Satellite technology would be useless without the advanced terrestrial systems that back it up.
The thought of satellite communications is such a familiar one to us now that most people will give it hardly any thought. Yet it’s a relatively new field that has undergone many changes over the years. John Miller, head of satellite communications at Cable and Wireless (C&W), has been immersed in the field for his entire career and seen all the changes; but the one he remembers most is in how it can change people’s lives.
’In the 1990s I was building a lot of digital Earth stations’, he said. ’Previously, they’d been analogue, which meant they were noisy lines and not many of them. But I’d go to countries such as Sierra Leone, where I’d arrive and there would be a queue of people all down the road waiting to use one phone booth. By the time I left, there would be no queue, everyone had access to a phone that worked great and people would come up to us and tell us how they’d been talking to their relatives overseas.’
In some ways, Miller’s career sounds like something out of a Victorian explorer’s diary. Leaving school to join a C&W graduate recruitment course that included a thin-sandwich degree, he was building Earth stations overseas while still a teenager. The job has taken him from sandstorm-wracked baking deserts to the typhoon-soaked tropics and the frozen tundra of Siberia.
The variety was what attracted Miller to the C&W scheme in the first place. ’It was university training, but in between I’d get industrial training that was accredited to the IEEE to get me to chartered status with a professional body. Satellites were on the scene pretty much from the start,’ he recalled. ’I started working on Earth stations in 1984, almost straight away. I’ve stuck with it because there’s been so much variety and scope over the years that it’s remained interesting and fresh.’
While the technology of satellites, and especially their role in the UK space industry, will be well known to readers of The Engineer, Miller’s part in the space industry – handling the business of receiving satellite signals and distributing the data they transmit to and from their customers – is more obscure.
’There is a different view of satellite communications from the two sides of the business,’ he said. ’The operators are concerned with their hardware, the satellites they fly and making sure the users, which is us, the communications companies, commission their equipment properly.’ The operators take a different view, however, which sometimes causes friction between the two sides.
’As a service provider, we’re concerned with how to get the best use out of a satellite. In terms of getting the most efficient use out of a satellite, I have to say the operators are good,’ Miller said. ’But we’re better.’
C&W is a telecoms company rather than a specialist satellite operator; clients buy a communications package and it’s up to the company to determine which mix of land-based networks and satellite systems would provide the best service. ’We’ll consider different satellites and how they could be used to make sure the ground networks are working as efficiently as possible; that means everything has to be competitive and successful,’ Miller explained. ’We don’t want to over-invest in ground equipment just to make things easier for the satellite operators if there’s no benefit for us; that’s a trade-off in the design of the Earth stations. From what I’ve seen, it isn’t something the operators understand too well.
Miller is concerned with all the aspects of the construction of an Earth station, from the technology inside to the facilities themselves. ’There is a considerable difference in Earth stations around the world,’ he said. ’In hurricane belts, you have to design things a lot stronger, to withstand wind and heavy rain; in Siberia, you have to factor in the cold, the intense ice and snow build-ups; in deserts you have to withstand huge swings in temperature, from below freezing up to 50-60°C. And that has a radical impact on what you build. A ground station in Hong Kong will be two or three times as expensive as something in the UK because it has to survive a typhoon.’
However the way that satellite communications are being used is changing dramatically. Whereas at the start of Miller’s career a large volume of voice communications was carried by satellite, today it is almost all carried by terrestrial networks based on optical fibres, which can carry much more signal than the old metal cables they replaced.
This means that satellite is now frequently used as a backup or a failsafe to fibre, or for access, when the fibres can’t reach the location where communications – much more often data these days than voice – are needed. But this doesn’t make them less useful. ’We have a retail customer, a supermarket, in the City of London that has been using a VSAT system – a very small aperture terminal with a little dish about a metre across – for its comms since last January, because they can’t get the fibre communication across the pavement,’ Miller said. ’But they need that communication – this is a store that takes hundreds of thousands of pounds a day and they need full comms for credit card transactions and stock control.’
In fact, this particular client began using VSAT, a system that is gathering popularity from retail and banking clients, in an emergency situation. ’During the floods in Cumbria last year when the bridge at Workington came down, people would have had to drive for miles to get to a store that had previously been minutes away. So this customer set up an emergency store and we had a prototype VSAT system we put in a van and drove up to them. The board was completely sold on the idea and used it to hit all their store-opening targets.’
VSAT is now being used to set up communications and provide failsafe backup around the world. ’As more terrestrial fibre networks are being installed around the world – and there’s a lot of fibre going into Africa – our VSAT business is changing from a lifeline to a backup,’ Miller said. ’But it’s no less valuable. Some of our banking clients handle most of the foreign exchange for African countries via satellite. It has to be belt and braces now.’
John Miller – biography
Head of satellite communications, Cable and Wireless Worldwide
1983 Joins C&W as a graduate recruit straight from A-levels
1988 Graduates from City University with a degree in electrical and electronic engineering
Miller’s entire career has been with Cable and Wireless. His career has included designing Earth stations all over the world, including putting in the first public voice services in St Petersburg following the fall of the Soviet Union. He now handles communications for C&W customers including Tesco, the National Grid and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Miller lectures for the IET at the University of Surrey
Q&A – Aerial advances
What’s been the biggest technological change you’ve seen?
It has to be the internet – the IP protocol it uses to transmit data. Since 1990, everything has been IP-based. It’s not always particularly efficient; for example, voice-over-IP is not the most efficient way of transmitting voice, but it’s a single network and being able to bring everything together in one platform has tremendous advantages in terms of handling multimedia communications.
Do you drive development on satellites, or do they drive development in applications for communication?
For us, that cuts to the heart of what technology development is about. Just because someone’s come up with a bright idea, is it really useful? In general, the satellite has done an excellent job of developing technology. There have been some things that haven’t worked out – whenever you put technology on a spacecraft, you have to be certain that everything there is going to be useful for the 10-15 year life of the satellite.
That’s a challenge. There might be a certain type of multiplexer or beam-forming network that seemed like a good idea at the time and hasn’t been as successful as hoped. But those are not that common. Huge satellites are going up now, tremendously advanced compared with only a few years ago.
What changes are we going to see in satellite communications over the next decade or so?
There’s been an undersupply of satellite capacity in the market for the past few years, particularly in Africa, which is the biggest growth market at the moment. Some other areas, particularly parts of Asia, have been oversupplied. The satellite industry maybe hasn’t launched as many satellites as it could have done, but that is changing.
How important is satellite to a company such as C&W?
It’s a small part of the business in financial terms but a very important part nonetheless. We focus on the largest 10-15 per cent of customers, in terms of the size of business – supermarkets, banks, oil companies, governments, the military – and they need to have the satellite option. They wouldn’t buy from us if we didn’t have satellite; it’s hugely important as a lever.