For mariners in search of high speed broadband connectivity at sea, the age of mechanically steered antennas with large, cumbersome radomes may soon be coming to an end. By mid-2016, flat panel antenna developers Phasor and Kymeta Corp will be competing to displace traditional mechanical antennas. The Phasor and Kymeta antennas may seem similar, as both operate at the Ku-band frequency and work with Intelsat’s incoming EpicNG high throughput satellites, but there is a world of difference between them. That is why Intelsat, one of the world’s largest satellite operators, has partnered with both companies.
To maritime users, understanding how these antennas differ is critical. The question is, which of them is the best fit for the economic delivery of high speed broadband services at sea? While neither company has set antenna pricing, indications are that each will occupy a different position on the cost versus performance scale. Kymeta units could be offered at a lower price due to the fact that they are based on cheaper, but unproven, metamaterials technology.
So far, Kymeta antennas have been targeted for development and use on vehicles for receive- only software upgrades. If they are to be used in maritime and most other mobility applications, they must be approved for transmitting as well. Meeting satellite and regulatory licensing requirements for transmitting is challenging. The developer must demonstrate that their antenna will generate a transmit pattern that does not interfere with adjacent satellites.
Kymeta has not yet proved its ability to meet the requirement of transmitting from a moving vehicle. However, it is working with Intellian Technologies on developing maritime satellite terminals, based on the mTenna technology. Kymeta also has an agreement with Airbus Defence and Space to jointly develop and test mTenna systems in the maritime sector.
Phasor is in the final stages of developing a high throughput, commercial grade, broadband antenna that is capable of serving large user groups with high bandwidth requirements and the need for dynamic, active tracking. Phasor is on target for delivery of the first commercial antenna in the middle of 2016. The antenna is likely to cost more than a Kymeta one, but it is based on proven semi-conductor technology.
For the mariner, however, low-cost operation is much more important than the initial cost of the antenna. The terminal purchase is a one-off investment, while its operation is a recurring cost. As larger antennas are significantly more efficient and less costly to operate – a consequence of the laws of physics and available radio frequency spectrum – it makes sense to invest in an antenna that has as large a surface area as possible, can be easily accommodated on a high deck and is expandable as a user’s bandwidth requirements grow over time.
For example, a Phasor antenna with the same area as a conventional 2.4m antenna would occupy much less space, as it would only be 60cm high. It would deliver a much lower monthly operating cost than a mechanically stabilised 1.2m antenna. A Phasor antenna is composed of a series of independent snap- together panels. Each panel is populated with a collection of tiny patch antennas and corresponding beam forming microchips, and can easily be expanded from 1.2m to 2.4m without losing efficiency. The Kymeta mTenna satellite antennas use a fixed waveguide-based infrastructure, and are manufactured with electromagnetic metamaterials.
The Kymeta antenna is likely to be available at a lower price. But it could be less attractive to vessels requiring high bandwidth if the scaling issue is proved in actual use. So buyers should consider the operational costs, not just the antenna purchase price. Vessels currently served by smaller Ku-band antennas, and with limited near term expectation for capacity growth, such as bulk carriers and small container vessels, may find this less of an issue. For operators of vessels that require high bandwidth capacities, such as cruise ships, superyachts and offshore vessels, larger Phasor and Kymeta antennas would be required.
Because vessels often operate in remote parts of the world, far from repair facilities, reliability and repair are critical issues. While both the Kymeta and Phasor units offer solid-state reliability, the modular design of the Phasor antenna enables a built-in back-up capability. If one or more of the panels becomes inoperable, the antenna continues to function – albeit at a proportionately lower capacity. Thus, for those shipping companies depending on L-band back- up using FleetBroadband and operating under the limitations of the entry level 200MB plan, the risk of exceeding the monthly allowance and incurring greater cost due to antenna failure is significantly reduced.
In terms of ease of repair, users of Phasor antennas could snap in spare panels at sea. The Kymeta design does not currently support this feature. As both antennas are lightweight and flat, and can be carried aboard a vessel, a crane is not required. Installation costs are therefore low for both units, against traditional antennas housed in radomes.
Phasor and Kymeta antennas are still in development and their performance and durability need to be proved to be superior to conventional, mechanically stabilised antennas in actual marine trials. Assuming they can pass muster, these new antennas, combined with the new high throughput satellites, should offer significantly improved access to broadband at sea.
*Alan Gottlieb is managing director of Gottlieb International Group, which provides market research and strategic direction in the satellite communications sector
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