Terminal installation, qualification & testing in the field

21 April 2020

As I write this column, more than 120 of the world’s nations are experiencing the spread of the Coronavirus.

To state the obvious, this public health emergency is impacting on all facets of life as well, of course, as very sadly causing so many deaths.

There is evident a certain underlying irony in the consequent cancellation or postponement of trade events in the field of telecommunications. In February, MWC 2020 (Barcelona, Spain) – the Mobile World Congress – was cancelled.

In March, CABSAT 2020 (Dubai, United Arab Emirates) – the Middle East & Africa’s leading event for content creation, production & broadcast and satellite & distribution, and within which was to be embedded the GVF SATEXPO Summit 2020 – was postponed, now to take place at the end of October.

If space permitted, this list would be much longer.

Despite all that telecommunications technologies (satellite, fixed and mobile terrestrial/wireless, cable/fibre) have facilitated in the creation of platforms to bring people together through exchange of data, over social media, via voice and video connectivity – therefore without the necessity of physical travel and face-to-face contact – the organisations that continue to deliver innovative advances on such solutions still attach a lot of significance to the traction to be achieved through personal interaction in exhibition halls and dialogue in conference rooms. My various work travels are testament to this.

The subject of conference calling or video conferencing, particularly over Internet Protocol – which has stimulated development of low-cost applications for multi-location and remote site personnel online gatherings – obviously points up the role of satellite solutions as those best suited to serve coverage of remote areas, both in terms of dedicated satellite network links, and in terms of the contribution of satellite to facilitating mobile/cellular networks through backhaul.

Satellite solutions serve everywhere, but, by definition, implicit in ubiquity and coverage of the remote is the need for some Earth stations/terminals – the ground segment – to be equally isolated and remote. This then introduces the related questions of the installation of type approved terminal equipment/antennas.

A long-term core feature of GVF’s mission has been the development of a consensus-based framework to improve the efficiency of satellite operators’ terminals type-approval procedures. To achieve this objective, the GVF Mutual Recognition Arrangement Working Group created procedures – now internationally recognised – defining a set of standard tests that an antenna or Earth station/terminal manufacturer should perform in order to apply for type approval from any satellite operator. Use of this procedure not only improves the quality and completeness of test data but helps reduce the time and cost required to bring new ground-segment technology to the market, thus advancing the competitiveness and enhancing the reliability of satellite communications services – reducing the factors that cause interference to primary and adjacent satellite services.

The GVF test procedures – in qualifying the performance of antennas/Earth stations/terminals leading to formal type approval by a satellite operator – enables manufacturers to supply antennas/Earth station/terminal equipment without the need for testing each terminal before it is deployed.

Working within this framework a group of satellite operators – AsiaSat, Eutelsat, Inmarsat, Intelsat and SES – have collaborated to develop updated guidance to antenna manufacturers regarding satellite operator expectations for new products, and how to demonstrate compliance with the Satellite Operator Minimum Antenna Performance specification requirements (SOMAP), which came into force in September 2019.

SOMAP was started to improve the Quality of Service (QoS) worldwide for the industry and to minimise interference. Quality products, compliant with satellite operator specifications, provide manufacturers with a valuable tool to differentiate their products. It does not replace the formal type approval procedures for each of the satellite operators, but rather establishes minimum performance that each of the operators expect when deploying equipment which has not been formally type approved.

Whilst the CABSAT-embedded GVF SATEXPO Summit has been postponed, the SATELLITE 2020 show in Washington DC did go ahead, albeit with substantially reduced attendance and a cut-short agenda as a result of Coronavirus concerns. GVF member QuadSAT was present at SATELLITE 2020, located in the exhibition’s ‘Start-Up’ Pavilion. I mention QuadSAT specifically because they serve to illustrate two currently ongoing GVF initiatives/programmes (to which I shall return below), as well as providing an example of a further facet to conducting on-site antenna/Earth station/terminal verification, and also bringing an additional technique, or tool, for ensuring the accuracy of installations – using Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones. The technology offers new ways to characterise the performance of ground terminals that have not been available to industry before, with accurate performance data being acquired for VSAT terminals in their deployed locations. Satellite operators have acknowledged the innovation as a valuable alternative to the traditional methods of testing.

Moreover, and returning to the ongoing GVF programme to which I referred above, the European Space Agency has recognised the potential value of this technology and awarded QuadSAT a contract to continue development and validation of the technology – with support from GVF as a contract partner, and with reference to SOMAP.

The UAS or drone equipment (actually a quadcopter) can easily be transported to any test antenna location where it functions as a portable test range providing high-precision antenna pattern measurements. It can be flown freely around the antenna under test at various far field distances and at various test angles, providing a flexible, cost-efficient method to verify antenna performance globally. This system allows for testing and verification of already operational antennas, without interrupting their services. The SOMAP recommendations will be used to compare performance data acquired by drone measurements with comparable test data acquired from a traditional far-field outdoor test range. 

The ongoing GVF initiative to which I referred above is new. The example I cited of a start-up company is just one of many new entrepreneur-driven commercial enterprises, and academic spin-offs, comprising what is often called Space 2.0. To meet the needs of these enterprises GVF has introduced a new Membership grouping, extending the benefits of membership to such start-ups on especially favourable terms. Companies meeting the eligibility requirements for “NewSpace Membership” will be provided with Associate Membership and its benefits, at nil cost, for a period of one year provided there is a commitment to convert to paying the Associate Membership fee afterwards.