Why the “Amazonification” of satellite data communications is a good thing

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Late last month, Amazon announced its entry into an industry new to the global giant: satellite data link services. Through a partnership with defense industry veteran Lockheed Martin, the AWS Ground Station service will eventually have a global network of 12 antenna ground stations – facilities that provide communications between the ground and satellites by using antennas to receive data and control systems to send radio signals to command and control the satellite –  that allows customers to download data from satellites.

As a founder and chief strategy officer of ATLAS Space Operations, a satellite data communications company that has been doing this very same thing for the past four years, you might think I’d be a little nervous to see Amazon enter the industry.

But I’m not. In fact, I was excited to hear this news, because the Amazonification of the satcom industry could be a good thing for everyone in this business.

When major players like Amazon and Lockheed Martin turn their attention to a new market, it provides validation for every other company already working in it, and eventually can help simplify licensing, regulatory processes and operations. Right now, ATLAS Space Operations is the intrepid pioneer that ventured into the Wild West of satcom; with Amazon and Lockheed Martin entering the industry and opening up new possibilities, we might soon be considered the fearless leader who founded the town and made everyone else eager to come with us.

I’m also interested to see how Amazon plans to navigate a few of the hurdles ATLAS has had to clear over the past four years:

1 – Modulated data.Amazon is more or less replicating ATLAS’ approach to data processing, but I’m not sure how they will address the custom handling of modulated data.

Each antenna frequency has a modulation being broadcast. It’s similar to a radio, which has to be tuned to the frequency modulation or amplitude modulation to hear a certain station. No one company can put up an antenna for a specific frequency and cover everyone’s needs; each customer has different requirements.

Not only is the multitude of modulation schemes somewhat challenging, but there also is a host of regulatory mazes that must be navigated to gain global access. To date, this has been unattainable on a large scale.

2 – The transmission to spacecraft. To be able to transmit to spacecraft, you need a license for every spacecraft to which you transmit. The International Telecommunications Union has regulatory governance over all satellite transmissions, and each country has authority over satellite transmissions within their physical domain, and it’s necessary to go through an army of regulators to get this licensing.

Some countries are challenging to obtain licensing within, so while Amazon is saying it can put antennas everywhere, they won’t be able to control spacecraft as readily; the regulatory issue is challenging worldwide.

Additionally, the power required to be transmitted from spacecraft so it can be “heard” from a ground station is highly variable between spacecraft. Either the spacecraft has to be physically close enough to the antenna for the antenna to “hear” it, or you need a transmitter with enough wattage to transmit so that the antenna to pick it up. We call that the link budget – the “listening” power of receiving antenna and transmit power of sending antenna create a handshake.

If someone puts up 1,000 antennas and says everyone can use them that assumes everyone has the same transmit threshold, but that’s not true. Each satellite behaves differently, and a common ground station does not solve that.

3 – The standards for modulations. Generally speaking, everything in the space community has been custom-built – spacecraft and their radio frequency modulation structures have been constructed with an almost artisanal, craftsman-like approach, so that one can squeeze every bit of data-carrying energy out of a transmission. This complicates the infrastructure and makes it expensive.

In order to make it less expensive, there has to be standardization among users or spacecraft operators; otherwise, every ground station has to be able to handle every custom-built spacecraft. Our software solutions and APIs are making inroads toward solving that, but to scale quickly and effectively across the globe will require satellite designers to agree with standards so Amazon can leverage their extensive infrastructure; otherwise, Amazon will be slaves to its own antennas, which will be expensive and unsustainable.

4 – The scheduling. Amazon’s announcement mentioned being able to schedule antenna access time, and that surprised us a bit, because that’s an outdated concept.

In fact, I experienced the frustration that satellite control scheduling causes during my 35-plus years in the Air Force. Competition for scarce antenna resources created issues whenever more than one operator needed access, because that meant prioritizing one transmission over another – something no mission-critical endeavor should ever have to deal with.

In the future, we believe you won’t need to schedule your satcom data access, just like you don’t need to schedule with your cellphone service provider the times you’re able to make a phone call. Our vision is to create a satellite communications network similar to a mobile network; just as a mobile phone doesn’t care what tower it’s on, a satellite operator shouldn’t care what country or geographic region it’s flying over.

5 – The antenna. Existing ground-based communications technology uses standard satellite dish-shaped antennas that must be aimed at the distant signal source. Weak signals need large dishes, which are expensive and unwieldy to move and set up. Large dish antennas usually are installed permanently at a single location; have limited windows of opportunity to communicate with orbiting satellites; and can only downlink data from one satellite at a time.

ATLAS still uses, and will continue to use, the traditional parabolic dish in our global network, but also has begun exploring new technology.

Our ATLAS LinksTMsystems are small, portable mobile structures with four antenna units that constantly survey the sky for spacecraft signals. They use an array of antennas, massive computing power and algorithms that can isolate even weak signals.They can be set up and taken down within minutes; only require access to internet and power; and can receive data from multiple satellites simultaneously.

Instead of using one “big ear,” we’ve figured out how to use many “little ears,” and this potentially quadruples the ability to download data from a traditional antenna. As the need for data increases, we’re working on creating a solution that not only changes the game in terms of moving to the cloud (in fact, we use AWS as our backbone), but also advances the options for available hardware.

ATLAS Space Operations is looking forward to seeing how Amazon plans to navigate these challenges, and we’re excited to share an industry with a company that brings such a high level of creativity and horsepower to everything they do. We’re hopeful that having them in the satcom space will help knock down some barriers we’ve encountered, accelerate solutions to problems, and move the needle even further in this important global enterprise — after all, when you’ve conquered the world, the next logical step is to tackle outer space.


Mike Carey is founder and chief strategy officer for ATLAS Space Operations, which provides satellite communications as a service. Carey can be reached at [email protected].