’t new. It is certain that News Corp. hasn’t forgotten its year-long war to get Fox News Channel carried by Time Warner.

And might contractual disputes be common in the future, affecting all access systems including satellite systems such as DirecTV, Echostar and BSkyB, leading to a discontinuation of content?

The rule, “Content is king,” somehow doesn’t seem to work.

Enter Ingley’s Rule. Access systems and content are royalty but it is the consumer who bestows the crowns. Under certain conditions, access is king and content queen. Under different conditions, content is king and access is queen.

Ultimately, the consumer decides.

But that consumer may be limited in choices — because there is another very important criteria for who gets the crown of king: open access.

Open access means that anyone can negotiate to be carried by the distribution system, be it satellite, cable or DSL.

Right now AT&T Broadband cable systems only carry [email protected] with the company saying that it will open its cables to other ISPs once its contract expires in 2002. That means that systems — other than [email protected] — are left out in the cold by an access company.

That’s from the company viewpoint. Now let’s take a look at some current scenarios from a consumer viewpoint to see how access systems and content are working in the marketplace and then look at how this may evolve in the future.

Say you are a consumer who wants a broadband multimedia high speed interconnection into the home via the Internet. Satellite systems don’t give you very many choices right now so you go with a digital subscriber line or DSL, a terrestrial upgrade of your copper wire into the home.

DSL is provided by the local exchange carriers (LECs) or Baby Bells and others.

You’re excited. You’ve chosen a DSL from Bell Atlantic, the LEC in your area. Now you can use your ISP and go into sites that you’ve never visited. Then you ask how you transfer your ISP to your DSL account and you find out they don’t carry your ISP.

So you find out there is a short list of ISPs that have partnered with Bell Atlantic including its own ISP.

Okay. Let’s say you are willing to compromise and give up your ISP. You become a DSL devotee.

Now let’s say a two-way satellite service via the Internet comes along and it is priced competitively. Will you change your pipe if they have better content, perhaps that treasured ISP that you gave up?

You chose Bell Atlantic and let access be king. But you may switch to a two way satellite service because you think content is king.

Confusing? It is.

What is going on behind the scenes that might clarify the situation here?

For the access and distribution providers, it is all about revenue streams and putting together a content-service package that appeals to the consumer (and that may mean mixing and matching technologies). All the pipe carriers — DSL, cable, satellite — get revenue streams from the content that they carry. These revenue streams must be negotiated and renegotiated once the contract expires. So, in this sense, the pipe or access is king.

Yet if the access carrier loses the customer by not carrying content, then it loses its king status.

How will this shake out? What is the consumer going to be looking for in the future?

My best guess is that the future consumer wants a package of voice, video and data that also allow some flexibility in content.

That consumer also wants a package that requires the least amount of maintenance and has an easy billing system.

In the end, the consumer doesn’t care what the technology is.

Consumers want user-friendly access, compelling content and the ability to choose content in certain instances — all at the right price.

Ultimately, it is the paying consumer who rules.

Yet, it is the company that combines access with content in such a way (including price, billing and packaging) that it stays five steps ahead of the consumer that will win the broadband multimedia sweepstakes.

On-board processing: Enabling broadband satellites

Flexibility defines the coming generation of broadband satellites

The next several years will see a rapid progression in deployment of broadband satellite services. Transitional satellite payload designs will be based on conventional transponders. But eventually, on-board switching and processing payload designs will exploit broadband satellite and frequency resources. The key to success? Deliver a cost-competitive service and do so in a manner that is flexible enough in design to keep up with a very dynamic decade of telecommunications changes.

Satellites that will successfully complement terrestrial telecom networks must deliver services that are better provided from space.

Traffic modeling performed by TRW (the authors’ company) has shown that successful designs will be those that provide the largest amount of traffic capacity while also providing flexibility to allow use of the bandwidth in a manner that is not fixed but market responsive. This article will show how the progression of satellite capabilities has led to an entirely new emerging generation of satellites that process signals in space to achieve both capacity and flexibility.

Response to market shifts

Future satellite systems will have market demand similar to terrestrial telecom — more bandwidth, improved functionality, lower price. The broadband systems with the greatest capacity and simplest terminals to use will have a market advantage. But there are important differences. This is where the flexibility of broadband satellite services becomes important.

Consumers will become accustomed to always-on, high-speed data connections as part of daily existence. Unfortunately, terrestrial broadband links, whether wired or wireless, typically have shorter range than the voice-based systems they will replace. This can lead to pockets of broadband isolation even in relatively urban areas, let alone areas where lowdensity population or economic deprivation render dedicated terrestrial systems uneconomical. For these areas, satellites appear the natural broadband choice.

Satellites have always been providers of true universal service — signals from space do not care whether they land on urban or rural antennas. What differentiates the coming broadband services from past satellite systems is that the target price will be comparable to terrestrial delivery, not at a premium. This means that satellite-delivered broadband has the potential to reach beyond hard-to-reach areas to become a true mass market service, just as direct-to-home satellite TV has become.

The large geographic scope, however, means that each geostationary satellite will serve multiple countries with a wide range of bandwidth demands and service expectations over its lifetime. For a time, some countries may have a high demand for Internet access, while others may be heavy generators of video multicast or corporate extranets. Not only will these change gradually with the economic climate but there will also be more rapid changes on an hourly basis, as the day sweeps across a continent or special events suddenly shift demand. Only by employing the latest bandwidth-on-demand techniques can satellite designers ensure that such systems will be cost effective over their entire life cycle.

What to expect

In the first, a transitional technology mix of DTH-like data delivery is already in limited consumer use in products such as DirecPC. Users share a limited bandwidth satellite downlink that may provide faster Web downlink surfing, provided that there are not too many people online at a time. User uplink transmissions utilize the conventional telephone modem path, which restricts the services that can be supported.

These first generation satellite broadband systems are already giving way to two-way services that don’t rely on a modem connection. Besides simplifying the connection, two-way services such as Gilat-to-Home provide more dedicated satellite bandwidth and the ability to send, as well as receive data at faster rates. This allows personal Web hosting and the basis for limited interactive service.

Both of these early generation broadband satellite systems rely on existing Kuband (11 GHz) satellites, which allow them to be deployed quickly but are not the most cost-effective or flexible resources for long-term application. For the near-term, however, these can be profitable uses for excess transponder capacity and are likely to have appeal to geographically isolated and early adopter market segments.

