One of the interesting things about satellite broadband providers like WildBlue or HughesNet, has been the way in which they have formed their very own technological and market niche. As broadband providers have transitioned from leased Ku-band capacity to their own Ka-band platforms, these satellites have been largely dedicated to broadband. This has a number of interesting implications with regard to the design and economics of these satellites.
One of these implications was that there was a fixed relationship between satellite capacity and the number of possible broadband subscribers. Although the number of subscribers a satellite could serve depended on the level of service they were provided there was, in principle, a sweet spot between too few subscribers to be profitable and too many to add more (its always bad to have to turn away business).
Up until now Ka-band has been most successful in delivering HDTV and broadband service where there was no installed base of C- or Ku-band hardware to replace with Ka-band. Ka-band satellites (or payloads) have been specialized and limited to specific market niches in a way that C- and Ku-band capacity has not been.
Following the launch and checkout of its powerful new ViaSat-1 satellite, ViaSat has introduced its new high-capacity Exede broadband service. Initially this service was aimed solely at the “traditional” home and small office broadband market that ViaSat and HughesNet have been serving, but now ViaSat has introduced a new product called Exede Newsgathering.
Exede Newsgathering will provide Ka-band hardware and connectivity over ViaSat-1 for remote newsgathering applications. It is the first product or service using satellite broadband capacity to provide a service that was previously provided by other types of satellite assets (well, other than broadband itself). According to ViaSat, Exede Newsgathering terminals “can either be vehicle-mounted or transported in a luggage-sized carrying case” and will be capable of HDTV quality. It is a potential replacement for such traditional VSAT based newsgathering on the large side and satphone based newsgathering on the other.
So now, Ka-band assets that were useful only for broadband can also substitute for services that are currently preformed by VSAT or satphone systems. It is possible that Exede Newsgathering will offer a superior tool for current types of remote newgathering. Alternately this new capability may allow forms of reporting that current methods do not, in the same way that satphone video did when it was first introduced. In either case, it demonstrates the possibilities that open when satellite broadband technology is used for a broader range of tasks. It is possible that the adoption of Ka-band applications will spread from broadband out instead of its simply being adopted as a new VSAT frequency.
In addition to the possibilities inherent in the wider use of Ka-band broadband technology, there is also the question of what this will mean for the deployment of satellites like ViaSat and Hughes’ Jupiter. As I commented earlier, if these satellites find additional uses (potentially more profitable), there may be demand for more satellites than the broadband market alone would justify. New applications may also drive new satellite designs. There are already differences between Viasat-1 and Jupiter, Hughes has told me that Jupiter has more of its capacity devoted to uploads than ViaSat -1 (although the overall capacity is similar). If the following generation of high-power Ka-band satellite are designed from the beginning to support a broader area of services they may be even more diverse according to their operator’s judgments as to what services they will need to support.
Will a more diverse product mix make satellite usage more even or will certain beams fill up even quicker? We have also seen the broadband capacity over certain areas used up, while those over other areas are not. What difference will it make to the long-term stability of the satellite broadband business if assets that could have provided broadband are used for other purposes?
It seems likely that the proliferation of new products and services will increase the number of “broadband satellites” but what they will be used for is less clear. It seems to me that with Exede Newsgathering we see the potential for real changes in what we have called the satellite broadband sector and the possibility of “broadband” assets being use for other applications growing demand for Ka-band services. This has the potential to be really interesting as the broadband niche becomes more like the satellite market as a whole.
Max Engel is an experienced satellite industry and telecom industry analyst and founder of The North Star Consultancy. He can be reached at email@example.com.