JPL's Wireless Communication Reference Website

Chapter: Network Concepts and Standards
Section: Satellite Systems

Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT)

Communication systems increasingly offer the possibility to communicate to somebody anywhere and anytime. In telephony, this becomes evident by the development of cellular telephone networks. Proposals, such as Iridium exist for a global network in which handheld telephones directly have access to low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites.

Satellite data communication systems show a similar development as telephone systems. The tendency here is towards smaller and transportable groundstations. This is shown by the popularity of the very small aperture terminals (VSATs) in the United States of America. VSATs are small satellite groundstations, normally linked within a VSAT network. The size of a VSAT is limited to a maximum antenna diameter of approximately 240 cm. VSATs are suitable for low rate data traffic (approximately 64 kbit/s).

VSAT Applications

Due to the small bit rate on the return link, the system is especially suitable for data collection applications. Suppose the system is divided into smaller subsystems, each with its own hub station. These subsystems could for example be used for national weather data collection. The complete system could also be used for international data collection. In principle, with three geostationary satellites, a global coverage is possible. In this way it is possible to collect (weather) data for, for example, global climate (change) research.

VSAT Network

VSAT networks consist of a number of terminals and a satellite through which the terminals communicate. Usually a bigger groundstation, often called a "hub station", is added for network control. If it is not possible to transfer messages directly from one VSAT to another, the hub can also be used as an intermediate station. VSAT networks have a number of advantages over traditional terrestrial networks. Among these advantages are that VSAT networks can easily cover a wide geographical area and that it is relatively easy to change the network configuration.

Figure: VSAT network

Through the development of powerful satellites operating in the 30/20 GHz frequency bands it is possible to further reduce the size of VSATs. Ultra-small fully portable satellite groundstations (picoterminals) with an antenna diameter of approximately 10-20 cm are possible in principle. However these terminals will have a very low data rate of a few kbit/s or even lower. So their primary purpose lies in telex-like message transfer, although technically it is possible to use them for coded speech transfer (for example 4.8 kbit/s).

Multiple Access

One satellite can simultaneously support thousands of picoterminal accesses. This means that the number of users in a picoterminal network can be a multiple of this, resulting in a communication network with an enormous size. To control such a number of terminals, the multiple access scheme for picoterminals may be a combination of frequency division multiple access (FDMA) and code division multiple access (CDMA). The CDMA spread-spectrum technique normally used for satellite communications is direct sequence spread spectrum.

The use of spread spectrum techniques in picoterminal networks has several advantages.

Picoterminal satellite communications network

Figure: Mesh and star VSAT network architectures

Two basic architectures for a picoterminal satellite communications network exist. These are the full mesh architecture and the star architecture. In a full mesh architecture a terminal can directly communicate with another terminal via the satellite. In a star network communication between two picoterminals is via a larger hub station.

The CODE system

The (Co-operative Olympus Data Experiment) CODE system, which operates at Ka band, consists of a large number of microterminals with 80 cm diameter antennas which can communicate directly in a mesh network at 64 kbit/s. A central hub station is used for channel allocation, general monitoring and control of the microterminals. The CODE system uses the 30/20 GHz transponder of the Olympus satellite. The satellite access scheme of the system is FDMA (Frequency Division Multiple Access) with two types of signals: 2 Mbit/s QPSK and 64 kbit/s BPSK, both 1/2-rate FEC encoded. The 2 Mbit/s QPSK signals originate from the hub station. The 64 kbit/s BPSK signals are generated by the microterminals. The total bandwidth of the Olympus 20/30 GHz transponder of 40 MHz can accommodate a total of four 2 Mbit/s carriers together with up to one hundred 64 kbit/s carriers.

As the CODE network is a full mesh network a microterminal can directly communicate with another microterminal via the satellite.

JPL's Wireless Communication Reference Website Jean-Paul M.G. Linnartz and Frank Kamperman, 1993, 1995.