Surfing in space just got faster
- 3 June 2011
- From the section Science & Environment
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.
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.
"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.
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.