Companies that provide private satellite communication networks using Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) systems are pushing the technology envelope in a variety of ways to keep their businesses viable and move into new markets.

Bandwidth and equipment are becoming commodities, which in turn is driving down profit margins, said David Hartshorn, secretary general of the Global VSAT Forum, a trade association that represents companies in the VSAT business.

In response, companies in different parts of the telecommunications industry are increasingly moving into areas where they are more involved in providing a combination of services to their customers, Hartshorn said. Satellite operators, value-added resellers and others are moving “up and down the value chain,” he said, with that search for the right business mix “leading the industry to add terrestrial to the portfolio, even as the terrestrial industry adds satellite to its offerings, either through direct acquisition or strategic alliances.”

Jeff Carl, director of marketing at Spacenet, said three “very strong trends” in the VSAT market are: providing mission-critical backup connectivity, the rising demand for higher-speed services and the use of hybrid services that combine more than one technology.

Spacenet, a wholly owned subsidiary of Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd., of Petah Tikva, Israel, is one of the major players in the VSAT market along with Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md.

The use of VSATs for mission-critical services is a natural, since a cut in a fiber-optic line is not going to wipe out connectivity from a satellite, Carl said.

For example, Carl said frame relay, a data transmission technique used to send digital information quickly and cheaply, can be backed up by ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network, another data transfer technology) and DSL (Digital Subscriber Lines), but satellites offer a completely separate transmission path that significantly increases the “survivability.”

“The missing piece of the puzzle was, for a long time, the technical capability for providers to bill users only when they’re using the VSAT link,” Carl said. “Today, Spacenet’s ability to provide usage-based services facilitates these backup services in precisely the manner that customers are requesting.”

The trend toward higher-speed VSAT services is driven by applications that include two-way videoconferencing, Voice Over Internet Protocol telephone services and other real-time applications that require higher bit rates and faster links, Carl said.

“We’re getting to the point with the new generation of VSAT systems — like Gilat’s SkyEdge — where you can easily and affordably do up to 2 megabits per second upstream, which is something that you really couldn’t do with the previous generation,” Carl said. “Therefore, high-bandwidth VSAT services in that 1-2 Mbps range are definitely in demand right now.”

The deployment of hybrid networks, combining VSAT, private line and DSL technology, is spurred by cost-effectiveness, Carl said, noting that a DSL line can provide Internet access, while a VSAT link to a satellite can offer credit authorizations or critical point of sale data.

Hughes Network Systems has introduced several technical advances recently to upgrade its VSAT-related ground system capabilities.

One example is the Unified Element Manager , which replaced the multiple servers-supporting network operation with a single, unified, Windows/Oracle-based system that is significantly easier to operate and maintain, said John Kenyon, senior vice president of engineering at Hughes Network System. In addition, Unified Element Manager upgrades all the systems to the latest supported-operating systems from Microsoft.

Another technical enhancement at Hughes Network Systems is its ability to share network engineering support for network operations centers in Washington; Frankfurt, Germany; New Delhi ; and Sao Paulo, Brazil, Kenyon said. Technical notes, software upgrades and best practices are now shared online, he added.

“There is one overriding trend in the VSAT industry and that is for the products to get away from the old days of divergent, proprietary systems to products that are focused on performance, price and features that customers are used to in the terrestrial networking world,” said Chris Leber, vice president and general manager at ViaSat, Carlsbad, Calif. “That is driving a number of technology innovations in the industry. You are seeing development of features for the enterprise customer that provide security, virtual private networks, quality of service, voice-over IP [Internet Protocol] and [Internet Protocol] acceleration.”

Technologies have increased bandwidth efficiency and satellite capacity, Leber said. That progress has aided cost-effectiveness, since bandwidth typically accounts for 80 percent of the cost of a VSAT service, he said.

D.K. Sachdev, president of Vienna, Va.-based SpaceTel Consultancy, said that he has noticed that VSAT technology has been enhanced in recent years. He recalled when VSAT companies in the past largely supported private business networks for large corporations, big store chains and gasoline stations. However, new areas of use include Internet IP access in regions not connected by high-speed terrestrial Internet networks.

Leslie Klein, president and chief executive officer of C-COM Satellite Systems Inc., of Ottawa, Canada, said his company was established in 1997 to deliver high-speed Internet services into vehicles and subsequently has used technology advances to offer two-way VSAT solutions at a reasonable price.

C-Com developed two-way, mobile systems to deliver voice-over-satellite, Klein said. The company first demonstrated the service to the Canadian Coast Guard in 1999 by offering 64 kilobits per second both upstream and downstream. The service at that time was not economically feasible, but the test showed it was possible to deliver two-way Internet into moving vehicles and ships over satellite, he added.

The key for making VSAT services feasible for mobile use was lowering the cost of the terminals, Klein said. To that end, C-Com developed a solution using the DirecPC one-way model, which combined cellular and satellite phones to achieve a 400 kilobits per second download speed and a slow cell or satellite upload speed that was economical, he said.

“Once DirecWay and StarBand came along with a true two-way VSAT solution with low-cost terminals and affordable service, we were able to start making mobility a reality,” Klein said. C-COM’s iNetVu Mobile product now is deployed worldwide, using VSAT technology. It has 1,000 users and new customers are joining at a rate of 500-plus a year, Klein said .

“Our customers use the mobile systems in applications such as emergency, government, homeland security, NASA for satellite monitoring, oil and gas, forestry, mining, etc.,” Klein said. “The robotic platforms are all software controlled, and we are developing newer and more advanced applications to deliver mobile VSAT solutions, which would be portable from one Windows-based platform to others, as required by the application.”

C-COM works with Hughes Network Systems to deliver VSAT solutions for both mobile and fixed customers in North America, Klein said. His company also collaborates with Gilat, iDirect, Viasat, EMS, Comtech, Tachyon and Nera-based service providers worldwide, he added.

Jon Kirchner, Loral Skynet’s vice president of marketing, said his company is involved in tapping a variety of VSAT trends for new business opportunities.

Migration to Internet Protocol-enabled platforms has gained “real momentum” in recent years by offering customers significantly less expensive equipment that now costs about $3,000 per site compared to $30,000 per site in the past, Kirchner said.

Heightened competition among hub providers, such as iDirect, ViaSat and Gilat, also is intensifying and, in turn, benefiting service providers and end-users, Kirchner said.

Paul Dykewicz is a seasoned journalist who has covered the development of satellite television, satellite radio, satellite broadband, hosted payloads and space situational awareness.