Surfing in space just got faster

 
Ka-Sat spot beams (Eutelsat) Ka-Sat is delivering services across Europe

Feel the bandwidth. Those who live in out-of-the way places in the UK and the rest of Europe, and who have been feeling digitally deprived, now have a new friend in the sky.

This week saw the entrance into commercial service of Ka-Sat, a six-tonne telecommunications spacecraft dedicated to providing broadband internet to consumers and businesses across the continent.

Operated by Paris-based Eutelsat, the platform joins the fray with London-based Avanti's Hylas-1 spacecraft, which came on stream just a few weeks ago.

The pair are the first net-dedicated satellites for Europe and should make quite a difference to the "not-spot" problem. Not-spots, if you were wondering, are those places where it has not been possible to get decent net connectivity via terrestrial solutions - fibre, ADSL, 3G, 4G, etc. It's a significant issue.

"Ninety-five percent of Europeans now have access to broadband internet infrastructure. That's a great achievement. But it still leaves a lot of people - 10 million households, in fact - who we are still to reach," Neelie Kroes, the European Commission vice-president responsible for digital matters, said on Tuesday.

"I am confident that this can be done - but only if we use the full range of options. To deliver that last 5%, we are going to have to get creative about the technology solutions we use."

To put this is into a more specific British context, it's thought there are about 250,000 households for whom dial-up remains the only option for getting online; and there are about two million homes where terrestrial solutions will get them up to two megabits per second (Mbps), max.

So satellite is very much now one of the options in the mix.

Laptop and modem (Skylogic) Competition will hopefully make prices tumble

Internet from the sky hasn't always had the best press. The image often portrayed is one of very slow connectivity (by terrestrial standards), and, worse still, something that is very expensive to install and run.

You'll also have heard grumbles about latency (more of which later). But the point about the new entrants is that they are changing the landscape, and quite dramatically so.

They operate in the Ka band - geek-speak for the higher frequencies in the radio communications spectrum. These new satellites can handle a much faster throughput of data, and that is reflected in the services they'll be offering. One would hope that competition will also make prices tumble.

For example, if you go to one of the retailers selling broadband packages through Ka-Sat, you should be able to get "up to" 6Mbps download (maximum upload 1Mbps) for £24.99 a month. The one-off cost of the equipment - dish and modem - and installation will likely cost about £300 (although, if you're adventurous, you can put the dish up yourself, and with a separate gadget even pick up satellite TV on the same antenna).

Just focus for a moment on the £24.99 a month. It wasn't that long ago that I was paying a similar sum for ADSL 2Mbps. And for these new high-throughput satellites, packages up to 10Mbps are available (and higher still on Ka-Sat for professional users like broadcasters).

I'll be interested to hear your experiences in the comments section if you are a satellite broadband user, whether you've still got one of the old connections running through a Ku band spacecraft; and especially if you've managed to get on to one of the new platforms.

Ka-Sat (EADS Astrium) The telecommunications "brain" in Ka-Sat was prepared in the UK

"We've been switching over customers to Hylas; we've moved some three-and-a-half thousand now, mostly in Scotland with our existing partners and in Northern Ireland," Avanti's Simon Barrett told me. "It's a better service and the general response has been very positive."

Tell me also what you think about latency. This refers to the delay in signal travel time up into space and back, and the impact it can have on the surfing experience.

People have long complained about net telephone calls (Voip) not working well; and likewise VPNs, the secure connections used by business.

A lot of technical tricks have been introduced in recent years to improve matters considerably.

The ping tests to a server in California via Ka-Sat that I saw this week recorded a very stable 900 milliseconds.

Steve Petrie works for Skylogic which is managing Ka-Sat services with its network of retail partners. He told me: "I don't think latency is as important as some people make out. There's really nothing you can't do on this satellite service.

"People always say 'well, what about gaming?'. So we've done a lot of testing on gaming and most of it works fine. From bridge and poker to driving games, where people in different countries may be racing each other, we've found no problems.

"The games that may be problematic are the shooting games, and you may find yourself getting shot more often. But, to be honest, most people are not going to notice the latency."

So, if "shoot 'em ups" are your passion, satellite broadband is probably not your solution; but for many of the digitally dispossessed out there who stand little chance of getting a decent terrestrial connection anytime soon - the new wave of satellite broadband packages will be most welcome.

Laptop on the train (Esa) We want connectivity on the move

Now, of course, you might be sitting there reading this page, having called it up on your fibre connection, and thinking "this really doesn't affect me". But there may be another area where it does: on aeroplanes and trains and other moving vehicles.

Increasingly, these modes of transport will incorporate wi-fi onboard, and all the stuff you normally do on your net-enabled phone will be fed through the new-generation of high-throughput spacecraft.

Finally, it's interesting for me, having witnessed Hylas and Ka-Sat being built in a British factory prior to launch (their communications payloads were both prepared by Astrium in Portsmouth), to now see the pair finally in service in orbit.

Net-dedicated satellites are a technology the UK could take a lead in, if it so chooses.

There are many other parts of the world where satellites will also form a part of the mix of connection solutions. No-one would suggest that satellites can match terrestrial fibre on speed and price, but if you're living in one of the 10 million dial-up-only homes across Europe, they at least give you some options.

 
Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 35.

    I think the gamers may be missing the point here.
    If i had to take the bus to get to work every day or for trips to the supermarket and eventually had the chance to own a ford fiesta then i'm sure i'd be very happy. The fact that my fiesta wouldn't be the ideal car to go racing at the weekend wouldn't be an issue.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 34.

