The role of satellite in ‘broadband for all’

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Christopher Britton, CEO, Hughes Europe, says there is a lot of talk about what fibre optic networks and wireless broadband can offer those in more remote ‘not spot’ areas.

In responding to this, the government recently announced as part of its recent Comprehensive Spending Review that planned major investment in rural networks would be protected as it drives toward a target date of 2015 in achieving universal broadband for ‘Digital UK’ as it competes in an ever-tougher global marketplace.

Yet such initiatives don’t necessarily demand huge budgets. Technologies already exist to expand current coverage, as the channel can offer satellite broadband solutions providing accessibility to those more remote areas where terrestrial, cable or wireless is limited or too costly to install.

The precise situation ‘on the ground’ is far from clear. Look at the official ’not spot’ figures for the UK and then talk to those individuals and small businesses around the country unable to get to consistent broadband delivery and two very different pictures emerge.

However, though the start point in terms of current coverage may in some areas be disputed, there is no such disagreement as to the end goal, in creating an environment where rural consumers and commercial enterprises are no longer at a disadvantage to their urban neighbours and ‘not spots’ are firmly consigned to history.

What is equally clear is that satellite providers and their distributor partners have an essential role to play in reaching geographies that other technologies cannot effectively reach.

A Ka-band revolution

In the past, satellite has not always been perceived as providing a fully competitive alternative in delivering robust, cost-effective communications. Yet, more recently, there have been a number of technology developments which have significantly narrowed the gap.

However, building on the positive experience in the US over the past year and more, the UK and European consumer broadband market is about to be revolutionised by the availability of a range of new high speed broadband services. Following the launch of the first dedicated high-throughput Ka-band satellite in November 2010, affordable high-speed broadband will be directly accessible to domestic users for the first time.

Importantly, these services are available from experienced and well-respected satellite service providers and their channel partners, substantially reducing the overall operating costs of satellite services, both in terms of bandwidth utilisation and systems hardware. The result is that users will benefit from reliable high-speed always-on satellite internet access backed by market-leading service and technical support quality – at price end-users can afford.

Consumer benefits

As a result, Ka-band users will be able to experience exactly the same high level and consistent quality broadband, irrespective of whether they are in Central London, the Scottish Highlands or the North Sea. There will be no waiting for land-lines to be connected and guaranteed 100 per cent coverage, with no ‘not spots’.

Satellite communications have traditionally used C-band frequencies (between 4 and 8 GHz) and Ku-band (between 12 and 18Ghz), whereas the latest Ka-band uses between 26.5 and 40Ghz to communicate with the satellite. This offers the advantage of more bits per second – more than twice the capacity of earlier satellite technologies.

At the same time, other issues that have historically impaired satellite performance, such as rain fade, have been directly addressed by a number of new related technologies designed to ensure that the connection stays alive and minimises latency. Even in those limited number of highly interactive applications which suffer from a high degree of latency – such as highly interactive first shooter, sports and motor racing games – or home office applications using Citrix or other thin client technologies, solutions are able to improve performance over satellite.

A positive future

With such a hugely-underserved market, it is no surprise that industry analyst, Northern Star Research predicts a CAGR of more than 30 per cent for European satellite broadband over the next five years, from just 80,000 subscribers in 2009 to more than 650,00 in 2015. And, if the adjacent geographies of Eastern Europe and the Middle East are added, the market potential is even more compelling.

This reinforces the view that the availability of Ka-band provides a realistic yet exciting opportunity for satellite providers to fill the gap between the promise of universal broadband and the current rather more earthbound reality.