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A Herculean effort to deliver broadband by satellite

Jonathan Amos | 12:24 UK time, Saturday, 18 September 2010

The date was September 1999 and banker David Williams was sitting on a beach in Santa Monica:

"I'd just spent a soul-destroying day at a satellite manufacturer, trying to push forward a project and getting bogged down in just the most ridiculous bureaucracy. And I was thinking there had to be an easier way of doing the satellite business. It's not that complicated - you get some money, you pay someone to build a satellite, you launch it, you flog the capacity. How hard can that be? I was venting my frustration to my wife and she said: 'if you think you're so bloody clever, go and do it yourself!'"

Roll forward to September 2010 and David Williams, now CEO of Avanti Communications, is just about to see his first satellite go into orbit on an Ariane 5.

Engineer works on Hylas telecommunications payload

The payload for Hylas was developed through Esa's Artes telecoms research programme

Hylas-1 is intended to be the first of three spacecraft (and more). Its primary market will be those people who live in internet-deprived areas - locations where terrestrial technologies such as fibre do not reach.

In the UK alone, the number of households that currently struggle to get a 2Mbps connection runs to many hundreds of thousands. Across Europe, it runs to many millions.

Hylas operates predominantly in the Ka-band, a part of the satellite-apportioned radio spectrum that allows high data rates.

Consumers on Hylas should enjoy speeds up to 10Mbps. In other words, it will help meet the Universal Service Commitment in the UK to provide 2Mbps to everyone by 2012.

The endeavour has been a private-public one. The British government put funding into the European Space Agency's telecommunications research programme, Artes, to produce the Hylas payload at EADS Astrium.

This innovative piece of kit can vary the amount of power and bandwidth needed to match the peaks and troughs in demand for net access across its European "footprint". David Williams:

"This is a big event for Britain. This is the first Ka-band system launched in Europe. It was done through a combination of Avanti, Astrium, and the British government just buccaneering in a really creative way to get something done. It didn't involve a huge, expensive, complex government programme - it was very efficiently done by the UK Space Agency, as it's called now, just deciding that Astrium should develop this technology and trusting Avanti to go and raise the money in the market to do it."

Today, Avanti has market capital of more than half a billion pounds. Its second satellite is fully funded and should launch 2015.

An artist's impression of Hylas in orbit

Hylas-1 is due to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket in November

The whole proposition is popular with investors. Just look at how its share price has performed... and remember, Avanti has yet to get its first satellite in orbit.

That doesn't happen until late November.

There are naysayers, of course. One of the most frequently heard concerns is that the broadband-by-satellite market will eventually be beaten back by terrestrial technologies.

Henrik Nyblom covers the telecoms beat at investment bankers Nomura. He described to me the position held by established satellite operator SES and some others:

"There are different views from within the industry. SES say they don't believe in a dedicated satellite; they don't think it makes sense based on the fact that terrestrial broadband will build out into those rural areas that today you can see satellite broadband being used. There is only a window of a few years where this service could really have a market and then terrestrial broadband - wireless or fixed - will fill these holes. SES argues that if you look at the auctions coming up for analogue TV spectrum that will be repurposed, such as in Germany, [the authorities] put as part of the criteria that to bid for this spectrum and to win this spectrum, you need to start building out rural areas before you start building out urban areas."

Williams' response is that some of the new terrestrial technologies such as 4G will operate data limits that no home user will find satisfactory:

"You cannot do fixed broadband substitution on a mobile phone network. A mobile phone network cannot supply the bandwidth that you need as a consumer to do broadband at home. What mobile phones do is mobility and they do that very well. The mobile phone companies will stick to mobility. Stephen Carter said that in the Digital Britain report last year. He said mobile phone technology is not the answer for fixed broadband, so anyone who says it is has either failed to consider, or understand, the technology, or has an agenda."

One established satellite player certainly shares Williams' position, and that is Eutelsat. The Paris-based operator has its own broadband-dedicated spacecraft launching not long after Hylas.

Called Ka-Sat, the spacecraft is something of a gorilla in space terms compared to Hylas.

Whereas the UK platform weighs 2.5 tonnes, has eight spot beams and can serve up to 300,000 customers; the French bird weighs almost six tonnes, has 80 spot beams and can serve more than a million customers.

One might fear for the nimble Brit with such a heavyweight coming on to the scene, but there is another widely held view in the industry that the pair need each other to drive open the market. David Williams again:

"I share that view. It was good news for us the day that Eutelsat announced that they were building a Ka-band satellite because it just added credibility to what we were already doing; and two operators competing in the market place will create more noise, more PR. The consumer will have some choices. The consumer will be able to compare and contrast, and that makes for a healthier market. And it probably means the market will expand faster."

Journalists like a conflict narrative, and it makes for some fun that the British and the French should be going into space to do the same thing at broadly the same time.

One thing seems clear - the consumer is going to be a winner; and making a minimum 2Mbps broadband service available to all European households has got to be good for the continent as a whole.


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