True broadband performance shows up in the third generation systems, which are already in production and will first come to market in late 2001. Unlike the transitional first and second-generation systems that rely on traditional Ku-band transponders, these satellites use Ka-band (18-30 GHz) for satellite to-and-from ground transmissions. The higher frequency of the Ka-band systems allows easy implementation of satellite spot beams, which when combined with channelized switching provides a capacity of a single Ka-band satellite that can easily exceed that of a Ku-band satellite by a factor of four or more. With little increase in system cost, the number of potential customers reaches mass-market proportions and the effective cost per circuit drops dramatically. With such systems, Ka-band allows satellites for the first time to provide access-oriented circuits to an entire continent at prices comparable to terrestrial delivery in cities. These will find broad residential application where access services are most price sensitive.

The use of spot beams comes at a price. In order to provide the flexibility required by the long life and broad geographic scope, a satellite must be able to shift capacity among beams. This requires onboard switching, which gets more complex as the number of beams increases. Still, a capable on-board switch can often improve the effective capacity of a satellite by an order of magnitude for many traffic models, making it well worth the early expense during development.

A fourth generation emerges

The first three generations of broadband satellites are often termed access technologies — traditional transponded, or bent pipe, satellites, that are focused on delivering a broadband connection between users and the Internet much as modems provide connection through terrestrial wires. In both cases, each circuit handles one user at a time and the routing of data is performed in a central facility. If the traffic from many users is combined in a satellite terminal to fill the data channel continuously this can be a very efficient system. Unfortunately, as satellite terminals get smaller and cheaper, they become more single-user dedicated and the circuit takes on a bursty traffic pattern. The power-limited satellite down-links are not completely filled with data and therefore the capacity is used less efficiently.

As these third generation Ka-band transponded systems approach market rollout, the fourth generation approach is being readied to address this downlink efficiency problem. By moving the traffic routing function from a central ground facility up to the spacecraft, system designers can combine the traffic from many bursty users before it gets to the satellite downlink transmitters — dramatically improving efficiency and with it the ‘billable Bits’ that result in higher revenues for the system.

This efficiency can provide higher band-width-on-demand availability and quality of service (QoS) to more users because it dynamically and automatically allocates unused capacity as needed. Customers pay only for what service they need at the moment they need it, at whatever quality level they choose.

The processed payload design is almost identical to the transponded design. However, the on-board circuit switch found on transponded designs is replaced by onboard demodulators, a switch and a set of downlink modulators. In addition to highly efficient use of the downlink capacity, the use of on-board demodulation leads to improved link performance, which reduces both user terminal size and transmit power requirements, since the signal is regenerated before downlink noise is added. In addition to isolating the uplink and downlink interference, onboard demodulation also provides a high degree of access security, ensuring that rogue terminals do not rob power from the downlink.

The heart of the processed broadband satellite is a fast packet switch. The irregular incoming data streams are pooled and distributed to the output channels, ensuring that the downlink remains maximally loaded under all traffic conditions. This “statistical multiplexing” — the multiplexing of several partially utilized up-link channels (bandwidth allocations) into downlink channels which fully utilize the capacity for user data — is an extremely important capability since most services present statistically bursty data traffic to the satellite uplinks.

For network operators, transitioning from a traditional transponded to the emerging generation of processing architectures raises the question as to which architecture maximizes throughput and revenues. Table 2 summarizes the results of a TRW analysis that quantified the throughput potential of transponded, circuit switch, and fast packet switch architectures to determine the raw capacity achievable and how efficiently the capacity is used (average throughput) for multimedia traffic in mesh networks. In the study, TRW defined a traffic model made up of various services, including broadcast-quality video, videoconferencing, voice and Web surfing. The results show the improvement that on-board processing provides to the average throughput, a measure of deliverable user data, under these mixed traffic conditions. The raw capacity and average throughput (billable bits) of the processing architectures are significantly larger than the transponded architecture as a result of the frequency reuse possible without a terrestrial infrastructure. The transponded architecture requires extensive ground interconnection to deliver full-mesh connectivity. Even then, with only one beam per satellite, frequency reuse is not achievable. This limits the throughput and revenue-generating capacity of the transponded architecture. The circuit switch architecture enables frequency reuse by employing multiple beams. Inter-beam connectivity is only achieved via ground gateway interconnections. The advantage of the circuit switch over the transponded architecture comes from the frequency reuse gains, and its ability to route bandwidth to other smaller geographical regions. These architectures are ideally suited for traditional broadcast television services, but do not efficiently transport multimedia applications from a large number of geographically distributed users. The most flexible and efficient approach is the fast packet switch architecture, which allows a user in one beam to connect directly to any other terminal in the network without investing in significant ground infrastructure. The fast packet switch also takes advantage of the bursty nature of variable rate multimedia sources to most efficiently utilize the raw downlink capacity to achieve billable user throughput. The packet switch architecture delivers a substantial advantage over the other architectures in terms of available billable throughput and ground infrastructure requirements, enabling the network service provider to market and sell gigabits of capacity and very profitably support a variety of traffic scenarios.

In addition to the capacity advantages that processed payloads provide, on-board switching allows the capability to dynamically configure the satellite connectivity to serve any number of specialized uses simultaneously. This allows multiple services to be offered with an ability to shift the satellite bandwidth allocation as market demands change. A nimble fast packet switch can handle basic Internet protocol (IP) frame relay, ATM services, point-to-point and multicast video distribution, local-into-local retransmission, local content insertion into national feeds, corporate mesh virtual private networks (VPN) and a host of other specialized broadband services.

The primary difference between the processed and transponded payloads is the switch. The recurring cost associated with the complex digital implementation is a bit higher than for a simple circuit switch, but is a relatively minor cost increase when compared to the investment required for the remainder of the satellite and the ground network infrastructure. The additional capacity or billable bits far outweigh the small incremental cost increase.

Broadband processed satellites are here

With compelling demand and recognized market advantages, several fourth generation on-board processing designs are already in development and are expected to come to market by 2003. With the market set to move through several generations of broadband solutions in just a few years, customers will benefit from rapid improvements in performance, reductions in price and a wave of new interactive service capabilities that will make broadband service practical everywhere. Having learned its lesson from single point offerings, this time the satellite industry is prepared for success.

A new broadband media

Is it possible that one day we will face a great broadband glut? Unlikely. What is certain, however, is that the broadcasting world will be delivering more than television and movie content. The old, familiar broadcast media is finding a new rhythm.

After years of blood, sweat, tears and enormous amounts of money, high-definition television (HDTV or DTV for short) has finally arrived.

