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In a Galaxy Far, Far Away; GaAs and GaN-based Communications

by Eric Higham | 4月 29, 2016

I ran across an interesting article the other day. AT&T asked 2000 people questions about what they would be willing to give up if it meant keeping the Internet, with some interesting results. I know people who have managed with no heat, but broadband access. It wasn’t a choice and it wasn’t terribly cold, so that seems manageable. Of the people AT&T questioned, only 87% of the respondents would give up chocolate rather than the Internet. Although, I think I may have been in the dissenting 13% on that one. Perhaps most surprisingly, 71% of 18-20 year old users would NOT give up the Internet to save someone else’s life and 30% all respondents would cut off their own finger rather than lose the Internet! This is quite an interesting social commentary that indicates how important the Internet is to our lives.

To those of us working with technology, it seems internet access has become ubiquitous. It might be surprising to find out (with an internet search, of course!) that as of the end of 2015, only slightly more than 46% of the world’s population had internet service. Much of the current focus of the electronics industry targets increasing speed and capacity for the “haves”, but some efforts place the “have nots” squarely in their sights.

Those of us with internet access can usually choose from several different networks.  On the wired front, cable, fiber and copper networks all provide varying speeds and tiers for broadband internet access. On the wireless side, broadband internet access is likely to from the cellular network. The problem for the have nots is the business model for the providers. Unfortunately for them, building wired or wireless broadband networks is an expensive proposition. This means that most of the areas that don’t have broadband won’t have broadband because the revenue from users doesn’t justify the cost of deployment and the business model doesn’t work. There are some very interesting developments from companies like Google and Facebook that change the broadband business model metric from service revenues to the revenue that the network enables, but that’s a topic for another time. The wildcard in this service-related discussion is the commercial Satcom segment.

I just published Compound Semiconductor Content in Commercial Satellite Communications Networks: 2015 - 2020 Forecast and Outlook report, along with the data tables and there are some interesting developments in this industry. The commercial Satcom network, consisting of satellites and hubs connecting very small aperture terminals (VSAT) on earth has been around for more than 30 years. The initial applications targeted low data, transactional applications at enterprises with large geographical footprints. As the industry evolved, low-data rate video, DTH/DBS services and backhaul to remote areas joined enterprise applications as the biggest commercial users of Satcom services. In the 90s, providers thought voice was the killer app and the industry was envisioning fast growth. Unfortunately, large constellations of satellites like Globalstar and Iridium were not as successful as developers hoped and it turned out not many people needed to communicate from the North Pole. I’m being a bit facetious and the idea of ubiquitous voice and low data rate coverage was a good one, but it was doomed by the growth of wireless cellular networks that provided these services cheaper and more effectively.

The industry was not doomed, however, just the application. Commercial Satcom has reinvented itself and it is now elbowing into the discussion of broadband internet access options for consumers. The driving force for this segment of the wireless industry is the same as all other segments; data traffic. While the applications mentioned earlier are still the largest ones, the fastest growing segments of the Satcom market revolve around providing fixed and mobile data access. The share of data traffic handled by satellites is substantially less than 1%, but the overall number is so large and growing so quickly that satellite service providers are keenly interested.

This method of delivering broadband has some severe challenges. Most notable is the latency, or round trip transit time to a satellite located 22,236 miles above the surface of the earth. The industry has some solutions, but latency is likely to be the biggest factor in determining the size of the market for satellite-based broadband. The frequency range, power levels and performance requirements favor compound semiconductors, but this is currently a small market. The overall market does appear poised for growth, with GaN-based applications growing much faster than the market.

The days of dial-up internet speeds from commercial Satcom are a thing of the past and this is what will drive future growth. If you are a client, take a look at the reports. If you aren’t a client, contact me about purchasing the reports or becoming a client. I’d love to discuss this topic in more detail. I will leave you with the future of the Satcom industry. The photo below is the ViaSat-3 satellite. As the name implies, the constellation will contain three satellites. Each satellite will have 1 Tbps capacity, capable of providing 100 Mbps broadband service to all subscribers simultaneously. One ViaSat-3 satellite doubles the amount of satellite-based internet capacity currently available. When the constellation is operational in a few years, it will provide three times more capacity than exists today. That’s the bet the Satcom industry is making on broadband!

- Eric



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