By Peter J. Brown
The use of Ka-band is gaining momentum. Throughout the next year, the broadband over satellite sector in particular will know if the overall business model is on target. At the same time, the busy HDTV market should become even busier as HD delivery via Ka-band ramps up.
Boeing is advertising the future DirecTV 10 and DirecTV 11 satellites as among the largest and most powerful Ka-band satellites ever to be launched. At the same time, Harris Corp. is under contract to Boeing to design, build, and ultimately support the integration of the Ka-band multi-beam antennas for the DirecTV satellites in question. The multi- beam technology and extensive frequency reuse is described by Harris Government Communications Systems Division as being enabled by spotbeam antennas similar to those Harris provided to Boeing for the military Wideband Gapfiller System (WGS) satellites. For this reason, and others, we will look at WGS briefly, while exploring the status of the commercial Ka-band sector.
By late 2006, military bandwidth managers at the U.S. Department of Defense will finally get a chance to light up the first of the 5 planned WGS GEO satellites. These Boeing 702s will augment the X-band communications now provided by the Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS), and augment the existing one-way Ka-band service provided by the Global Broadcast Service (GBS) with two-way Ka-band services using 125 MHz channels as well.
Milsatcom users are not the only ones eager to tap more bandwidth. Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst at Leichtman Research Group, Inc., sees an opportunity for satellite broadband in the U.S. among the approximately 20 million households and millions of small businesses that do not have any access to cable or DSL.
But the Ka-band curve continues up and down of late in terms of who is in the race and who is no longer running. In June, for example, as part of the unwinding of the Rainbow DBS VOOM HDTV venture, Cablevision Systems Corp. pulled the plug on the contract it signed with Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems late last year involving 5 Ka-band satellites at a total cost exceeding $700 million. Although it reserved the right to restart the contract until late November, the fact that the Rainbow-1 satellite was sold quickly to Echostar Communications Corp. for $200 million seems to suggest that Cablevision has closed the curtain on this chapter.
Here we list in assigned West Longitude (WL) slots, the Ka-band real estate profile on the Clarke Belt over North America. We mention just a few of the players. The trio of DirecTV Group Inc. dba DirecTV U.S., Hughes Network Systems (HNS) and SpaceWay, still hold Ka-band licenses for 103, 101 and 99. EchoStar already operates a Ka-band satellite, Echostar IX at 121, and has Ka-band authorizations at 97, 113 - once assigned to Visionstar - and 117. Echostar's Ka-band license at 121 allows use of only 500 MHz of Ka-band spectrum in each direction, while its FCC authorized licenses for 97, 113 and 117 involve 1000 MHz in each direction.
SES Americom Inc. relinquished three Ka-band slots last year, but retains 85 and 105, which are used in part by Echostar. Wildblue Communications has 111.1 and 109.2. Other licensees listed last year included Cablevision and Rainbow DBS with authorizations at 129,119 ,77 ,71 and 62, and Pegasus - a DirecTV transaction not withstanding - which held authorizations for 107 and 87. DirecTV did not acquire these frequencies.
"Ka-band will be mainly used for HDTV. By 2007, DirecTV plans to implement MPEG-4 AVC via Ka-band satellites in three orbital slots so as to offer more than 1,500 local HD channels and more than 150 national HD channels and other advanced programming services," says Benoit Denis, space and communications research analyst at Frost & Sullivan in Paris.
"Europe is not yet using Ka-band for video, although Eutelsat might be pushed to it as they have absolutely no more space on their prime orbital locations. SES Astra, however, still has space for more Ku-band," he adds.
According to Roger Rusch, president of Telastra Inc., Ka-band is best suited to regions of low rainfall. Where there are tropical rainstorms, there will probably be outages when it rains.
"Although there are mitigation techniques, these are probably not adequate to preserve communications in a tropical squall. It also seems apparent that the developed parts of the world have greater needs for communications service and therefore will need to exploit Ka-band sooner. In terms of business models, it is difficult to be certain, but business users are most likely to want broadband services in remote regions," says Rusch.
Overall, the most important technology impacting Ka-band operations is adaptive coding that will maintain communications while throttling back on the data rate, when needed.
"Broadband and video are completely separate businesses. The fundamental issue is two-way communications versus broadcasting (point to multipoint). Satellites are great for broadcasting, but few two-way systems have become major service providers," he adds. "There is very little Ka-band service anywhere, just a few small examples. Caution seems well founded as new services are introduced."