Searching for the 'new Oklahoma' in space
If you were drawing up a list of the buzz space phrases of 2010 then the term "Ka-band" would surely feature.
I've certainly spent a good part of the year talking and writing about this particular portion of the radio spectrum.
We've seen a number of fascinating developments in telecommunications that will operate in Ka, a much higher frequency than is generally the staple of satcoms. Among the topics:
Hylas-1 – the first net-dedicated satellite working in Ka that was launched to fill the broadband "not-spots" of Europe.
Inmarsat – the world’s biggest Mobile Satellite Services company that ordered three Ka spacecraft to cement its current business whilst trying to move it into new areas as well.
O3b – an utterly intriguing, Google-backed project to provide "fibre in the sky" to support internet connections in the developing world. This will take the form of a constellation of low-orbiting spacecraft, again operating in Ka.
And then there is the appropriately named Ka-Sat which will be operated by Eutelsat, one of the world's big three Fixed Satellite Services companies. This six-tonne spacecraft is going into orbit on the year's final commercial Proton rocket launch from Baikonur.
Ka-Sat is a new venture for Eutelsat which is best known for delivering thousands of TV channels
Eutelsat is more accustomed to streaming thousands of TV channels across its fleet of geostationary spacecraft, but it has chosen to make a big play in the market for satellite-delivered broadband and has resorted to the high frequencies of Ka to make it happen.
So what is the buzz of Ka all about? A question I put to Eutelsat's CEO Michel de Rosen:
"Our business is to manage signals that go up and come down, and these signals use frequencies.
"There are frequency bands of different nature. For industrial companies that started working in this field 30 years ago, the easiest band to work in was the lowest band – the C-band. And then operators started moving into a higher band called Ku-band. Ka-band is higher still. And the reason Ka-band was not worked in previously is that it presented some technological challenges that were not handled well 20 years ago, but which have now been absolutely mastered.
"The situation is that C-band and Ku-band are becoming crowded. We have to think long term in our industry because a satellite takes three years to build and works for 15 years. And at Eutelsat, we had to think where our growth would come from in the future – where was our 'new Oklahoma', our new territory? And the clear thinking at Eutelsat is that Ka-band is the territory we’re going to have to work with more and more."
Ka's time has come, then; and part of the picture is our insatiable desire to use the internet wherever we are, from the mountaintop to the middle of the ocean.
If you are going to use a satellite to provide such connectivity then Ka gives you the "wide pipe" you need.
Eutelsat says Ka-Sat will be the most powerful civil telecommunications satellite ever sent into orbit. It will have a total throughput of some 70Gbps. This will be channelled via 82 spot beams on to different market areas stretching from North Africa to southern Scandinavia. A very small segment of the Middle East will also be reached.
Consumers will be offered broadband packages generally up 10Mbps, with some specialist markets able to buy up to 30Mbps.
Of course, most of Ka-Sat's users will not be in exotic places. Rather, they will be at home in Europe, somewhere where current terrestrial technologies – fibre, ADSL, 3G, 4G, etc – do not reach.
It's the same underserved market that Avanti's Hylas-1 spacecraft is also targeting.
There's a lively debate right now about just how big this market is today and how it will evolve in the years to come.
There are probably tens of millions of households across Europe which still cannot get a decent net connection. But governments and telecom companies have promised to close the not-spots.
In the UK, the new coalition government recently re-stated the universal broadband commitment on a minimum 2Mbps connection for everyone, although it has let the target date for achieving this commitment slip.
From the satellite operators' perspective, this is an important issue because the pace and scope of the roll-out of better terrestrial technologies, and of fibre in particular, may determine the profitability of their Ka ventures.
It's recognised that the relative speed, cost and surfing experience offered by satellite will never be a match for fibre. And if more people are offered the fibre solution, fewer will need to resort to the satellite option.
Eutelsat says it has weighed this issue carefully and has come to the conclusion that there will be a rump – and a sizeable one at that – of European households for which satellite may be the only chance of getting a decent internet connection for many years to come. Michel de Rosen:
"Some observers have said, 'hey, Eutelsat! Are you sure about Ka-Sat? You’re investing 250m euros'. It’s a significant investment. People ask us if this venture is really going to be profitable. We do believe it, and all the studies we do and all the discussions we have with our distributors tell us that the need is there and we expect that this need will grow.
"We’re not launching 10 Ka-Sats; we’re launching one. Our satellite to be totally saturated has a nominal capacity up to two million households. And this is the maximum, and it assumes the satellite provides only the broadband service and no others. That won't be the case. It will be able to deliver other services as well like professional video and data services for corporations.
"So let's say for instance that Ka-Sat will serve only one million broadband households and do some of these other services. Well, if we assume today that there are 30 million households that do not get good broadband services, and even assuming that Avanti's Hylas satellite serves some of these people - we only need about 3% of the 30 million to saturate Ka-Sat."
A couple of quick notes to finish on. The first: whenever I talk about satellite broadband someone will usually make a comment about latency, the delay in signal travel time up into space and back and the grief this introduces into the internet experience.
It exists, it's true; although technical tricks have improved matters considerably. But for those people who currently have to put up with ultra-slow, low-latency connections and who do not look like they will get a fibre solution anytime soon, a high-speed, high-latency option provided by satellite will almost certainly be preferable, surely?
Second: we began the year talking about a new climate of optimism in British space and the opportunities that existed for the UK to grow its space industry. Ka and broadband-by-satellite are evidence of that.
Both Ka-Sat and Hylas were "made in Britain". Indeed, a year ago I stood in the EADS Astrium cleanroom in Portsmouth with the communications payloads of both spacecraft no more than a couple of metres away from me on either side.