C-Com, University of Waterloo test hardware for new phased array antenna

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WASHINGTON — Canadian satellite antenna manufacturer C-Com said June 21 it successfully tested the building blocks of a phased array antenna it hopes to sell next year.

Leslie Klein, C-Com’s chief executive, said the laboratory test with the University of Waterloo paves the way for a demonstration with two satellites in low Earth orbit by the end of this year.

Working with the university’s Center for Intelligent Antenna and Radio Systems, C-Com tested a module 1/25th the size of a phased array antenna that would match the performance of a small 65- to 70-centimeter dish antenna, Klein said by email.

“Today we are a step closer to achieving our objective of developing and manufacturing an affordable intelligent antenna system capable of supporting the latest constellation of satellites,” Klein said in a statement.

Known for its iNetVu series of deployable dish antennas, C-Com has been developing a phased array antenna with the University of Waterloo for the past five years. The core Ka-band technology is designed for antennas that can link with satellites in geosynchronous, medium and low Earth orbits, something a single dish antenna cannot accomplish.

Klein, in an email, said the upcoming satellite test is to confirm the electronically steered antenna can track two satellites simultaneously. This is a required feature for low- and medium-Earth orbit constellations where satellites move so fast a single dish antenna will lose sight of one before finding and connecting to another. He declined to state which satellites the test will use.

C-Com is one of more than a dozen companies working to bring down the cost of flat-panel antennas, which historically have been used only for military applications and radio astronomy. Satellite operators and service providers view affordable flat-panel antennas as a much-needed breakthrough to bring satellite internet to more customers.

Klein said the cost of C-Com’s antennas will depend on the number of integrated circuits on the antenna, final antenna size and production volume. Antennas designed for geostationary satellites will need to be larger and will consequently cost more, he said.

Priced at $10,000, C-Com will be able to reach “a very large number of vertical markets” for constellation operators, Klein said.

“Much like the smartphone market, the first phones were expensive but affordable by those who needed them,” he said. “The same analogy will apply here, except that C-Com is entering the market with the computer equivalent of a minicomputer and not a mainframe.”

Many of C-Com’s existing antenna customers would be candidates to shift to phased array antennas, he said.

C-Com’s eventual goal is a consumer-grade antenna that can enable internet access to underserved populations, though such antennas would need prices well below $10,000. Klein said C-Com hopes to achieve reasonable consumer prices, perhaps below $1,000, through scale over time.

“It certainly is doable with large orders and large manufacturing runs,” he said. “Assuming a partial subsidy from the bandwidth provider to the customer for the antenna/transceiver and modem, there is no reason why these antennas could not be sold close to what consumer antennas are being sold for now.”

In a press release, C-Com said the antenna technology can be applied to 5G communications and radar systems. Klein said C-Com is also planning to develop a Ku-band phased array antenna.