Fleet telematics and satellite communications

The race to space is back on as demand for satellite broadband connectivity continues to outpace supply, with planes being a primary consideration at the moment, but fleets likely to benefit as well.

Satellite network operators are betting that efficiency improvements and new inventions will drive down the costs of delivering high-throughput, two-way satellite data, thus making it available to more people, in more places.

The medium and low-Earth orbiting satellite systems designed in the mid- to late-90s have been integrating a number of technological improvements, and they are now poised to come fully to fruition. And some analysts expect that inventions like Kymeta Corporation’s metamaterial beam-tracking antenna will disrupt the markets.

Still in product development, a prototype of the antenna, which combines a standard PCB-like circuit board composed of several thousand sub-wavelength resonators with proprietary software that tunes them, closed a satellite downlink in an internal test earlier this year.

Both airline passengers and fleet owners are likely to benefit, as, with more people buying satellite services, hardware and transmission costs are expected to drop.

Providing connectivity in areas with gaps in cellular coverage, or in parts of the world where building a mobile phone network is too costly, is an obvious place to start.

But there are other opportunities.

Vern Fotheringham, CEO of Kymeta Corporation, envisions using satellite to deliver in-vehicle infotainment to long-haul truckers. There is the possibility of making software updates to vehicles. And Tom Freeman, Kymeta’s senior director of the advanced products and servers group, anticipates the data capabilities and ancillary advancements to include the ability to “inventory items out in the middle of nowhere.”

First Movers

Two satellite service providers, O3b Network and Inmarsat, have already penned agreements with Kymeta to develop flat panel antennas.

Founded in 2007 with backing from Google, Liberty Global and HSBC to build a medium-Earth orbit constellation, O3b Network is a relative newcomer. Inmarsat, on the other hand, was among the first to offer mobile satellite services to marine fleets in 1982.

Both development deals entail incorporating Kymeta’s mTenna into products for underserved markets. 

In the case of O3b Networks, the low-cost and lightweight antenna is expected to enable reliable and fast data connectivity for tropical and subtropical nations. The Inmarsat arrangement aims to address another market where demand outstrips service supply: business travelers connected in flight.

SiriusXM is also vying for an early mover advantage in satellite telematics. Its recent move to buy Agero’s connected vehicle services unit may be motivated by a desire to acquire both subscribers and engineering talent. 

(For more on this, see SiriusXM: Ready for prime time?)

Another partnership, Aireon, a joint venture between Iridium Communications and NAV Canada, has said it intends to put a global air surveillance system in orbit with the laudable goal of increasing aviation safety and optimizing airliner fuel efficiency.

Finally, NEXT, the re-creation of Iridium’s low-Earth orbiting constellation incorporates into its second generation satellites new GPS receivers designed to track air traffic. And the updated network will also benefit the company’s fleet management customers in the emergency service, mining and construction verticals.

“Fundamentally, we can get more bits per hertz of spectrum with the modern technologies,” says David Wigglesworth, vice president for M2M data services at Iridium. “We just get a lot more efficiency, and we can play that back to our customers in terms of increased speeds.”

According to Fotheringham, a relatively modest-sized flat panel antenna aperture can today deliver about 20 to 30 megabits per second down and two to 10 megabits up, compared to a few hundred or a few thousand bits per second in throughput once available to Omnitracs, one of the first fleet management services to rely on satellite.

The small size of the mTenna prototype shows just how much technology has advanced since the early days of fleet management, and Fotheringham is in a unique position to make that argument. “I was the guy that ran around the country with the very, very first Omnitracs prototype and showed all the trucking companies this first nationwide mobile messaging solution via satellite,” he says.  

Creating New Markets

The reason senior managers, like Wigglesworth and Fotheringham, can so readily recite spectral efficiency rates or tout benefits for customers are obvious. They are vying to keep the attention of potential business customers while systems get deployed, integrated and tested; and new business models are designed and pitched.

Although the main focus is currently on airline passengers, fleets are expected to become the main customers in another three or so years.

Peter Vanderminden, industry manager at Microsoft responsible for tracking manufacturing, transportation and supply chain trends, remarks: “Satellite telemetry has long held out promise, but it left a lot of corpses, if you will, littering the landscape – companies that were maybe ahead of their time, hadn’t really thought through the business model. Many proposed a solution that, although it enabled you to be connected all the time, was just cost prohibitive.”

So, when will the price be right?

Analysts and innovators alike predict that all but the largest multinational logistics companies will wait until demand is high enough that a strong case for return on investment can be made.

Still, plenty of market opportunity exists.

According to projections presented by Dominique Bonte, practice director covering global telematics for ABI Research, there was a less than 15% market penetration rate for embedded fleet management telematics systems in the United States overall.

And to be able to provide reliable global coverage remains an elusive goal for many in fleet management telematics. This is especially true of those relying only on cellular networks, according to Microsoft’s Vanderminden.

“With a company like a UPS or a Fed Ex, it’s great that their devices tracking their deliveries can work almost ubiquitously in urban and suburban areas,” he says. “But even here, within the U.S., there are places where you just don’t have the cellular connection – out in the middle of North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana; or up into the Adirondacks of New York state trying to make a delivery up to Blue Mountain Lake.”

If marketing hyperbole is to be believed, as early as 2015, nowhere on Earth will be out of reach of the new and updated constellations. Central to such claims are technologies designed to deliver higher throughput through spot beams in the Ka and Ku frequency bands, which is where innovations like Kymeta’s come in.

“Our satellites can now be overhead instead of at the horizon,” says Kymeta’s Freeman. “We can track satellites as they move. So all of a sudden, trees, trucks, buildings and adjacent containers aren’t blocking us. Satellites moving around up there with vehicles moving down here is no longer an issue.”

Jenny Neill is a regular contributor to TU. 

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics Munich 2013 on Nov. 11-12 in Munich, Germany, Telematics for Fleet Management USA 2013 on Nov. 20-21 in Atlanta, Georgia, Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2013 on Dec. 11-12 in San Francisco, Consumer Telematics Show 2014 on Jan. 6, 2014, in Las Vegas.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.

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