By | August 1, 2001 | Feature

Sotires Eleftheriou, Paris

At Sky has completed its second tranche of funding by raising new share capital to the value of E2 million. This is in addition to the E2 million it raised during 2000 from France Telecom and Teamlog. The new shareholders are Viveris (a state investment group centred on the South of France), Anvar (French state body for encouraging innovation), and PBI (At Sky’s Chinese distributor and manufacturer of the Sky Pilot decoder). At Sky stressed that 80 per cent of the capital is held within the company.

The investment follows the confirmation of November 15 as the launch date for its multimedia satellite push service Infocast. The concept has evolved some since it was shown last autumn.

On a visit to the company Interspace saw a pre-production model of the At Sky Pilot. This is based around two ICs (one ASIC and one processor), along with a satellite band RF tuner, power supply and card reader. The stand-alone unit, the size of a box of tissues, connects to a satellite dish and to the PC via a USB connector. The PC does not tend to be positioned near to the family TV and hence the cable from the satellite dish, is not seen as a problem. “It is easy enough to connect a splitter to the satellite tuner in the living room and run a cable to another room where the PC is,” said Dominique Feral, At Sky’s head of marketing. Sky Pilot is then connected to the PC as if it were an external modem.

Sky Pilot will be sold for E99, a price comparable to the cost of a modem. The PCMCIA version, of which the prototype was shown last year at Broadband 2000, has been put back until 2002, since it does not correspond to the needs of the French market.

Content will be supplied via a 4Mbit/s portion of a transponder on either Astra or Eutelsat Hotbird, providing a mixture of websites and streaming audio and video. A selection of the data, determined by a profile set up by the user, will be stored on the PC hard disk, who may then consult it without needing a to go online. They can go online to carry out transactions, such as purchasing items seen on the offline webpages.

The Sky Pilot is also transparent to MPEG video, which is then decoded by the PC. The box coupled with the PC thus forms a low cost satellite TV receiver, enabling channels to be watched independently of the living room. DTT and cable versions of the Sky Pilot could easily be produced, replacing only the RF module as appropriate. Thus the technology can be used on other platforms, as well as providing a low cost DVB/IP receiver. “The cost is low because the MPEG decoding is carried out by the PC,” said Feral. At Sky has recently concluded a deal with Familynet to include At Sky in the Familynet box, a multimedia station that connects to the TV.

The target group for the November launch is the three million homes with Canal Satellite or TPS, and hence dishes pointed at Hotbird or Astra 1.

The economic model is particularly original. Websites may take up to 50Mbytes free of charge and video streaming services up to one hour a day. This capacity is made available to the users of At Sky free of charge. Additional capacity must be paid for, and the content providers are free to charge users a fee for this additional service.

At Sky plans to have 250 websites on the system at launch, updated daily. “We have already signed up 95. Most of them jump at the chance. After all, their content becomes constantly available to a large potential audience for no additional cost.” An X-rated film will be offered free of charge once a fortnight.

At Sky will make its revenue from four sources: sale of the boxes, sale of licences to other operators, conditional access, and offline profiling services.

Comparing the At Sky platform with other technologies, Feral said: ADSL is too expensive. Potential subscribers hesitate to pay around 45 euros a month, and if they do then they are reluctant to pay any more for subscription content. With At Sky they pay a one time E99 for the decoder and then have virtual high speed Internet. They will be more willing to pay fees for specific services.” As for satellite Internet, its economics is very precarious as the problems of various platforms has shown recently. “As our service is not High Speed Internet via satellite but the Best of the Web via Satellite, we control the bandwidth and the recurrent cost which are not dependent on the number of users,” explained Feral, confident that the business model (free access for end users and for the content providers) would ensure the success of the project.

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