Unfortunately, very few people care. The consumer take-up rate is low and broadcaster’s expenses are high.

Leave it to entrepreneurs to figure out how to repackage DTV in a way that sells.

What sells these days? Broadband and the Internet. At least two companies have recently formed to provide broadband services using the data transport capability hidden away in the HDTV standard for the United States, ATSC. The standard only defines the digital audio portion (384 Kbps) of the 19.39 Mbps data stream. The remainder is available for video and ancillary data services on a variable bit rate basis. Whatever isn’t needed for the video picture on a frame basis is available for general data transport. The old vertical blanking interval (VBI) traditionally used for close captioning and other housekeeping purposes just got a huge.

Geocast (www.geocast.com) and iBlast Networks (www.iblast.com) have trial systems underway, although it appears Geocast is further down the road. Both expect to formally launch services within 12 months, with Geocast slightly ahead of iBlast.

Geocast’s partners include broadcasting groups, programming and content providers, software technology companies and consumer electronics manufacturers. Geocast’s strengths appear to be content access and a highly customizable service offering. The company employs a crossover architecture that leverages available digital TV broadcast capacity. The company will use this capacity to deliver a combination of instant availability (via smart local content caching), full-frame-rate video (with the quality of television) and interactive features similar to personal TV (TiVo and ReplayTV) and the worldwide Web. The Geocast service will provide PC users with instant access to a personal selection of local and global information and entertainment offerings.

The Geocast unit receives up to four simultaneous DTV signals (80 Mbps composite) and stores the content on a very large 20 Gbyte hard drive cache. All content is intelligently meta-tagged for easy selection and retrieval. The sophisticated content cataloging and retrieval system is at the heart of the Geocast system, with considerable emphasis placed on simplicity. The PC is always connected to the network and the return path to the network is provided by the end-user’s existing ISP service.

“We can offload much of the very burdensome content from the ISPs network. Take, for example, sports highlights that reside on a sports website. High quality, large format 30 fps video clips can be instantly accessed by the user because they reside within the Geocast appliance,” states Brian Klasterman, executive vice president of business development at Geocast.

Klasterman adds, “There’s enough always-on bandwidth to not just trickle charge, but maxi-charge the large cache. From a single DTV channel we can provide some 67 GBytes of data per day per market.”

iBlast’s strengths appear to be more business than technical. The company is comprised of 12 major television broadcast groups, with exclusive agreements with 143 local television stations in 102 markets — covering more than 80 percent of U.S. homes and all of the nation’s top 25 media markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco and Atlanta.

iBlast’s business model brings broadcasters in with an equity ownership position in exchange for contributing a portion of their allocated digital spectrum, a cash investment and a guaranteed marketing commitment. The broadcasters also receive an ongoing revenue-sharing arrangement, and the ability to freely to use iBlast’s equipment to distribute local data content to consumers. In effect, the station groups become true partners in the development of the iBlast business.

iBlast CEO Michael Lambert recently commented: “The formation of iBlast represents a truly extraordinary level of vision and cooperation on the part of this country’s broadcast television stations. In today’s increasingly digital world, the ability to reach the consumer is still technology’s weak link. Through the iBlast network, we have together created a free, wireless platform capable of distributing vast amounts of digital content, in varying forms, directly to consumers with incredible speed and efficiency. Because the value and the power of the network will increase with scale, we will continue to add new broadcast groups and stations that share our commitment to this form of digital delivery.”

It will be entertaining to watch these broadband companies compete within the new media market. There will never be too much bandwidth. And that’s the truth. Trust me.

The space industry’s balancing act

To miss the ongoing debate on NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin’s “faster, cheaper, better” method of conducting space missions, you’d have to be grubbing around in the bottom of a dry valley somewhere on Mars. Mind you, if that’s where NASA’s Mars probes were, there wouldn’t be a debate. So perhaps it’s just as well NASA suffered a few embarrassing failures; at least the industrial contractors that build the spacecraft have started questioning the new religion.

To characterize Goldin as an evangelist for space is no exaggeration. He has proved to be one of the most passionate and outspoken NASA administrators ever, and even those with reservations as to his methods cannot deny that he has been good for the agency. However, the problem with strong leaders lies in the very asset that makes them good at their job: their power of persuasion. Most people are only too keen to follow the guidance of a leader, preferring to believe in that leader’s apparent infallibility rather than make a value judgment based on their own experience — and apart from that, when things go wrong, they have someone to blame.

Goldin has taken a spaceship-load of blame for faster-cheaper-better, but only part of it is justified. In the wake of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander failures, it appears that project managers at NASA center and their industrial contractors have been far too shy to question the logic of attempting hugely complex missions at bargain basement prices.

True, space missions had become too expensive, but one can only cut costs so far. Contractors are still designing, developing and building products expected to operate faultlessly in an alien environment, for a number of years, without so much as an intermediate service check. These are not mass-produced family cars we’re talking about: they are high-tech, substantially unique engineering creations.

The same philosophy applies to communications satellites and the industrial contractors that build them. Their version of faster-cheaper-better has been handed down, not from Daniel Goldin, but from customers demanding more satellite technology per dollar, delivered in a shorter timescale. Like NASA’s contractors, fear of losing business has driven satellite builders to the altar of the customer, begging bowl in hand. Despite the fact that the contractors know more than the customers ever will about building satellites, they bow to the customer’s decrees and compress their manufacturing schedules. The alternative is to lose contracts, lay off workers, upset shareholders and generally benefit their competitors.

But as it has with NASA, the balance has swung too far towards the customers. It is time for the satellite industry to conduct a critical analysis of the new religion, shrug off its adolescent shyness and say no to some of what its customers are preaching (specifically, the compression of delivery schedules).

To do so will be in everyone’s best interest. Satellites will once again be manufactured and tested in an uncompromising fashion, fewer spacecraft will miss their launch slots, and fewer will suffer the ignominy of in-orbit failure. Manufacturers will no longer forfeit their performance payments or claim on their delay-insurance policies; launch vehicle operators will be able to operate to a predictable timetable, stabilizing cash flow and enhancing operational efficiency; customers will benefit from predictable launch schedules and many years of reliable service at a reasonable price.

Today, this sounds like an unachievable idyll, but it’s the way the satellite industry used to operate…before someone decided to test the adage that “the customer is always right.”

