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Medium Earth Orbit Ka band

Satellite Communications System

Steven H. Blumenthal
Senior Member, IEEE
O3b Networks
Washington, DC, USA

AbstractMedium earth orbit satellites deliver fiber- However, the very high round trip latency of 500 600 msec.
like low latency to underserved locations. This paper impacts the performance of many communications
describes the architecture of an efficient cost effective low applications.
latency medium earth orbit constellation using high power
steerable Ka band spot beams. A seamless error-free Communications services using lower orbit satellites offer
significant advantages for voice, video and real-time data
satellite-to-satellite handover using dual tracking antennas
and dual receiver modems has been developed to deliver communications. However, they involve a few system design
tradeoffs. A few non-geosynchronous orbit communications
continuous real-time performance for these interactive
time-sensitive applications. For less delay sensitive systems have been built and deployed (Iridium and Globalstar)
and a number of other systems have been proposed (Teledesic,
applications, single tracking antennas provide high-speed
ISR data transfer from sensor platforms to processing Celestri, ICO, etc.). The primary advantage of using an orbit
lower than GEO is that round trip latency can be significantly
center and the rapid dissemination of processed intelligence
information back to forward command posts and smaller reduced which improves the performance of certain
applications. Systems such as Iridium and Globalstar have
been deployed into low earth orbit (LEO) and are designed to
Keywordssatellite communications; medium earth orbit; Ka deliver primarily voice and very low data rate services. These
band; low latency; high bandwidth systems made a number of design decisions based on the
markets that they were planning to serve. To provide these
I. INTRODUCTION services ubiquitously to any location on the Earths surface
requires a large number of satellites in a number of highly
Medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites deliver fiber-like low
inclined orbits. To help further reduce latency and simplify the
latency to underserved locations on Earth. This paper
ground infrastructure these systems employ inter-satellite
describes the architecture of an efficient cost effective low
communications links. This allows traffic to move from one
latency MEO constellation. High power steerable Ka band location on the Earths surface to another without many up and
spot beams provide high-speed data transfer from surveillance
down trips between satellites and ground stations. This feature
and reconnaissance sensors to intelligence analysis and imposes a requirement on the satellite and ground systems to
processing centers and the rapid dissemination of processed
be able to track and point narrow communications beams
intelligence information back to forward command posts and accurately at objects that are all moving dynamically (though
smaller groups. Lower latency improves the performance of
predictably) relative to each other.
many interactive communications services such as voice, video
and web applications used by distributed C2 systems. A A Medium Earth Orbit MEO constellation has been
seamless error-free satellite-to-satellite handover using tracking developed by O3b Networks and is currently being deployed.
antennas and dual receiver modems has been developed to O3b stands for the other 3 billion and its system is designed
deliver continuous real-time performance for these interactive to provide very high data rate low latency fiber-like services to
time-sensitive applications. underserved markets in the developing world. Tradeoffs
between coverage area and orbital altitude indicated that an
II. SATELLITE CONSTELLATION ARCHITECTURE DESIGN initial MEO constellation in a circular Equatorial orbit 8000
TRADEOFFS km above sea level would provide contiguous coverage to
territories within the underserved (but highly populated) parts
Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites in an of the developing world. Operating at this orbit, and placing
Equatorial orbit at an altitude of 35,786 km above sea level satellites only around the Equator, reduced the number of
have the advantage that the satellites orbit the Earth at the same satellites required and significantly lowered the cost of the
rate that the Earth turns on its axis and therefore the satellites services provided. An initial constellation of eight satellites, at
remain in a relatively fixed position over a particular location this Equatorial MEO altitude, provides continuous service to
on the Earth all the time. This simplifies the ground stations all parts of the Earth within 45 degrees of the Equator. This
required to communicate with the satellites as they can remain region of the Earth also covers most of the major hot spots of
pointed at the same location in the sky all of the time. conflict of interest to the US and Coalition Forces
Governments. This constellation can also provide high costs as four satellites can be placed into MEO orbit by a single
bandwidth services for emergency responders, disaster relief, medium lift launch vehicle. Two launches will be required to
