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Advanced Antenna Architectures and RF Semiconductors at the Intersection of SATCOM and 5G Technologies

Advanced Antenna Architectures and RF Semiconductors at the Intersection of SATCOM and 5G Technologies

by Doug Carlson, SVP & GM, RF & Microwave, MACOM

The demand for high speed, broadband data connectivity continues unabated, and we are seeing revolutionary changes in fixed wired networks such as HFC and Fiber along with terrestrial wireless networks—from 4G to 5G—in order to meet this demand. As such, it was only a matter of time before we saw the same transformation in satellite networks. The ever increasing need for high-speed mobile Internet services, rural/remote Internet access and ubiquitous IoT connectivity are driving significant growth in the VSAT and SATCOM markets.

Mega-constellation deployments of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites are commencing this year for commercial applications, promising to dramatically expand global broadband coverage while simultaneously reducing the data transmission delays imposed by higher-altitude geostationary (GEO) satellites. In parallel, the rapid proliferation of high throughput satellites (HTS), which enable 20X more data throughput capacity than conventional satellites, is driving the HTS market toward an anticipated $7.31B valuation by 2023, according to analyst group BIS Research.  

Among the many interesting developments shaping the SATCOM technology market, the bi-directional flow of innovation between aerospace and commercial domains continues unabated. With the advent of HTS, the spot beam technology it leverages is in many ways analogous to the M-MIMO beamforming capabilities employed with 5G basestations. Whereas traditional satellites typically employ a broad-angle single beam to cover wide areas, the multiple, narrowly-directed spot beams utilized with HTS provide the ability to concentrate signal strength into smaller areas of space, boosting overall efficiency and throughput by guiding the signal to the precise location where it’s needed. 

To achieve this capability, HTS spot beam technology eschews the gimbaled, mechanically steered parabolic dish-based antenna technologies inherent to legacy satellite terminals in favor of the electronically steered, flat panel phased array antenna technologies currently targeted for next generation civil radar and 5G infrastructure. For both SATCOM and terrestrial applications, the mainstream adoption of this technology hinges on continued advancements in software defined beamforming and RF component integration that minimizes the size, weight and power consumption for flat panel arrays, at volume scalable cost structures.    

Meanwhile, the millimeterWave (mmW) RF technologies previously reserved for VSAT, SATCOM and point-to-point applications are now migrating to commercial 5G applications, exemplified in part by the wireless industry’s embrace of holographic beamforming technologies for next-generation fixed wireless services. This evolution will entail an increased reliance on advanced AlGaAs and GaAs technologies to achieve the optimal power handling, efficiency, insertion loss and channel isolation required for RF components operating at mmW frequencies in environments where effective in-building penetration is a paramount consideration for 5G service delivery. 

The rise of HTS technology has also stressed the capacity of available Ku-band spectrum, leading to increased investments in RF componentry targeting the Ka-band. By leveraging the Ka-band and the frequency re-use capability inherent to HTS multiple spot beam technology, available usable spectrum is dramatically increased, thereby spelling a clear path forward for expanding the bandwidth capacity for future satellite communications infrastructure.