Within the confines of competitiveness, the space industry needs to address its working practices. In the aftermath of the Mars mission failures, one U.S. space industry executive was quoted as saying that employees working on s Deep Space 1 mission averaged a working week of 52 hours. The implication was that this was reasonable compared with the 60 hours-plus quoted elsewhere for the Mars missions. Anyone with industry experience knows that satellite programs are hard work, but expecting excellence from anyone working 10-hour days, six days a week, for a year or more is whistling in the Martian wind.

On the other hand, building satellites takes time. When the French Government implemented a reduced, 35-hour week recently, workers at Alcatel Space in Toulouse walked out on a token half-day strike; presumably they couldn’t afford to extend it due to pressure of work.

Certainly, it’s a difficult balance. Industry needs contracts to survive, but poor performance on unrealistic contracts will eventually topple the industry. Margins are built into contract bids to cover potential problems, but satellite manufacturing is not like building kit-cars. There is almost always a degree of product development built in: a new antenna or multiplexer to design, or a more stringent spec to meet. Offering such enhancement is part of the bid-winning process and it is something the contractor does with full knowledge of the challenges ahead.

Industry has to be competitive, but it needs to be honest, too. It is time for contractors to stop following the faster-cheaper-better religion, in blind faith, and question the logic of a process that drives them to produce inferior products that are demonstrably bad for business and may ultimately lead to a fall from the high-wire of satellite contracting.

The disaster relief equation: Satellite phones, capacity and little LEOs

In 1995, Hurricane Marilyn devastated communications in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. “We went down there and practically every phone line was down. Our only reliable means of communication for the first seven to 10 days was Inmarsat satellite technology. We used the Inmarsat A and M phones for voice and fax. We also used the Inmarsat C satellite phone for data transmission and packet switching, mostly for disaster welfare inquiry [letting people know their relatives were okay]. We received questions from the outside and were able to communicate two-way,” says Bob Bavis, director of administration for the American Red Cross.

According to Gene Glazar, Orbcomm’s executive director of sales in the United States, “20 percent of the world lives in the low latitudes, areas which experience more disaster. By comparison, 80 percent of the world lives in the upper equatorial.”

The Orbcomm system uses low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to provide coverage via subscriber communicators, handheld devices for personal messaging, as well as fixed and mobile units for remote monitoring and tracking applications.

Regardless of location, emergency workers are patching together the best qualities of different technologies to provide coverage in troubled areas. The nature of satellite technology — its mobility, ubiquity and flexibility — easily lends itself to humanitarian efforts.

The American Red Cross, headquartered in Washington, has an official policy about lining up communications in emergency situations.

“Our policy is that when we go to a disaster area, we try to use the established telephony system, if it’s not damaged, as our primary means of communications,” says Bavis.

American Red Cross patches together a wide range of technologies, plain phones to two-way radios to satellite phones, and utilizes different frequencies to get the necessary coverage. “Sometimes we have to use two or more technologies to get coverage in an area. For example, last year when Hurricane Floyd affected all of eastern North Carolina, we basically used phones, pagers, satellite phones, cell phones, two-way radios, you name it. The damage was so widespread that nothing covered the whole region expect satellite phones and they’re expensive. Since we have a limited number of satellite phones, we can’t give everyone one to use,” recounts Bavis.

Currently, the American Red Cross owns Inmarsat and American Mobile satellite phones. They also owned Iridium phones until Iridium went bankrupt. Since the American Red Cross is eligible for U.S. government services administration (GSA) pricing, notes Bavis, they were able to purchase the satellite phones at the lowest possible price

“With satellite technology, we’re fairly confident that wherever we go, the phone is going to work. This gives us the confidence that when we go out to a disaster relief scene, we’ll be able to communicate and help the people affected by the disaster,” says Bavis.

In emergency situations, the American Red Cross goes on the assumption that they will have to provide all the communications themselves.

“We use the equipment we have here at national headquarters or the equipment stored in a Fed-Ex warehouse in Memphis. We either take it with us or ship it to the disaster relief areas so we can provide our own communications by ourselves. However, if a local cellular phone company, for example, is willing to donate phones and free air time, we gratefully accept it,” says Bavis.

Search and rescue teams

Satellite phones are an obvious choice for situations demanding mobile technology, such as disaster relief or search and rescue. Andrew Radlow, Globalstar USA’s director of marketing, notes the advantages of his company’s mobile satellite technology.

“A lot of other satellite technologies are store and forward, not real-time. Our voice quality is also very good, which is especially important when dealing with people who are panicking.” Not surprisingly, Radlow finds that qualitatively, the Globalstar phone “is better than most cellular systems. Quantitatively, we provide 9.6 kilobits per second (kbps) CDMA just like traditional cellular, except our cell sites are in the sky. On average, we’re communicating on four satellites at one time to avoid dropped calls and maintain call quality.”

Satellite services provide backup to existing cellular networks. “Even in densely populated areas like Southern California, traditionally, cellular [operator] claims are highly exaggerated. There are huge territories that are uncovered,” says Radlow. Satellites fill in these gaps.

For example, sheriff departments in Los Angeles, Orange and Sacramento counties have used Globalstar phones to help in search and rescue cases. Radlow cites one Southern California example. On April 15, a kidnapper abducted a child. Cell phones didn’t work in the area, and radio communications were difficult, according to Michael Corona, the lead sheriff in the Los Angeles area. The security officer on this case was an hour and a half away from the nearest communications and yet, with the Globalstar phone, was able to call out bloodhounds to respond to new evidence that was unearthed. The satellite phone helped rescue workers contact the substation where the bloodhounds were deployed. As a result, the child was rescued and unharmed.

One of Globalstar’s service partners, Verizon Wireless, has formed a team called the significant event response team (SERT) to respond to emergency and relief-agencies in the communities Verizon serves. The team provides wireless phones to public safety agencies and local fire and police departments to help them coordinate emergency operations.

Global spectrum

The High Commission for Refugees and the International Committee for the Red Cross (both Geneva-based) are two beneficiaries of free satellite technology services. According to Ellipso’s vice president for international and governmental affairs, Gerald Helman, “In 1997, we offered these two organizations free air time on our satellite phones, for their activities in emergency services. For emergency activity, the offer is unconditional.”

Ellipso plans to offer Internet, cellular and public telephone systems anywhere on the planet with its global wireless network of satellites that operate in middle Earth orbit (MEO) altitudes.

For the most part, emergency workers use voice and data applications. Data applications include email, fax, some photographs, anything that goes by digital data, notes Helman. While broadband capacity and TV are not part of the picture, “due to the capacity of the system for emergency services, a good amount of information flows from the emergency area to headquarters.”