and fiber restoral. deploy 8 satellites into the 8062 km MEO orbit. The system is
highly scalable and additional satellites can be added to the
GEO satellites are usually placed in fixed orbit locations. constellation over time to add additional capacity.
In many cases, their satellite antenna radiating patterns have
been shaped to only provide coverage over the land masses Another set of design tradeoffs involved the satellite
below them. Since the MEO satellites are moving in their communications payload. O3bs decision to operate in the
orbit, they provide the same coverage over the oceans as they commercial Ka band allowed it to obtain access to 1.5 GHz of
do over the land masses within the +/-45 degree latitudes spectrum with an uplink frequency range of 27.6 29.1 GHz
coverage area. This covers many of the worlds ocean areas of and a downlink frequency range of 17.8 19.3 GHz. The
interest to navies. satellite payload has been implemented as a simple RF bent-
pipe with no onboard baseband processing. Eliminating inter-
At an 8000 km orbital altitude, round trip latency is satellite cross links further simplified the payload design but
typically below 130 msec. and is guaranteed to always be less
required the deployment of Gateways around the globe to
than 150 msec. within the coverage region being served. This offload traffic to terrestrial fiber. The payload has two
is comparable to long haul fiber routes and about four times
Gateway beams and ten customer beams. In the nominal
less than GEO satellite round trip latency. configuration, two sets of five customer beams are each
The O3b Networks MEO system made several other design multiplexed into one of two Gateway beams. Each of the ten
tradeoffs based on the types of service that would be offered in customer beams has 216 MHz of bandwidth in each direction.
these underserved developing world markets. Operation in the Use of right hand and left hand circular polarization permits
higher frequency satellite Ka Band and the use of small frequency reuse. Each Gateway beam (one right hand and one
steerable gimbaled parabolic antennas on the satellites allowed left hand circularly polarized) and each customer beam is
the system to deliver high data rate services into concentrated implemented by a small steerable gimbaled parabolic tracking
areas (700 km diameter spot beams). Figure 1 shows the MEO antenna for a total of twelve antennas (2 for Gateway beams
satellite constellation coverage area from an Equatorial orbit and 10 for customer beams) on each satellite.
along with examples of Gateway beams (filled circles) and
customer beams (open circles). III. REGIONAL LAYOUT AND GATEWAYS
In the constellation being deployed by O3b, the eight
satellites are at an orbit of 8062 km and have an orbital period
of 288 minutes. Each satellite revolves around the Earth five
times per day in the same direction that the Earth is turning
once per day. Therefore, each satellite passes over the same
location on the surface of the Earth four times per day. For the
initial eight satellite constellation, the Earth can be divided up
into eight regions and a satellite will be overhead in each
region for 45 minutes. At the end of 45 minute pass, the
satellite that has been overhead moves on to the next region to
the East and a next satellite in the constellation rises in the
West to take its place in that region. This requires a handover
Figure 1: MEO Satellite Constellation Showing Customer and Gateway Spot
Beams from the setting satellite to the next rising satellite in each
region. The handover from one satellite to the next in each
Bringing the satellites closer to Earth meant that signals region cannot take place instantaneously and the handover in
between satellites and ground stations incur 13 dB less path the next region cannot take place until the handover in the
loss. MEO satellites can deliver the same flux density at the previous region has completed and the satellite antennas have
Earths surface as GEO satellites with 13 dB less Equivalent moved to point at the Gateway and customer locations in the
Isotropic Radiated Power (EIRP) from the satellites and can new region. O3b has allowed a small amount of overlap time,
achieve similar receive sensitivity as GEO satellites with much the Handover Interval, to accomplish this. To account for this
smaller aperture antennas. Operation in the commercial Ka extra time, the number of active regions is reduced to seven
band with shorter wavelengths vs. C or Ku band systems also service regions for the initial eight satellite constellation.
helps reduce the satellite and ground station antenna aperture
size while delivering similar receive sensitivity and radiated Each of these seven service regions is anchored by a
power levels. By operating with 13 dB less radiated power, Gateway that provides connection to the terrestrial fiber
O3b was able to reduce the power required by the satellite and infrastructure. The two Gateway beams on each satellite can
reducing the size of the satellites solar panel area and number be independently pointed to two different Gateway locations
of batteries. within the regional coverage area for greater flexibility.

