SKYBRIDGE TURNS INSIDE-OUT

By | March 28, 2001 | Feature

Two weeks ago Interspace reported that Alcatel affiliate SkyBridge had denounced reports that it was pla nning to abandon – or at least postpone – the launch of its planned LEO satellite constellation in favour of reliance on geostationary satellites as “pure speculation” (see issue 714). ‘No smoke without fire’ was our comment. Last week, SkyBridge finally broke silence, after plenty of warnings, that an announcement was imminent, writes Chris Bulloch.

On March 22, the announcement emerged. It transpired that now SkyBridge plans to start by offering broadband IP services to service providers from “later this year”. Initially, these will be provided via leased capacity on existing GEO satellites; this is something that does not emerge until well down in the release.

What satellites? Obviously those belonging to the Loral Global Alliance are in the lead, given Loral’s participation in SkyBridge. These include Loral Skynet (Telstar satellites) over the US, likewise SatMex and Loral Skynet do Brasil. But one system singled out for mention by SkyBridge is Europe*Star. This currently covers all of Europe from 45 degrees East, also the Middle East, Southern Africa, India and South East Asia, all with separate beams.

Europe*Star, which also leases capacity on its ‘B’ satellite, originally Koreasat-1, at 47.5 degrees East, is a joint venture between Alcatel Space (51 per cent) and Loral Space & Communications (49 per cent). It is known to be anxious to increase its satellite loading.

Also identified specifically by SkyBridge as a potential capacity supplier is Eutelsat, presumably via its ‘Atlantic Gate’ satellites for transatlantic traffic. The only comment Eutelsat would give Intersapce was that “the application is interesting”.

Whether Stellat at 5 degrees West will be used is questionable. This satellite is being built by Alcatel Space in another JV, where France Telecom holds 70 per cent of the equity and Europe*Star only 30 per cent, equivalent to a tad over 15 per cent for Alcatel Space itself.

SkyBridge is now claiming that ‘complementary’ use of GEO satellites had always been part of its plan. If so, it’s news to us. The whole reason for SkyBridge’s existence has always been to provide a last-mile connection to end-users via its individual tracking antennas. It was always likely that ‘upstream traffic’ might well be drawn from terrestrial – or undersea – data superhighways.

The whole object of the SkyBridge business plan was final delivery of data (and, for the return link, the beginning of the route back) in areas where high-rate transmission media such as cable modems or XDSL phone connections were absent, temporarily or possibly for ever, due to low demand density. Alcatel is of course a major global supplier of DSL equipment.

Now it appears that the projected new GEO services, according to SkyBridge CEO Pascale Sourisse, mean that SkyBridge-supplied hub stations will manage a flow of Internet traffic between the GEO satellites and “terrestrial communications entry points”. If accurate, this suggests that New-SkyBridge will depend largely on terrestrial links, where they exist, for last mile connections. In other words, the original system concept is to be stood on its head.

SkyBridge spokesman David Finkelstein, located in Bethesda, Maryland, who is apparently the only person authorised to talk to the media, characterised the difference between the original LEO system and the new GEO SkyBridge like this: “LEO SkyBridge was essentially a point-to-point system; GEO SkyBridge will be primarily a multicast or broadcast approach.”

It seems that SkyBridge is looking more to corporate clients who can be expected to have access to terrestrial high-rate networks; it expects to serve relatively few SoHo clients initially. Streaming and caching technologies will be used to bridge the gap between broadcast delivery of Internet content and the need to cater for a one-to-one customers.

While emphasising that GEO SkyBridge will be devoted to IP traffic only, it must be remembered that the Internet Protocol has many uses beyond Web access. While referring – twice – to “content distribution to the edge of the Internet” (the point closest to service providers’ points-of-presence serving local access loops), Sourisse’s statement distances itself from competing with specialist suppliers offering just this facility, such as Cidera. Intelsat is viewed, according to Finkelstein, as a potential capacity provider rather than a rival carrier.

If service rolls out this year as promised, SkyBridge should beat potential rivals such as WildBlue (earlier iSky) and Astrolink, both with satellites in the early building stage. WildBlue aims to serve mainly the consumer market and only in North America. He regards Astrolink, with global coverage, as serving chiefly the ‘next-generation VSAT market’, ie corporate intranets.

“No comment” was his response to questions on initial investment levels, average access rate and just who has been “demanding” such a service. Finkelstein also said that the GEO component of SkyBridge, once in place, would remain available after the LEO system was implemented.

Plans for the latter remain unaltered but were just unaffordable at present. The full 80-satellite constellation is said to carry a price tag of $6-7 billion (E6.7-7.8bn), with an estimated $1.5bn only raised from Alcatel’s partners, much of it in kind (ie 72 satellites to be launched by Boeing and Starsem).

Nothing has yet been paid on the assumed $4.5bn 80-satellite manufacturing contact with Alcatel Space, though this has already been extended since it was signed in late 1999 to “assure potential backers that the project was real”. SkyBridge is also saddled with building user terminals for both its LEO and GEO systems. The current state of the global telecoms market and its share prices just doesn’t make such an investment feasible.

Alcatel regroups: new post for Sourisse

The Alcatel Group announced on March 22 that it was “reorganising its space activities to keep pace with the fast changing telecoms market”. In particular, it is establishing a new business unit, Telecoms and Services, which will cover both civil and military satellite systems, also SkyBridge and unspecified ‘terrestrial networks’.

Chief Operating Officer will be SkyBridge CEO Pascale Sourisse, who is retaining this latter post as well. Sourisse presumably replaces Benoit Tellier as COO of Alcatel Space. Tellier is understood to be awaiting reassignment within the Alcatel Group.


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