VSATS IN FOR A SHAKE-UP
The VSAT world, hitherto almost exclusively business-to-business or intra-business, is beginning to change. Such was the message conveyed by the third VSAT-2001 conference, mounted recently in London by ComSys. For one thing, there is the appearance of consumer-oriented two-way systems, which are beginning to impact the business world. Also, the emergence of multibeam satellite systems with on-board processing, largely but not exclusively in Ka-band, is coming closer, and despite the poor current investment climate, none has yet gone belly-up before it has been born.
Simon Bull, senior consultant with ComSys, said that 78,800 consumer units were booked for installation last year, the bulk of them outside the US. A further 72,000 units were proposed, and there were reports of an additional “several hundred thousand” installations this year.
In the more conventional business world, TDMA installation sales were still creeping up (again, largely outside the United States), but were suffering from erosion by fibre systems. Also, their growth was slackening relative to demand-assigned (DAMA) systems. In fact, single-channel-per-carrier products were fast becoming a niche market. The days of wholesale replacement of terrestrial by satellite systems appear to be over. But large contract awards have not totally dried up: 45 contracts for over 500 sites were signed last year. Once more, most of them were outside the United States.
In terms of classic TDMA systems, Gilat of Israel is running close behind Hughes Network Systems (44.6 per cent for Gilat in market share compared with 51.5 per cent for Hughes) in terms of units ordered and shipped; for as-yet-unshipped orders Hughes is further ahead. In general, ComSys believes that the distinction between consumer and small- business (SME) markets is becoming increasingly blurred.
This is certainly the case with Gilat, which owns 45 per cent of the new StarBand interactive B2C Ku-band, two-way service in partnership with Echostar and Microsoft; Echostar’s DTH service can be received via the same dish as StarBand. This month the company is introducing a new, more user-friendly terminal, the snappily-named SkyBlaster 360 model, which does not involve buying a new PC.
Spaceway is the Hughes Network Systems Internet-protocol Ka-band system, and is likely to be first-to-orbit of the multibeam satellites. Set for launch by the end 2002 it will initially serve North America only, said VP and general manager Mike Cook. However, the bent-pipe, consumer-oriented WildBlue is likely to beat it into service. European coverage should be next for Spaceway, but Hughes is not planning to fund non-US systems solely from its own resources, nor yet those of its current parent General Motors: what a buyer might do is anyone’s guess.
Spaceway was originally conceived for B2B applications, but is now seen as having potential for going ‘downmarket’ via SMEs. SOHO/telecommuter markets to the residential business. Apart from ‘hard’ transaction data, Spaceway is now being seen as a Web or multicasting delivery system for background music (now called ‘foreground’). System capacity is put at 5-6Gbit/s, equivalent to about five current satellites, via an unspecified number of spotbeams.
Alcatel’s SkyBridge system, as is well known, has postponed building its 80-satellite LEO system in favour of using leased GEO satellites to convey data to and from the ‘edge of the Internet’. Connections to end-users will now be by means conventional terrestrial routes: dial-up, DSL, cable modems or terrestrial wireless.
SkyBridge senior VP for Marketing David Finkelstein, making his first appearance in Europe since this announcement, had a hard job boosting the future LEO system while making a short-term pitch for the temporary GEO solution. He pointed out that the hardware investment needed would be around $200,000 per Megabit/second of capacity needed, for a total global capacity of 1.5GBit/s. Comparable figures for LEO SkyBridge would be ‘only’ $25,000 per Mbit/s, for an available capacity of 280GBit/s. This does not include the cost of the LEO satellites and ground system, which could total up to $7 billion.