Lower power requirements allowed the satellites to be

smaller (about the size of a large conference room table) and to
weigh less than 700 kg reducing satellite cost. Less weight,
smaller size, and lower orbit allows further savings in launch
IV. LOW LATENCY ADVANTAGES FOR INTERACTIVE their work reducing productivity. Custom workarounds have
APPLICATIONS been developed for these applications by IT systems
Interactive applications perform better with lower latency. developers to allow remote access from users that are
Examples include conversational voice and video connected over GEO satellite links. These typically involve
conferencing, certain business applications such as enterprise application level modifications to amount of information that is
resource planning (ERP) systems, interactive gaming, and web sent across the link or the deployment of remote terminal
access, web content download and web audio and video servers or application servers that implement part of the
streaming that operate using HTTP or HTTPS protocols over enterprise application at the remote site. For example, an
TCP/IP. Oracle White Paper [3] describes how to limit the information
that is sent over high latency or low throughput links.
Development, testing and maintenance of these servers and
A. Interactive Conversational Voice and Video Conferencing
software workarounds become time consuming and expensive
If round trip delay exceeds 250 - 300 msec., voice for the enterprise IT departments.
conversations take on an unnatural quality and lose their inter-
activeness. Participants cannot interrupt each other and have to Many of the problems encountered by civilian ERP systems
wait for one speaker to finish talking. They effectively become when used over high delay satellite links are also found in
half duplex calls. Voice call quality is usually measured by a distributed C2 applications that are used for situational
Mean Opinion Score (MOS) or by the E-model as defined in awareness, mission planning, and logistics. Lower latency can
ITU Recommendation G.107 [1]. ITU Recommendation G.114 remove the requirement to develop custom software
[2] provides recommendations for one-way mouth-to-ear workarounds and will improve application responsiveness and
transmission delay based on the E-model. The graph in Figure user productivity.
2 from the ITU Recommendation G.114 shows the degradation
Regardinginthe use of the E-model
E-models R rating forindicating
speech applications,
that users the effect
become of delay can be seen in the
dissatisfied C. Impact of High Latency on File Transfer and Webbased
following graph of Transmission Rating, R, versus delay. Also shown are the speech quality
as one-way transmission delay increases above 275 msec.
categories of ITU-T Rec. G.109 [5], which translate the R values to levels of user acceptance.
C2 Applications over TCP/IP
The Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is designed to
provide end-to-end error free sequenced delivery of packets for
very satisfied individual users or applications over an unreliable Internet
Protocol (IP) infrastructure of networks interconnected by IP
routers. To achieve this, the TCP protocol implements a
satisfied number of services that provide end-to-end flow control,
congestion avoidance, packet delivery acknowledgement and
E-model rating R


Some users retransmission, and the fair use of the underlying shared
transport networks. While these mechanisms provide
70 reliability, they conspire to reduce end-to-end throughput as the
Many users delay-bandwidth product (network round trip latency x the link
data rate) increases. The performance of TCP over high
Nearly all
bandwidth high latency GEO satellite links has been discussed
users extensively by Partridge and Shepard [4], Allman et. al. [5] and
Loral [6]. Over the intervening years, a set of techniques to
0 100 200 300 400
500 G.114_F01 improve the performance of TCP over satellite links have been
developed [7] along with methods to spoof the TCP protocol
Figure1/G.114 Determination
2: E-model of the effects of
R Rating Performance vs.absolute
One-Way delay by thefrom
Delay E-modelITU into thinking that it is not operating over a high latency link.
Recommendation G.114 Local caching on the far end of the satellite link can also
NOTE 1 The curve in Figure 1 is based on the effect of pure delay only, i.e., in the complete absence contribute of to improved performance for static content. While
A similar phenomenon occurs for videoconferences.
any echo. This is calculated by setting the G.107 E-model parameter Ta equal to the total value of one-way In
delay fromaddition to with
mouth-to-ear, theallloss
otherof interactivity
E-model forvalues
input parameter the set
voice conversation,
to their default values. The effect techniques such as Performance Enhancing Proxies (PEP) as
of echo, as would be incurred due to imperfect echo control, will result in lower speech quality for a given
high latency causes the loss of facial queues of when a speaker defined by RFC 3135 [8] work well for satellite links with very
value of one-way delay. low bit error rates (BER), their performance deteriorates as
on the screen has finished talking. The result of high latency
NOTE 2 The calculation also assumes an Equipment Impairment Factor (Ie) of zero. Non-zero values, as
would be that conversations
incurred are more cumbersome
due to speech coding/processing, will result in lowerwith
speech aquality
lot for
of afalse
given value of
BER increases.
starts and You go ahead. No, you go. interactions. Voice
one-way delay.
O3b Networks has worked with a leading supplier of wide
NOTE 3 and videoconferences
For one-way over500high
delay values exceeding latency
ms, the links generally
graph is continued as a dashed linethey to indicate
that these results are not fully validated, but is the best estimate of what should be expected, and, therefore, area network acceleration systems that include a variation of
provides useful more time resulting in lower user productivity. the PEP techniques, to measure the impact of latency on end-
to-end throughput. The graphs in Figures 3 and 4 show the
5 B. Enterprise
Estimating Resource
end-to-end Planning
delay based and Distributed
on assemblies of transmission Celements
Systems impact of latency vs. throughput using TCP on an end-to-end
The nominal Enterprise
delay values and Resource Planning
general planning (ERP)
rules given systems
in Annex A, such
and as the SAP
coder-related basis and then with PEP techniques enabled.
delays of Appendix I, may be used to estimate the total end-to-end transmission time.
and Oracle support remote access. These applications have a These graphs show that lower latency improves throughput
number of handshakes between the remote access client and for applications that run over TCP. Protocols such as PEP and
the server for each transaction. With 500 - 600 msec. of GEO local caching techniques can further improve link throughput
satellite round trip latency for each handshake, multiple round- even for lower latency links. These graphs are meant to be
trip delays are involved and the client server response time representative of what can be achieved by lowering satellite
becomes very slow and it takes the remote staff longer to do