Ellipso donates the time because “we’re a global service and the High Commission for Refugees and the International Committee for the Red Cross provide very valuable services. We owe it to the international community to provide those kinds of benefits. Since the spectrum used is allocated global spectrum, we can give something back,” says Helman.

It’s not about a shortage of bandwidth

Satellite operator PanAmSat donates satellite capacity year long, on a case-by-case basis, notes Mike Antonovitch, PanAmSat’s senior vice president of broadcast services. Earlier this year, PanAmSat supported transmissions for the United Nations and to support concerts raising money for AIDs. “With satellite technology capacity, it comes down to urgency. Where do I have the capacity where I can put it to use for someone? And where is there a terrestrial system that can take advantage of the capacity? Internationally, there’s a shortage in communications equipment, not bandwidth,” says Antonovitch.

And then there are the practical challenges. “Say we have the facility, we bring up the carriers on short notice and get a standard way of establishing the circuits. Take the refugees in Armenia, for example, where are they trying to connect? The refugees have relatives everywhere,” says Antonovitch.

Challenges aside, satellite capacity can help in two powerful ways. “Restoring order in countries and connecting extended families, getting families connected, not on a governmental level. This is a higher calling than governmental politics and wherever it’s practical, we try to help. Plus, we have a healthy share of Catholic guilt,” concludes Antonovitch.

Telecoms sans Frontieres (telecommunications without frontiers) is a French organization, founded in July 1998. Its mission is to drum up capacity and systems to go into difficult places and set up capacity.

Little LEO storm

The Orbcomm communicator is small, lightweight and easily transported or held. The communicator offers certain advantages in emergency situations.

“Little LEOs offer pretty good coverage, good old VHF, low power, they can penetrate forests, and are inexpensive. Designed as a small packet system for bursty messages,” says Orbcomm’s Glazar.

“The area we’ve been active in is location and messaging for disaster relief teams, most recently in Florida. In this case, the end user was the state of Florida, with a team taking the Orbcomm device into disaster areas. Our system can coordinate where relief teams are in regards to each other, when you lose communications on the ground,” says Glazar.

“This is not a vertical market we typically chase. How can we predict this market? We do have the kind of applications, the Man Down application that has implications for disaster relief. The second largest non-government emergency relief agency, the International Rescue Committee, came to Orbcomm with interest in seeing the Man Down application demonstration, for possible use in how to get supplies to remote areas. Using the Orbcomm satellite communicator, emergency workers could run a “Man Down” application, that could pick up a message from someone down in the field. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Forestry Service are also looking into it,” says Glazar.

Orbcomm operates in 133 countries and currently has ground stations either operating in or under construction in 15 locations. By launching another satellite into equatorial orbit, in the first quarter of 2001, we’ll have better coverage of the low latitudes,” adds Glazar.

Time for new faces

The fashion watch business was worth approximately $600 million to department stores in 1993. Swatch, Fossil and Guess are the leaders in this watch category. Swatch has been losing market share to newcomers Fossil and Guess in recent years. Retailers attribute this loss in market share to slow marketing management and a lack of innovative merchandise. Swatch has opened its own stores and placed its merchandise in shops other than department stores to sell its stuhrling mens watches.

The fashion watch category, a consistent winner for retailers, is still on a growth curve, but the company that started it all might be losing its edge.

Swatch all but spawned the category — fashion-forward and novelty merchandise retailing under $100 — a little over 10 years ago, but brands such as Fossil and Guess have recently been making deep in-roads into that territory.

Right around the corner are even more firms. Seiko — often called the best-selling watch brand in the world — is poised to enter the business.

Vendors estimate the fashion watch business in department stores at up to $600 million a year, although many decline to give their individual figures.

The consensus among stores seems to be that Swatch led the pace for many years with its novelty styling and promotional attractions and set the tone for the market. These days, though, the Swiss firms is hampered by a slow-to-react marketing apparatus and too much color-driven merchandise, merchants say.

As one department store retailer, who asked not to be named, said, “Swatch has gone through ups and towns in the past and is definitely going through a trough now.” He noted that this down cycle is worse than others.

Asked to respond, Raymond Zeitoun, president and chief executive officer of SMH (US) Inc. — the American division of SMH, the big Swiss watch firm that is Swatch’s parent — wouldn’t divulge department store sales figures, but conceded that the company needs to realign its efforts to better support the stores.

“We are striving to strengthen our connections with the department stores to increase our business, including providing training and staff to better service consumers,” Zeitoun said.

He said Swatch in the U.S. logged a 24 percent sales increase last year in distribution channels other than department stores. These include jewelry stores, duty-free shops, free-standing Swatch stores and kiosks.

Zeitoun added that with so many department stores filing Chapter 11 or cutting back on staff, Swatch had to “split our risks by pursuing other retail environments.”

Swatch will also be expanding its freestanding stores and kiosks. Stores will open this year in Chicago and Las Vegas, bringing the total to six, and the company eventually hopes to have as many as 100 kiosks in malls across the country, according to Zeitoun.

Swatch’s latest attention-getting ploy, which is announced last week, is a deal with Mercedes Benz to produce the Swatchmobile, an electric car. The project, which has been in the works for more than three years, had originally been with Volkswagen.

For merchants, the fading of Swatch’s consumer popularity has meant turning to other brands to keep the momentum going in the fashion watch business.

At Federated Merchandising, the buying office arm of Federated Department Stores, Cincinnati, initial concern about the “overwhelming and exhausting shortfalls” in Swatch’s business has led to rechanneling dollars into such brands as Guess, Fossil, Anne Klein II, Perry Ellis, Timex Essentials and Armitron, as well as licensed cartoon character lines, according to Kimberly White, merchandise manager for accessories.

Fossil and Guess in particular have taken the fore, White said, partly because each introduces fresh merchandise about once a month, helping to pique consumer interest.

As a whole, brands like these show no signs of slowing down for Federated, which is increasing fashion watch selling space and even adding aisle tables holding glass vitrines that highlight new merchandise.

At Macy’s East, Tissot prs516 fashion watches account for a major chunk of the total women’s accessories business, with Fossil and Guess leading the pack and several other lines, including Anne Klein II and Timex Essentials, also coming on strong.

Eric Dauwalter, akribos xxiv diamond watch buyer for Macy’s East, said Fossil and Guess each logged double-digit increases for his firm last year. He is predicting similar gains through this fall.

