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Broadband via satellite: more than just a stopgap?

06 December 2010

Broadband satellite operator, Avanti Communications’ chief executive David Williams must have breathed a sigh of relief when his company’s first service vehicle, Hylas 1 was successfully launched from the Kourou Space Centre aboard an Ariane 5 launcher at the end of last month. Avanti reported a “perfect” launch as Hylas 1 moved smoothly into orbit and began communications with the earthbound control centre following the successful deployment of its solar panels.

Hylas – short for highly adaptable satellite – is the first super-fast broadband satellite to be launched outside of the USA and is poised to provide coverage for those in rural locations who have missed out badly on the broadband speed stakes and who are impatient with ISPs and their endless promises of good things just around the corner. Mr Williams says that anyone in the UK, and including those within his company’s European ‘beams’, can now have broadband, regardless of their location. But before Hylas 1 goes fully operational early in 2011, London-based Avanti wants to put it through its paces with a series of performance tests, at the same time finalising contracts with the ISPs who will deliver the service on the ground.

Avanti’s model is to provide its services through telecommunications companies, some 60 of which it has already partnered in Europe. Only last week the company signed a five year agreement with BT for the provision of satellite broadband services via Hylas 1. Under the terms of this agreement, Avanti will supply satellite broadband services, as required by BT, as part of the recently announced £132m ‘next-generation’ access project in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, of which BT is a major partner. The agreement is not limited to Cornwall, however, and will allow BT to deliver satellite broadband services to other parts of the UK.

The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly project will offer alternative technologies, such as satellite broadband, to those homes and businesses in the region that will not be fortunate enough to receive super-fast fibre broadband under the next-generation scheme. Avanti has a second satellite under construction – Hylas 2 – due for launch in the spring of 2012, which will have greater capacity than Hylas 1 and which will provide further coverage across Europe as well as parts of the Middle East and Africa. The combined capacity of both satellites will be one million consumers.

Meanwhile, over on the European mainland, SES Astra, which offers the Astra2Connect interactive broadband Internet service via distribution partners to end customers and businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is currently serving more than 65,000 end-users in Europe, making it the largest satellite-based broadband network on the continent. Unlike Avanti, however, which has launched a dedicated Ka-band broadband Internet service via its Hylas 1 satellite, SES offers broadband access on what is essentially a well-established TV and radio broadcast platform.

In terms of Ka-band offerings, Avanti’s closest European rival is Eutelsat Communications, whose Ka-Sat satellite is due for launch via a Proton rocket from the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on December 20. Built by Astrium (the company that also built Hylas 1), and weighing in at 6.1 tonnes, Ka-Sat is hailed by Eutelsat as the cornerstone of a new European infrastructure, which includes eight main gateways and two back-up gateways located across Europe and connected to the Internet by a fibre backbone ring. With its total capacity of more than 70Gb/s (ranking it as the world’s most powerful communications spacecraft), Europe’s first ‘High-Throughput Satellite’ is expected to usher in a new era of competitively-priced satellite-delivered services.

With ubiquitous coverage of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, Ka-Sat will provide the infrastructure to support take-up of Eutelsat’s Tooway broadband service, boosting delivery speeds to 10Mb/s download and 4Mb/s upload, as well as providing a platform for data communications, local and regional broadcasting, IPTV and emerging video applications needing ultra high bit rates such as HD digital cinema.

This is all encouraging news for those who have been suffering very slow broadband connections or no broadband connection at all, due to their location. But, like all good things, there’s a bit of a catch. Quite apart from the usual problem of bandwidth allocation at times of peak usage, which can slow a connect rate considerably (as with terrestrial DSL), there is that insurmountable problem of latency – the inevitable delay due to the transmission path to and from a very distant geo-stationary satellite. Not significant if you are simply surfing the Internet or sending and receiving emails, but very noticeable when using VoIP or other interactive services such as live video streaming or online gaming. And if you’ve ever tried to watch a TV broadcast via satellite during a downpour, you will be aware of another lurking problem with regard to satellite Internet access!

Finally, there’s the question of cost. For relatively modest speeds and download limits that might restrict you to one or two HD movies per month, you could be paying anything up to £100 or more per month; and then there’s that hefty start-up fee. There’s good news from Avanti, however, which hopes to start its prices at around £25 per month for 2Mb/s - on a par with some terrestrial services delivered over copper. But we will have to wait just a little longer for that.

The fact remains, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Satellite broadband could be a lifesaver for those remotely based individuals and businesses that simply cannot wait any longer for a fibre roll-out to their locations. Satellite broadband could provide that all-important stopgap.

Les Hunt

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