ITU-T Rec. G.114 (01/2003) 3

link round trip latency to be closer to fiber latencies. Further beams can be quickly moved to cover an area of interest and
studies with other PEP implementations over low and high can follow a moving ISR platform. These spot beams can also
delay links should be conducted. deliver several 100 Mbps of processed intelligence information
to forward battle locations in real-time.
For military systems that may involve transmission of
classified data over end-to-end encrypted links, the benefits of Transportable, rapidly deployable terminal equipment can
PEP and local caching cannot be realized due to the inability to be positioned at key locations around the globe to support
access the TCP headers and content of the encrypted data emergency responders and disaster relief efforts. Steerable
stream. For this application, lowering the link latency is the spot beams can be moved to critial locations within a matter of
only way to improve user data throughput. hours.
In addition to higher per user throughput, lower latency It is also possible to offer rapid restoral services for
also improves response time for interactive data access from a undersea and terrestrial fiber that has been cut. Because of the
remote location, especially for dynamic data that cannot be very high bandwidth available and low latency, the fiber
easily cached at the remote end of the link. This implies higher restoral services provided by the MEO satellties can approach
productivity due to lower wait times for data, especially if the data rate and performance of the fiber connections.
retransmissions are required over links with high bit error rates.
To achieve high throughput on the links, highly directional
gimbaled tracking antennas are used in the satellites to create
spot beams that are kept pointed at a fixed location on the
Earth while the satellite is moving. Tracking antennas are also
used in the ground terminal equipment to follow the satellites
across the sky. Ground terminals can be deployed with a single
tracking antenna or with dual tracking antennas to provide two
different modes of operation.
Single antenna terminals implement a Break-Before-Make
Satellite-to-Satellite Handover. At the end of the 45 minute
satellite pass, the ground terminal antenna swings back to
acquire the next rising satellite. This results in a scheduled
break in the data stream while the tracking antenna is moving
back, locking on and tracking the next satellite, allowing its
Figure 3: TCP Alone - Throughput in Mbps; 1500 byte packets, 50 Kbyte and 1 modem to achieve carrier sync and produce good
Mbyte TCP window sizes, and 500 msec. and 120 msec. link round trip frames/packets, and then allowing any router and encryption
latencies devices to re-sync if required. For larger slower moving
antennas, this can take up to a few minutes. For smaller
ground terminal antennas or highly balanced shipboard
stabilized antennas, this outage time can be 20 - 30 sec.
Electronically steered flat panel array antennas can change
beam pointing in hundreds of msec. and are being investigated
for single antenna mode operation. There may be certain
applications such as store and forward reconnaissance data
retrieval that can buffer data for a few minutes on the remote
platform and operate with a single antenna.
If continuous data transfer is required, dual antennas can be
deployed to implement seamless Make-Before-Break Satellite-
to-Satellite Handover. One antenna is following the satellite
across the 45 minute pass. The second antenna is standing by
to acquire the next rising satellite when it appears in the region.
Figure 4: TCP with PEP enabled - Throughput in Mbps; 1500 byte packets, 50 Once the second antenna is locked on and tracking the rising
Kbyte and 1 Mbyte TCP window sizes, and 500 msec. and 120 msec. link
round trip latencies
satellite, the modulators at each end of the link transmit the
same signal over both antennas and over the rising and setting
satellites for a brief instant. The signals over the second
V. HIGH DATA RATE ADVANTAGES antenna and rising satellite path are received by a separate
Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) second demodulator/decoder in the modems at each end of the
missions require high data rates to move high-resolution multi- link. Once the second demodulator/decoder at each of the link
spectral imagery back from areas of conflict to intelligence has locked onto the incoming carrier and is producing good
aggregation and processing centers. High capacity beams can frames/packets, the modulators stop transmitting over the first
retrieve up to 100 Mbps of data from a small ISR platform antenna (the setting satellite) and the first
equipped with the right size tracking antenna. Steerable spot demodulators/decoders. The second antenna tracking the
rising satellite has now become the primary antenna for the highly scalable in this Equatorial orbit with additional satellites
next 45 minute pass. During the pass, the first antenna swings bringing additional capacity. Satellites in inclined orbits can be
back to wait for the next rising satellite and the handover added to provide coverage up into the northern latitudes and
process repeats. Figure 5 shows a block diagram of a dual Polar Regions.
antenna terminal.
The O3b satellites operate as a bent-pipe with no onboard
If one of the antennas or some other component in the dual processing. Therefore, any link encryption can be utilized with
antenna terminal fails, these terminals revert to single antenna the O3b satellite constellation. The wide bandwidth available
Break-Before-Make Handover mode. in O3b spot beams allow low probability of intercept anti-
jam (LPI-AJ) techniques, such as the use of spread spectrum
O3b has worked closely with a number of satellite modem
waveforms, to operate with high spreading factors. In addition,
vendors to implement seamless Make-Before-Break Satellite- the movement of the satellites in their orbit and the narrowness
to-Satellite Handover. In one case, a very high data rate
of the spot beams make it difficulty for outsiders to intercept or
modem was developed that includes one modulator and two interfere with the signal.
demodulators. This modem was designed to operate at 180
Msymbols/sec. bidirectionally and fill the 216 MHz channels. This type of system may not be the right solution for every
This modem has been demonstrated to deliver maximum data communications requirement. Applications that require high
rate of 810 Mbps in each direction over the O3b satellite bandwidth and/or low latency within a spot beam location are
channels. In other cases, two separate modems are required, ideal for this type of communications service. ISR platforms
but only one of the modulators is used. Several modem that loiter in an operational area can take advantage of the high
vendors have modified their standard products to build into data rates to bring high resolution multi-spectral imagery and
their software the ability to account for any path length video back to intelligence analysts. Real-time distributed C2
differences between the setting and rising satellites and systems, especially those using interactive voice and video
completely eliminate any dropped, duplicate or out of order communications will operate more responsively over lower
packets. The modems also compensate for signal Doppler latency communications links. Lastly, steerable spot beams
Shift caused by the MEO satellite moving during a pass. can be rapidly positioned for emergency response, disaster
Outdoor Unit
relief, and fiber restoral.


