High throughput platforms using spot beam technology and frequency re-use have the potential to become engines of growth for the satellite industry, but will require a change to a consumer-focus approach on the part of satellite operators.
The growth in end-user applications like DTH, HD content, mobile satellite services and broadband access is fuelling demand for larger, more powerful satellites, but the increase in satellite power or size is not the whole picture. New technologies also are making inroads into the market, allowing for an increase in satellite capacity, which, in turn, is leading to remarkable changes in the satellite sector.
“We should distinguish between ‘bigger and more powerful’ satellites and ‘higher capacity’ satellites,” says Mark Dankberg, ViaSat CEO. “While high capacity satellites are often ‘big’ and ‘more powerful,’ not all ‘big’ satellites also offer very high total bandwidth throughput or capacity,” he says. These developments are no accident, of course. A quick look at broadband bandwidth consumption statistics shows that people want more and more bandwidth each year. Online, on-demand, streaming or downloadable video sites such as YouTube, Netflix and Hulu and others are among the biggest drivers of bandwidth demand. “To meet that demand requires a different type of satellite system than the one the industry has been building over the past few decades,” he says.
A new breed of satellites is being developed to address the growth in demand for broadband connectivity. These satellites, known as high throughput satellites (HTS), as first defined by NSR, are true game changers. “In HTS platforms, there is a high level of frequency re-use thanks to the adoption of spotbeam technology, which ultimately makes it possible for operators to deliver services comparable to terrestrial services in terms of pricing,” says Patrick French, senior analyst, NSR. He is not alone in this view. “HTSs will increase satellites’ addressable market and lead to fiber-like offerings competitive with terrestrial broadband,” says Arunas Slekys, Hughes’ vice president of corporate marketing and general manager of the Russia/CIS region.
It is clear that the development of HTS platforms represents a remarkable opportunity for the satellite sector. These satellite platforms ultimately may serve only a small fraction of the overall broadband user market, currently estimated at more than 500 million users and climbing, but could still provide broadband service to millions of users during the next decade who would be otherwise unserved or underserved by terrestrial technologies. For these consumers this means the possibility of finally bridging the digital gap, while for the satellite industry this opportunity can hardly be overestimated.
“HTSs promise to enable the industry to address a portion of the broadband market, providing a growth opportunity for service providers, satellite operators and infrastructure providers alike,” says Jim Simpson, vice president of business development at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems. “HTSs are also catalyzing commercial use of Ka-band spectrum, continuing the satellite industry’s evolution to higher frequency bands over time,” he says.
Yet, as French is keen to stress, HTSs are not limited to Ka-band. “We came up with the term HTS out of frustration with the industry and the tendency to associate consumer types of services via satellite with Ka-band,” he says. “This can be deceiving. The O3b constellation, for example, uses Ka-band but does not support consumer applications. Conversely, there is no doubt that Thaicom-4, which is a Ku-band satellite on the user side, is an HTS platform.” The defining traits of HTS platforms, French says, are the large amount of bandwidth capacity they offer and the fact that they mostly, but not solely, target the consumer market. High capacity in these satellites is achieved through a combination of greater spectrum availability — in the case of Ka-band and higher frequency bands — and the use of spot beams, which enables frequency re-use across multiple beams, much as in cellular networks. This contrasts with C-band and Ku-band systems which cover a large areas with fixed capacity.
High throughput satellites are not completely new to the industry but are the result of a relatively quick evolution in satellite manufacturing. The experience with the first generation of spot beam satellites, such as IPStar, Anik-F2 and WildBlue, proved the viability and potential of this technology. “HTSs are spotbeam satellites of a new generation in which frequency re-use is taken to a higher level,” says Fabio Valle, head of strategic marketing for value-added services at Eutelsat. “In recent years, the growth in satellite bandwidth capacity has been remarkable. WildBlue, which was orbited in 2004, has a capacity of 10 gigabits per second. On the other hand, Eutelsat’s Ka-Sat, which was launched in 2010 and is due to become operational later in 2011, will offer 70 gigabits per second, seven times WildBlue’s capacity,” he says. “Even so, the ceiling has yet to be reached,” he says.
These satellites are designed for maximum throughput, so while there is some additional cost for HTS compared with a conventional satellite, the cost per bit is dramatically lower. The case of ViaSat-1, a Ka-band satellite due to be launched for ViaSat before the end of the third-quarter to address the broadband market in North America, clearly illustrates this point. “Ku-band FSS bandwidth can cost well over $100 million per gigabit per second in space, while ViaSat-1 will supply a gigabit of throughput in space for less than $3 million,” says Dankberg. “Even compared with the best first-generation Ka-band satellites, the bandwidth supplied by ViaSat-1 will be only about one-tenth the cost. All that low-cost bandwidth can expand the markets operators serve and create a lot of new opportunities for our industry,” he says.