Satellite broadband: the story so far
Written by: Laurence Doe | Published:

Laurence Doe takes a look at a market making an impact from outer space

The first communication satellite Telstar 1 was designed by US telecommunications company AT&T and launched on 10 July 1962. It has been a long time coming, but now satellite companies such as Avanti Communications are making the UK a leader in the multi-million pound satellite communication market.

The London-based business launched its first broadband satellite HYLAS 1 (Highly Adaptable Satellite) into space in 2010. HYLAS 1 used the latest high-frequency Ka- band technology to deliver high-speed data services to customers across Europe.

“At the time this was quite a bold move because the satellite industry had not yet embraced the use of this new high frequency,” says David Williams, chief executive of Avanti in a statement to the government. “As a result, Avanti and its peers now own more Ka-band satellites than any other country on Earth.” Satellite communications is a market segment where the UK really is taking a global lead. Avanti has launched HYLAS 2 and HYLAS 3 to cover Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and it will increase capacity for Africa further with the launch of HYLAS 4 in 2017.

In Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2015 report it states that satellite broadband has the advantage of covering large parts of the country using a small number of satellites, enabling varying levels of connectivity (including superfast broadband) anywhere in the UK.

Superfast broadband is defined by the European Union as speeds of 24 Mbps or above. The UK government’s ambition is to provide 95 per cent of the population with this speed or higher by 2017, with the rest having a minimum speed of 2 Mbps. However, the number of users that can be supported by satellite broadband at a given time is relatively limited compared to other broadband solutions.

In Ofcom’s last strategic review of satellite and space science’s spectrum use, it noted that there are a number of techniques that can increase the efficiency of spectrum usage that could be used to prevent congestion as demand for such services increases. These techniques include advancements in satellite antenna beam focusing technologies; allowing for smaller beams so that frequency bands can be re-used more often, like the way smaller cells allow greater spectrum reuse by MNOs.

In addition, the use of high throughput satellites together with new transmitter and receiver technologies could enable better use of spectrum, through allowing the use of “innovative and more spectrally efficient waveforms”, according to Ofcom. It adds that better compression techniques and methods to filter out unwanted signals increase the efficiency of spectrum resources between satellite networks and other users, such as terrestrial applications.

Beam there, done that
So what is the current situation? Most of the UK’s commercial mobile network operators offer high-speed 4G-LTE mobile coverage in heavily populated areas, but travelling outside of city centres often leads to a decline in service level to 3G or 2G, and many areas receive no service at all.

The solution is to embrace multiple technologies when planning public communications capabilities, according to Globalstar, which provides a low orbiting (1,410 km above the Earth’s surface, in eight orbital planes) satellite constellation for satellite phone and low-speed data communications.

The company believes that the need to provide diversity and additional backup to existing land-based communication networks can be seen in the emergency services’ and government agencies’ struggle to provide support and relief to people and businesses. This was particularly noticeable in the “suffering from the recent flooding that has been devastating the nation” says Gavan Murphy, the organisation’s director of marketing EMEA.

“Our view is that a model that combines existing terrestrial infrastructure with direct- to-user satellite services yields much improved reliability and a return on investment.”

Murphy adds that by integrating legacy and future land-based infrastructure with direct-to-user satellites, emergency services have the chance to benefit from always-on, reliable and ubiquitous communications. He notes that one benefit of Globalstar’s low Earth orbit architecture is a lower cost base for its network.

What’s the cost?
The perception that satellite is expensive is a common one according to Thierry Masson, product marketing manager at OneAccess, which designs, manufactures and brings to market multi-service routing platforms. He says that advancements in bandwidth capabilities and high throughput satellite are resulting in the prices “falling down”, and predicts they will continue to fall to the point where prices are “relatively competitive with terrestrial technologies”.

However, Tim Johnson, VP enterprise channel and portfolio development at global satellite network company Inmarsat, says that satellite won’t be a primary choice for connection because it’s generally not economically viable – local terrestrial infrastructure provides a “cheaper, faster alternative”.

“We are typically there in one of two roles. We’re coming in where terrestrial alternatives are far too expensive, or in a redundant role as a back-up to existing infrastructure,” says Johnson. “So if you have a failure, especially in places like Africa where there may be power failures and telecom network failures on a daily basis, satellite exists as an utterly reliable back-up unconnected to local terrestrial infrastructure.”

Inmarsat-4s (I-4s) satellites provide the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS); Credit: Inmarsat

“We have a gas station customer in Europe who is considering using satellite as a back-up link, which means deploying a dish at every gas station,” says Masson, adding the rationale behind this investment is to prevent the loss of revenue that would occur if the terrestrial DSL (digital subscriber lines) fail. “Economically satellite is becoming more and more interesting.”

The satellite suppliers that OneAccess is partnered with are “envisioning one terabit satellite, which is a lot of bandwidth, so the economics are going to change drastically” says Masson. He adds that this all started when the first Ka-band satellite dedicated to delivering broadband services to Europe was launched in 2010 and started to operate in 2011.

There are two options if MVNO coverage is not suitable for an individual or organisation’s needs. The first, says Masson, is to wait for fibre to be deployed by that service provider. The second is to have a satellite dish installed and bond it to the existing network.

“That would be a service proposed by the satellite service provider and it involves a dish, satellite modem and a router,” explains Masson. “You need a router anyway; it’s just that this would be a router connected to both the DSL and satellite.”

Potential users
Uptake of satellite will be more extensive once its potential to extend operations at lower cost is realised by businesses, explains Johnson.

“Satellite at first glance can seem daunting and extensive, but when they realise that we present a fairly inexpensive way for them to extend their operations on a global basis their eyes open up. It’s the sort of argument that you could have with a CFO very quickly. It’s a very spreadsheet-driven exercise.”

According to Johnson there are two main groups driving satellite development in the near future. The first is the aid and development community, which is dealing with “human disasters on a scale that they have never seen before”.

“Unfortunately the world’s economy means that they don’t have massively growing budgets to deal with these problems,” explains Johnson. But he adds that this community is getting “much smarter” about how they utilise existing infrastructure.

“We’re doing some interesting work there with our partners to try and bring much more robust suites of services to a really sophisticated group of users who are in some of the worst parts of the world. Whether it’s a Syrian refugee camp or in Nepal after the earthquake, we’re trying to make sure [aid workers] have access to 21st century technology over the satellite link so they’re operating in these environments as though they were operating back at United Nations headquarters.”

The other group pushing satellite development is the oil and gas sector, which has reviewed its operational costs and how cost-effective it might be to use technologies such as satellite since the price of oil fell below $30 a barrel, says Johnson.

“They’re always looking to make operational efficiencies, so they’re trying to make their ‘comms dollar’ go even further.”

So what will change the scope of satellite to come? Johnson sees increasing demand for data services as a key factor.

“The biggest driver of development in the market has been the shift in the needs customers have. If you looked at these requirements 20 years ago it would have been the same way most businesses were; they needed voice communications to pick up the phone and make a call to head office to co- ordinate activities. As time has gone by it went to a mix of voice and data and now everything is data. They want data at remote locations the same way they get it at headquarters – with lots of bandwidth – and a seamless global service offering the same level of service from location to location no matter where they are in the world.”

The version of this article that appeared in print and our digital edition incorrectly stated the distance between Globalstar’s satellite constellation and the Earth. This error was made by the author and has been corrected in this version.

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