Indoor Unit
The author would like to acknowledge valuable
contributions to this paper from discussions with Andre
Modem Christian, D DAmbrosio, Jack Deasy, Nat Gough, Brian Holz,
w/ dual James Mowat, John Munoz Atkinson, David Price, Dr. Ashok
Networks Demodulators
Rao, James J. Shaw, and Greg Wyler.
[1] ITU-T Recommendation G.107 The E-model: A Computational Model
for Use in Transmission Planning, Dec. 2011.
OOB$Access$ M&C$Server$
[2] ITU-T Recommendation G.114 One-Way Transmission Time, May
Monitoring & Control Network
[3] Oracle Corporation White Paper, How to Tune Your Oracle Forms
Figure 5: Dual Antenna Ground Terminal Server Applications, March 2000.
To compensate for Ka band rain fade in high rain locations, [4] C. Partridge and T. Shepard, TCP/IP Performance over Satellite
Links, IEEE Network, Sept./Oct. 1997, pp. 44-49.
modems used with the O3b satellites have implemented uplink
[5] M. Allman et al., TCP Performance over Satellite Links, Proceedings
power control (UPC) and adaptive coding and modulation of the Fifth International Conference on Telecommunications Systems,
(ACM) as defined in the ETSI DVB-S2 standard [9] to boost Nashville, TN, March 1997.
power, reduce modulation rate, and increase forward error [6] Loral Cyberstar, Inc., TCP/IP Performance over Satellite Links
correction coding gain during severe rain events. Summary Report, March 2000.
[7] M. Allman, et al., Enhancing TCP Over Satellite Channels using
VII. SUMMARY AND RELEVANCE TO MILITARY Standard Mechanisms; RFC2488, Jan. 1999
COMMUNICATIONS [8] J. Border, et al., Performance Enhancing Proxies Intended to
Mitigate Link-Related Degradations; RFC 3135, June 2001.
In this paper, we discussed a number of properties of a [9] ETSI EN 302 307 V1.1.2 (2006-06) Digital Video Broadcasting
MEO satellite constellation. The decision to deploy a small (DVB); Second generation framing structure, channel coding and
number of satellites in an Equatorial orbit narrowed the area of modulation systems for Broadcasting, Interactive Services, News
the Earth that can be covered by the constellation to +/- 45 Gathering and other broadband satellite applications, June 2006.
degrees. The decision not to provide ubiquitous service to all
locations on the Earths surface has significantly reduced
system complexity and operational cost. The constellation is