Whether caused by the deliberate actions of troublemakers or poorly installed very small aperture terminal (VSAT) ground antennas, incidents of interference with telecommunications satellites are on the rise.
For commercial satellite operators, the result is lost revenue. For governments, it can mean the disruption of critical safety and security services.
Glowlink was founded in January 2000 at the height of a satellite communications boom to help commercial operators monitor and characterize interference to their systems. But the commercial market tanked shortly thereafter, and the U.S. government — specifically the military — wound up becoming the first customer for the Los Altos, Calif.-based company’s proprietary digital signal processing technology.
Commercial business has picked up since then, and Glowlink has expanded its product portfolio. For example, in 2006, with the encouragement of the U.S. government, the company introduced equipment that locates the source of satellite interference, a handy capability if the aim is to put a stop to the problem. Another Glowlink specialty is systems that automatically adjust the power of satellite uplink signals to overcome the degrading effects of adverse weather on some satellite transmission frequencies.
Jeffrey Chu, one of Glowlink’s founders, says the privately held company has enjoyed strong growth over the years and expects more in the future, despite his admission that he and his team are far better at engineering than at marketing.
Chu spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.
What is the biggest source today of satellite signal interference?
The biggest source is the rapid deployment worldwide of VSAT terminals. You’ve got your usual equipment malfunctioning, that kind of stuff, and then you’ve got your periodic operator pointing the dish at the wrong satellite. You’ve got satellite trucks, and sometimes you’ve got a very proficient, competent operator; sometimes you don’t. The whole problem has been exacerbated by the ubiquitous presence of VSAT networks. Because the dishes are small, the beam is wider. If you don’t point it right, a number of satellites — not just the intended satellite, but also the neighboring satellites — are affected. And then of course you’ve got your intentional interferences, where they’re stealing or pirating the bandwidth.
Is the interference problem growing worse or are we just more aware of it?
I think it’s probably a combination of both. I think one of the things is you’re able to see them better.
Is intentional interference on the rise?
I don’t think that it is on the rise per se. With our Model 8000 geolocation system, you can not only see it, you can characterize it, you know what it is, then you go ahead and find out where the location is. Because of the availability of the tools, sometimes the problems seem to become bigger. It’s probably fair to summarize it by saying that the overall amount of interferences have gone up but the percentage of faulty equipment, operator error, and intentional interferences such as pirating have probably stayed about the same.
What is the level of accuracy provided by interference geolocation systems today?
Up until about 2006 generally a rule of thumb was about 64 to 72 kilometers. Our product today, the Model 8000, can measure consistently under single-digit kilometers — sometimes within hundreds of meters.
Are those who are interfering with satellites deliberately becoming more sophisticated and harder to identify or catch?
In some cases they are; in some cases they’re not. In some cases they’re just very blatant, but in some cases they know to come on at a certain time and then leave.
Does your company play a role in improving space situational awareness?
We’re right smack in the middle of that. Spectrum monitoring and interference detection and geolocation are key to understanding the signal environment. Of course space situational awareness is a lot of other things, too, but from the pure communication signal environment we are right smack in the middle of it.
Is your business primarily with government or commercial customers?
We were structured to be a commercial company that served the commercial satellite communications industry. We actually all had a defense background but we decided to go for the commercial market. And then the government picked us. So the government was our first customer and then after that, when the commercial market started coming back, we started getting a lot of commercial business. Today the company is about half government and half commercial.
Can you give me some sense of what your annual revenue is and how that compares to five years ago?
It’s in the double-digit millions. And compared to five years ago, we’re roughly double. When we first came out the commercial market kind of collapsed a bit, so in the beginning we were fairly slow in growth. In the second or third year things ramped up, and we’ve been ramping up steadily on that basis.
We have around 30 employees today, compared to fewer than 20 five years ago. And we’re still hiring.
What do you project in terms of growth in the next five years?
We’re working on a number of things and I think we’re probably looking at the same sort of growth rate — maybe double in another three to five years — assuming we stay in the same core business.
So you’re looking to get into different businesses?
It depends on what we discover our technology directly applies to. We’re probably one of the world’s pre-eminent technology houses in terms of doing interference detection. If you think about it, it’s not just satellite signals getting interfered with. The cell phone I’m talking to you on can get interfered with.
Which side of your business do you think will have the fastest growth in the years ahead?
I probably see the government side growing slightly faster just because on the commercial side people are not spending as much as they used to. Whether it’s just working through their debt load or whether they’re getting in a credit crunch, they’re just not as willing to spend. They’re willing to spend when absolutely necessary, maintaining something or filling a void in their monitoring infrastructure, but they’re not so much looking to buy stuff now to be ready for the next wave.
Is Intelsat your biggest commercial customer?
Yes, they’re the biggest commercial customer in terms of the amount of equipment they deploy worldwide. We also have business with Star One in Brazil, we have Optus in Australia, and Turksat over in Turkey.
Do you have plans to expand your international business?
The desire is always there, but we are a heavily engineering-driven firm as opposed to a marketing-driven type of company. So do we want to? The answer is “yes.” Do we know how to? The answer is probably “not very well.” We know the domestic market well, we understand our customers’ needs, but internationally we really haven’t made the concentrated effort. So we have to figure out between the desire and what we are most comfortable doing.
Is there a particular program that is driving your company’s growth in business with the Defense Department?
We are the satellite-monitoring equipment provider for the Wideband Global Satcom, or WGS, system. So our system is the core element in the spectrum monitoring for that constellation of satellites. We are also a provider of geolocation equipment to some customers that I can’t really name. So that kind of tells you the caliber of the technology that is packed into our boxes both on the spectrum monitoring and on the geolocation side.
All operational satellites have uplinks and downlinks. Do you have any work related to satellites with missions other than communications?
What I can tell you is we’re mostly in communications satellites.
Did the cancellation of the
Air Force’s Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system program have implications for your company?
What we focus on mostly is how to make existing infrastructure better. T-Sat’s cancellation has some positive implications, because people can focus now on things that are real and in front of them. In many ways, T-Sat was draining funding away and I think it’s positive in the sense that people now can focus more on doing what needs to be done on the existing workhorse WGS constellation; they can focus more on making those better.