Dauwalter credited Timex’s growth to its Indiglo feature and Anne Klein II’s increases to the introduction of leather strap models at a new price range for the company — $60 to $80 retail — that attracted a career customer.

One thing all the top-performing brands have in common, he pointed out, is their willingness to work closely with Macy’s to maintain a constant flow of new merchandise, and the ability to quickly provide the looks that consumers demand. Some firms, such as Fossil, have turned around new requests in as little as a month, he noted.

And, Dauwalter added, the category is strong enough to bear new players such as Seiko, provided that new entries pursue specific niches.

“We continue to test new products on a regular basis, because you never know where the next leader will come from,” Dauwalter said.

The growth a vendor can achieve is dramatically illustrated by Fossil, whose figures went on record last year when it went public. Sales of the 10-year-old company went from $32.5 million in 1990 to $73.8 million in 1992 and reached $105 million last year.

Peter Benanti, vice president of marketing for the Dallas-based company, credited the increases to a strategy based on building a distinct brand image, and creating partnerships with retailers and brand loyalty with consumers.

In terms of working with merchants, Fossil has approximately 1100 in-store shops of various sizes — the two largest at Macy’s East in Herald Square, New York, and in Union Square, San Francisco. The firm aims to open about 100 more this year, Benanti said.

Fossil’s marketing and design emphasizes a Fifties Americana feeling, along with special edition watches and the Fossil Collectors Club. Similar to a program Swatch started about two years ago, Fossil’s club offers members a special edition watch, T-shirt, a quarterly newsletter and various promotional premiums for an annual fee of $75. The club started in January with an inquiry mailing to 35,000 people and, currently, it counts “a couple of thousand” members, according to Benanti. He said his firm started the club not to initiate Swatch but to reinforce Fossil’s nostalgia-driven image.

Timex Corp., long a staple of the U.S. watch scene, has a two-pronged attack, with the success of its own line as well as that of one of its subsidiaries, Callanen Corp., Norwalk, Conn.

Callanen, which produces the Guess fashion watch line, is scoring with metal bracelet looks and Indiglo — the new luminescent dial feature.

Timex initially developed and used Indiglo, then passed it along to Guess, which has continuously expanded the number of styles offered with the feature, according to Mickey Callanen, president.

“We projected increases of 20 percent for this year, but January and February sales have been ahead by 40 percent,” Callanen said. “If sales continue at this pace in March, we may revise our projection up to 30 percent.”

Guess, which concentrates on building depth within classifications — sport/multi-function, classics, logo products and metals — rather than items, ships monthly deliveries that are 65 percent new styles and 35 percent reorders.

Timex is entering the third year of distributing its Essentials line, which is extremely exclusively for department stores.

Justine Jennings, manager of fashion watches, said the brand has doubled its colors in the last year, largely due to the success of the company’s Indiglo feature.

“Consumers now understand what Indiglo is, and its popularity — and sales — have increased as we’ve added more styles,” said Jennings.

Jennings said this year’s challenge will be to further expand Indiglo, with styles for any occasion or look, with metal band and bracelet styles the newest innovations.

Mark Odenheimer, vice president of Sutton Time, which markets the Anne Klein and Anne Klein II watches, said the last few years have proven that there’s room for more than one leader in the field.

“Until recently, one powerful vendor could dictate the direction in the whole department from case space to funding,” Odenheimer said.

Odenheimer said Sutton registered double-digit increases last year and projects similar gains this year.

In addition, the licensed cartoon business is booming. Sales increases of Sutton’s timepieces bearing Looney Tunes, Garfield and Snoopy characters were in the triple digits last year, according to Odenheimer, and he said that he doesn’t see the trend slowing anytime soon.

Seiko’s new JAZ Time division will ship its first group of products in time for fall deliveries. According to Gloria Maccaroni, director of sales for the line, Seiko hopes to gain a foothold in the market by translating fashion themes into watches and responding to trends immediately.

Fashion watch market heats up

The international fashion watch market has grown into a $650 million industry between 1984 and 1994. The significant growth of the market has prompted several watch companies such as Anne Klein II, Esquire Apparel Ltd., Bulova Corp., Gruen Marketing Corp., Seiko Corp. and Citizen Watch Company Ltd. to introduce their own fashion watch collections. A discussion of some the models included in such collections is presented.

A number of well-known brands have decided to debut models in the competitive under-$100 market

The under-$100 watch category — known for “fashion watches” like Swatch, Fossil, Anne Klein II or Guess — heated up this summer as prominent brands dove in for the first time or debuted collections. Among the newcomers were Seiko and Citizen, better known for their mid-priced, technically-sophisticated watches, but they weren’t alone.

Esquire Watch (the newest brand of North American Watch Co.), Surissi (the upscale “Eurowestern” brand made in New Mexico) and CSC Timepieces (distributors of Perry Ellis watches) each added new under-$100 lines. Revitalized mass marketer Gruen Marketing added several under-$50 collections. Anne Klein II, made and distributed by E. Gluck Corp., attracted strong sales with its new bracelet collection. And Timex, which owns Monet and Guess, was to debut its new Benetton line in late summer.

Lucrative: In the 10 years since Swatch launched the category, fashion watch sales have grown to $650 million a year in the U.S.; they’re still rising 9% to 12% annually. That’s why this is a lucrative target for brands with mature markets seeking new sources of revenue.

There are other attractions, too. One is a widening customer base. Though fashion watches built their U.S. market among teens and young adults, who remain key buyers, their appeal is “no longer limited by age,” says Gloria Maccaroni, director of sales for Seiko Corp. of America’s new JAZ Time division. Potential customers include anyone open to stylishly fresh and affordable timepieces.

Nor does income define today’s market. More upscale consumers now buy under-$100 watches, motivated by the current stress on value and the watch-as-lifestyle accessory, notes Lisa Barlerin, spokesperson for North American Watch Co. They buy citizen dive watches for various uses and occasions — from work place to leisure time — and want “inexpensive, but not cheaply made, watches with the quality and warranty coverage they’ve come to expect in more expensive watches,” she says.

Jewelers, too: While department stores are the primary outlets for fashion watches, more jewelers are hopping on the bandwagon. Some vendors — led by Swatch, starting several years ago — are seeking jewelry outlets and even designing lines just for them.

“More jewelers see the advantages of fashion watches,” says Tim Greene, general manager of Citizen’s Fashion Timepiece Division. Its new Life line targets department stores now, but may add jewelers in a few years.