    33.Robert Lucien
    you really need to learn some science as all scientists will tell you its never beyond imagination its beyond normal comprehension.
    two very very different things but not to a school boy.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 33.

    paddyladdie - hate to tell you this but up there there's nothing but room - thats why they call it space. Its actually pretty big you know, even the part where those satellites orbit is many tens of thousands of times bigger than the area of the surface of the Earth. Most people cant even begin to imagine how big it is, the size is literally beyond the non-scientifically trained imagination..400cr

  • rate this
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    Comment number 32.

    I think this Ka Sat business very clever stuff. Just to think of all the clutter hurling around in the upper atmosphere each doing a job of work..when will the skies give out a yawning cry, 'there's no more room! Keep going you Boffins and thank you.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 31.

    Believe me, 900ms is way to much latency to play any form of reaction-critical game online. As Chewbacca has quite rightly pointed out, you'll get kicked from FPS servers for pings over a certain limit, normally 250ms or so. Most semi-serious gamers wont even use wireless broadband.

    I doubt you managed to play a racing game with any form of competency at such a high ping.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 30.

    You can not game on-line with a 900ms ping. Most games wont allow you to connect if it's over 200ms. Shooters are pretty much un-playable over 100ms. A slow moving RPG perhaps, but never a shoot, car game or any other when timing is of an essence..

  • rate this
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    Comment number 29.

    @afcftw - 5 not 6, I suspect that @nickburks and myself are both dyed in the wool Engineers, I can't speak for him but I can take you the breadth from how to make your Si go faster all the way up to processor design.Yet we have had the term 'geek' used as a derogatory term, by people who use what we have created without thinking.It's one of the reasons why there are so few new Engineers now.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 28.

    for about 9 months i used sat.broadband sometimes i could get downloads upto 25mb/s my uploads were rarely faster than 100kb/s which defeated a respectable ping speed.I now use a long range dongle and can operate to repeaters at a distance of about 30 miles on the 3 system and can use voip and video messageing with degrading the signal my ping is between 60 & 99ms

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 27.

    Tbh any technology which brings fast internet to more people is a good thing. Regardless of whether it is as quick as other methods, if it is allowing people in remote destinations to connect and use the internet to a good level it is positive for the country.

    In an age where the internet is becomming increasingly important it is vital to ensure we are ahead of the game.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 26.

    @nickburks - do you really see it as that derogatory? I have always thought of geek as a term used mainly by people who know a bit about computers to describe themselves or peers.

    Infact i'd go as far as to say geek is a compliment in that it implies an in depth knowledge of a subject that many people fail to grasp.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 25.

    I live in a village so get a very poor ADSL speed. Just checked the cost of satellite broadband, for 13GB download limit every 4 weeks it is £54.99! Yes I would like the (potential) increase in speed but not at that cost, if it came down by 50% then I would be interested

  • rate this
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    Comment number 24.

    @Asic, Completely agree, the term is tossed around in the workplace casually without realizing the derogatory nature of it. Given the size and importance of the IT industry plus its almost complete integration in western society, you'd have thought such prejudices would have left us.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 23.

    @JonathanAmos Latency is always an issue with any form of streaming media. Packets sent in these connections need to be acknowledged by the receiver. As soon as your latency goes above the allowed time (RTT - Round Trip Timeout or TTL - Time to Live) the receiver requests a new packet in which case you get that 'Buffering' logo on your video. Latency and Speed are just as important as each other.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 22.

    You should be proud to be called a geek - alot of people are incapable of being a geek and alot of others wish they where ;)

  • rate this
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    Comment number 21.

    re illage2 and Jonathon Amos.We don't like the term 'Geek' because we are Professional Engineers,we work V hard to provide you the technology you see around you.We take pride in knowing that our designs will be working 20 years into the future rather than some slapdash job.It's a reflection of society's attitude to Engineers, you are happy to image us as spotty hackers rather than Professionals

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 20.

    Why are people so offended by the term "Geek Speak"?
    People label me as a computer geek and I am not offended by that at all.


    Anyway, this seems like a cool idea and I can't wait to see how it develops. The only problem is that the signal might go if there is a storm over the area you are in, but other than that it seems good.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 19.

    @virtualmark. I thought I was the one initiating the conversation about latency! ;-) I don't play online games (sorry) - not everyone does. If you want to watch the BBC iPlayer, this isn't going to be an issue; nor if you want to run a mail account, or operate an eBay business in the middle of Wales. Would you prefer dial-up because that's the alternative facing a rump of homes across Europe.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 18.

    Fibre To The Home is the gold standard, but the reality is many will not see this for a very long time. Something has to done for those right on the bottom of the broadband ladder – for those who haven’t even got a foot on the lowest rung. PS. Some of us wear our geek badge with pride.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 17.

    re: posting 16 virtualmark: I think you're missing the point about satellite broadband. It's aimed at those people in rural locations (10 million across Europe) that are too far from local exchanges and are highly unlikely to get fibre as the distances and costs are just not economical. For your average person that just wants to be able to browse, shop, email, etc, latency really wont be an issue.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 16.

    The latency makes online gaming practically impossible. On shooting games anything over 100ms ping is a massive disadvantage, and on fighting games too. Team chat probably won't work properly either. I'm surprised the bbc would play down latency for online gaming, this is really misinforming the public. Latency is more important than bandwidth!

 

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