Bits in Space: Connecting the World with Satellite Technology 

Alexandros Margomenos, GlobalFoundries Director RF Product Management 

As recently as just a few decades ago, the idea of delivering broadband and cellular connectivity from space was a futuristic dream. Fast forward to today, and this dream is rapidly becoming a reality. Advances in satellite technology are revolutionizing global connectivity. These types of advancements are powered by essential innovations in semiconductor technology, like those we are pioneering here at GlobalFoundries, which are helping to bring high-speed communication to every corner of the globe, even the most remote areas. These innovations are essential for creating immersive user experiences and transforming industries. 

So, How Does It Work? 

You may be asking, what do all these satellites mean, and how does it impact me? Let’s break it down. 

There are two main types of satellites used for communication: Geosynchronous (GEO) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. 

  • GEO Satellites: These orbit 36,000 km above the Earth and stay fixed over one spot. They can cover large areas with just a few satellites but have higher latency (delay) because of their distance. 
  • LEO Satellites: These orbit much closer to Earth, between 500 to 1,200 km. They provide lower latency (less delay) and faster internet speeds but require many more satellites to cover the globe because they move quickly across the sky. LEO satellites travel at nearly 25 times the speed of sound, enabling significantly lower latency (<20 milliseconds). 

Connecting the Dots: How Satellites Communicate 

Satellite networks include four types of communication links. In all cases, the downlink from the satellite is at a lower frequency compared to the uplink to optimize the power amplifiers on the satellite. 

  • User Link: Connects the satellite to your home or mobile device. This is how you receive data from the satellite. 
  • Feeder Link: Connects the satellite to ground stations (gateway terminals), linking the satellite network to the terrestrial internet. 
  • Telemetry, Tracking, and Command (TT&C) Link: Manages the satellite’s operations, ensuring they stay on course and function correctly. 
  • Intersatellite Links (ISL): Allow satellites to talk to each other, transferring data and coordinating handoffs as they orbit. 

Typically, user, feeder, and TT&C links use RF and millimeter-wave frequencies, while ISL links can utilize both millimeter-wave frequencies and optical communications. 

To put it simply, think of it as a relay race. The user link is like the baton passed from the satellite to your device. The feeder link is the baton passed from the satellite to the ground station, connecting you to the wider internet. The TT&C link ensures the satellites stay on course, much like a coach guiding the runners. Finally, ISLs are like runners passing the baton between each other to ensure seamless coverage as they orbit the Earth. 

The Evolution of Satellite Antennas 

Imagine those old satellite systems: giant, rigid dish antennas—like the ones you might see in old movies. These large dishes were excellent for sending focused signals but lacked flexibility. They could only point in one direction at a time and needed to be physically moved to change their focus. 

Today, the game has changed with the advent of phased array antennas. Instead of one big dish, think of these antennas as being made up of thousands of tiny elements, each capable of steering a part of the signal. These elements work together to create a powerful, flexible system that can direct beams electronically, without any moving parts. 

This technological leap means that modern satellites can connect to multiple places at once, seamlessly switching between different targets. It’s like having a spotlight that can instantly shine in any direction, or even multiple directions at once, without physically moving. 

Choosing the Right Technology 

Creating these advanced satellite systems requires selecting the right semiconductor technology. Key considerations include the type of beamforming (analog, digital, or hybrid), system design (placing amplifiers close to antennas vs. integrating them with beamformers) and achieving a low noise figure (NF) for better performance. Lower NF means fewer required elements, simplifying design and reducing costs, making the system more efficient overall. 

Powering the Future of Connectivity 

At GF, we offer a wide range of technologies supporting all the components necessary for creating any possible configuration of satellite communication phased arrays. Here are some of our key technologies: 

  • 130NSX: Perfect for ground terminals, offering excellent performance for smaller phased arrays. 
  • High-Performance SiGe: Efficient power amplifiers and low noise for high-volume manufacturing. 
  • 9SW and 45RFSOI: Advanced RF SOI technologies optimized for beamformers, ensuring high efficiency and low noise. 
  • 22FDX: Combines high-density logic and memory, ideal for digital beamformers and integrated systems. 

By leveraging these essential technologies, we are helping to create satellite systems that are more efficient, cost-effective, and capable of bringing high-speed connectivity to every corner of the globe. 

Significant progress has been made to expand access and adoption of broadband services. The number of internet users doubled between 2010 and 2020, reaching over 4 billion users worldwide. As we continue to innovate and develop these technologies, the dream of connecting the next 4 billion people is closer than ever.