“Fashion watches, which introduce new products several times during the year, create a reason for customers to come back to a store on a regular basis,” Greene says. “They use lots of point-of-sale and event marketing, which also builds traffic and brings in people.”

In addition, he says, “they attract younger customers, who can be turned into regular, lifetime customers, and people who might not otherwise enter a jewelry store because they think they can’t afford its merchandise.”

Lifestyle: The fashion watch market actually has become large and varied enough to be divided into two categories — “fashion” and “casual, active wear.” Barlerin suggests another, more-encompassing term: “lifestyle” watches. “People change these watches as easily and as often as they change clothes,” she says, “depending on what they are doing.”

Still, the characteristics of these watches remain unchanged. They are priced under $100 (though a few models just top that), with most sales in the $30-$60 niche. New styles are introduced every three months.

This is a very market-driven business. Thus Jerry Dikowitz, vice president of advertising for E. Gluck Corp., says fashion watches have “evolved into a very successful, aggressive and active business for us. We constantly survey demand and freshness, closely follow sell-through for what works and what doesn’t, [and are] very responsive to consumer demand.”

Newcomers: Here’s a glimpse at some of the new fashion watch offerings.

* Anne Klein II — the fashion watch offspring of the more upscale Anne Klein line, both produced by E. Gluck Corp. is enjoying its best year yet. That’s due in large part to a new bracelet watch collection featuring expansion bands, multi-chain links and unique bangle styles. Its styling represents the “cutting edge in fashion,” says Dikowitz. Retail is $55-$85. The bracelet collection builds on the success of Anne Klein II’s Link and Leather collection, introduced last fall and greatly expanded this year.

* Aviator from Esquire, North American Watch Co.’s value-priced brand ($60-$295), is an “easy-to-wear, easy-to-read rugged watch for people with active lifestyles,” says Michael Benavente, vice president of sales. Selling for $49, North American’s lowest-ever starting price, it “gives jewelers a moderately-priced watch to compete with department stores for customers,” he says.

Esquire officials stress this isn’t a “novelty” line. “We’ve taken everything we know about making fine watches and applied it to Aviator,” says Barlerin, spokesperson for North American, which distributes the upscale brands Movado, Concord, Corum and Piaget.

Aviator features a stitched and padded leather strap; stainless steel, black matte teflon or silvertone marie teflon case; Arabic numerals; luminous hands; a calendar window and extended lugs. It is water resistant to 99 feet.

* Caravelle, Bulova Corp.’s moderately-priced fashion line, has added a collection of sport watches for fall. The contemporary, multi-function sport watches priced at $74.95-$99.95 are water resistant to at least 30 meters (a black divers’ watch can go to 100 meters). They can be worn by the pool, in the office or at dinner parties, says Bulova.

Caravelle by Bulova also added several styles of diamond watches ($79.95-$125.95); women’s watches, including fashion bracelets with colorful stone accents ($69.95-$99.95); men’s bracelet watches ($69.95-$89.95); and Caravelle Tek analog digital watches ($59.95).

* Gruen Marketing has several new collections — in addition to its licensed designer name lines — for jewelers and department stores. Newcomers include Gruen Classics ($58), with classic styling; Weekender ($30) for casual wear, with braided straps; Signature ($45-$50), designed to compete with popularly-priced fashion watches in department stores; and Campaign ($45), a line of military-style watches.

* JAZ is Seiko’s new, very market-driven fashion brand. JAZ designers, aided by a fashion forecast service, closely track apparel trends and street fashions to stay on top of popular styles. Styles vary from very feminine to very funky, with two-tone dial treatments, faceted crystals and bands in special colors and textures. All sell for $50 to $70, and have a one-year limited warranty.

The first sets include Cross Cultures (nomadic and world cultural influences); Vintage Revamped (eclectic, emphasizing “recycled couture”); Contemporary Casuals (relaxed wear, with sport and military influences, using new fabrics and textures); Classic Accents (conservative, traditional styling); and the JAZ Mickey (Mouse) series. JAZ also plans to offer two limited editions annually, starting with six “American Heartland” watches by artist Ted Wright.

* Life, the first line from Citizen’s Fashion Timepiece Division, is designed for casual, active wear by people 18 to 35 years of age. General Manager Tim Greene describes them as “adventurous individuals who make the most of their leisure time.” Earthy outdoor hues color the watches, packaging and display materials. Each watch comes in a recyclable khaki package with a Life pack (themed cards with useful information on such topics as boating, America’s natural wonders or camping).

Watches feature straps (padded, braided, textured or stitched) or classically-styled bracelets in matte and polished stainless steel, goldtone or two-tone finishes. They have luminescent hands and markers, scratch resistant crystals and calendar windows; some have month, day and date subdials. Most are water resistant to 150 feet, have quartz movements and two-year power cells. Retail is $40-$115.

* Luger is a new brand of higher-priced ($75-$125) fashion watches created for retail jewelers by CSC Time Corp., distributor of Perry Ellis watches. “There is a niche of [jewelry store] customers who want fashion merchandise,” says CSC President Charles Kriete, “and Luger will also help jewelers reach fashion watch customers who go to department stores.”

The watches feature Swiss movements, a 10-year warranty and “classic design with a contemporary flair,” says Kriete. The 75 styles include dress, sport and multi-function watches with metal bracelets or leather straps in men’s and women’s sizes. They have two microns of gold plating and are water resistant to 100 feet.

* Trade Routes is the first mass market fashion watch by Surrissi Timepieces, the Albuquerque, N.M., firm known for upscale, handcrafted “Eurowestern” sterling silver and gemstone watches. “We want to give our customers a wider selection to offer their customers,” says owner and designer Gary Miller. “Otherwise, they’ll lose sales to someone else.” The new “contemporary Western” timepieces have silver-plated cases, braided straps and inlaid stones such as lapis and turquoise. They retail for $49.

Other affordable new eye-catchers include the spare, sharply-styled, black-and-white Basix collection from Benrus ($30-$35) and Timex’s Benetton collection, licensed by the Italian apparel firm. It retails for $60-$120 and will sell through department, jewelry and Benetton stores.

NEW LINES

Alarama featured a new line of Egyptian rings, pendants and bracelets, as well as an extensive slide and antique collection, at the July Jewelers of America show. Alarama Jewelry, 71 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10003; (212) 807-1600 or (800) 955-1894, fax (212) 807-0409.

Royal Chain, a leading supplier of 10k and 14k gold chain and jewelry, announces Royal Rope [TM]. This new solid diamond cut rope chain is available in 10k and 14k gold at popular price points; it comes with the Royal Chain Written Lifetime Warranty. Royal Chain, 2 W. 46 St., New York, N.Y. 10036; (212) 382-3340 or (800) 622-0960, fax (212) 382-3340.

Reflections: Make it better, bigger and cheaper

Although the lessons learned from Iridium’s failure could run on for pages, the company ignored three principles that are essential to the success of any new digital service: meet customer expectations and assumptions, make it better, bigger and cheaper, and rewrite your business plan every day.

The expectation created by Iridium was elegantly and simply a cell phone usable anywhere on the planet. Unfortunately, customers also assumed cell phones can be used indoors, calls usually go through clearly and, while standing still, stay connected.

Motorola’s last, great effort at making Iridium consumer friendly was a smaller, sportier phone with a rugged case. I took a demonstration unit and free air time to New Zealand, where an Ironman race (3.9-km swim-180 km bike-42.2 km), a hike over a volcano and a couple of days watching the America’s Cup finals would test Iridium’s claims that it was the perfect solution for international, uh, business travel.

I finished the race under 15 hours, made it over the volcano and watched the Cup finals without once falling in the water. Iridium did not do as well. The weather was nice in New Zealand, so I didn’t mind being outside. However, it usually took several attempts to connect, the quality was lousy and the longest call only lasted about six minutes. Two or three minutes was typical. Arguably, Iridium met the letter of the expectations it created, but it came nowhere near meeting customer assumptions. From the consumer’s perspective, the phone did not work. Period.

DBS (direct broadcast satellite) companies in the United States learned about customer assumptions when more than half of prospective buyers walked away after finding out they couldn’t get local channels via a small dish. For five years those companies unsuccessfully fought that assumption. Finally, the companies gave in and began adding local channels after a grueling series of mergers and consolidation made it both necessary and possible.

Fifteen years ago, Motorola pioneered the zero defects movement, but ironically couldn’t make Iridium better than the competition. On the odd occasion a call went through, it was usually poor quality. The network wasn’t bigger either, at least not where it counted. In New Zealand, Aussies and Europeans walked off the plane, pulled out GSM phones and started talking. I had to wait until I cleared customs and walked outside. Sure, I could make calls from the top of a volcano, but I spent more time in offices and airports than in craters. And even on long training rides, there were precious few spots outside cell range.

The high cost of Iridium’s service compounded problems, yet I quickly found I’d rather pay for a landline than put up with a free but frustrating satellite phone. Terrestrial broadcasters need to remember the better, bigger, cheaper principle and score on all three points as they convert to digital. Viewers won’t spend money on new digital televisions if all they get is the same content with marginal quality improvements. And they’ll assume they can get digital signals over cable and satellite for the same price as analog services. A free digital signal isn’t enticing if it requires mucking about with antennas — ask any DBS operator.

Iridium’s business plan met 1980s needs with 1990s technology and died spectacularly in 2000. Globalstar aims to avoid that trap by flying bent pipe birds and keeping the guts of the network on the ground where it can be easily updated. EchoStar, DirecTV, BSkyB, Canal+, PerfecTV and other satellite broadcasters are running hard, working to integrate things like local signals, multimedia content and a variety of two-way services into networks that still support millions of legacy devices. Today’s leaders change strategy continually, embracing markets that can turn dominant companies into dinosaurs overnight.

Rewriting a business plan requires flexibility and nerve. But it’s necessary if broadcasters intend to meet customer expectations and assumptions, and provide services that keep pace with ever increasing standards of quality, scale and price. Tearing up a business plan that has remained wildly profitable for the better part of a century might seem unthinkable, but until recently so was flying a brand new satellite constellation worth billions of dollars straight into the ocean.

Intelligent arguments

Over the last few years, satellite system designers and operators have engaged in an increasingly heated dialogue. The topic? On-board processing and switching for broadband satellites.

The debaters break neatly into two camps. In one corner: the “yes, on-board switching is the future” camp; and in the other corner: the “no, it’s a bunch of over-programmed hooey” camp.

Naturally, the two sides have much to say.

The concept of on-board switching is not entirely novel. For 10 years, the U.S. government has employed on-board switching for narrowband applications on its ACTS and Milstar satellite programs. Mind you, these are narrowband programs, not broadband.

On paper and in limited practice, onboard switching appears a mighty challenger to ground-based switching and processing — particularly for broadband satellite networks. Most Ka-band systems will feature first generation on-board switching.

But drop the phrase “on-board switching and processing” in casual conversation among operators and take cover. Passions run high.

If you elect to put the smarts on a satellite and launch it and something goes wrong, some critical component takes a dirt nap, what then?

In a traditional bent pipe, transponded satellite network, all the smarts are ground-based.

The complexity of on-board switching is daunting because those components responsible for routing and processing digital data chunks will be far, far above the Earth in a LEO (500-1,000 kilometers) or GEO (36,000 kilometers) orbit, depending on the network architecture. if something fails catastrophically with the on-board components, it will be a long journey, even for the stalwart engineer. To avoid funky Stanley Kubrick-type scenarios that include orbiting engineers with tool boxes, most proposed Ka-band satellite systems have plans for full redundancy, just in case.

On-board processing makes the best of full-mesh connectivity, single-satellite hops, bandwidth on demand, frequency reuse.

But again, bent pipe technology can achieve almost all of the same things.

The goal of on-board processing: exploit resources. Make the best of spot beams and beam switching and do it with a splash of bravado.

The problem, of course, is how fancy do satellites need to be? And if on-board switching is so deliciously splendid, as the proponents claim, why isn’t it accepted as gospel?

It’s not just the distance between an engineer and a payload that’s worrisome. It’s about money. Money. Money. Money.

Why pay Ferrari prices when a Volkswagen will do?

Adding on-board processing is expensive, and the more complex and sophisticated the design, the higher the price. Proponents of on-board switching claim that this higher price is recouped through the higher throughput. The cost per bit of information goes down, and operators can haul more “billable” bits with smarter payloads.

The bent pipers are far less bullish, naturally, and proselytize that the risks of onboard processing far outweigh the advantages. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” is the battle cry.

In the grand scheme, there’s probably room for both designs. So, bent pipers and on-board switchers, put the gloves down. You’re both right.

Just remember the maxim: Don’t let technology exceed application.

On-board processing may be risky. But it may work.

Bottom line: Quit arguing theory. Build the fancy satellites, if operators are willing to ante up, let them. We could use the bandwidth anyway.