Is Ka-Band Finally Coming to America? By Eileen McGowan

By | October 25, 2004 | Feature

Ka-band has finally arrived. The progress has been aided with the Anik F2 deployed and ready to provide Ka-band service for Telesat Canada and WildBlue along with the successful launch of AMC 15 to provide Ka-band capacity for EchoStar Communications [DISH]. Now seems like a good time to review what is ahead on the Ka-band front in the North American market.

In the late 1990s, Ka-band was seen as the “killer band” that would provide a platform for the future of satellite services. With its ability to employ high levels of frequency re-use and highly focused spot beam technology, Ka-band seemed to be the answer to changing the satellite paradigm from pure broadcast to multicast and interactive capabilities. Ka-band could potentially be the savior of a capacity-starved population desperate for two-way broadband services.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened up the first Ka-band licensing round in 1996. It spurred the licensing of 49 orbital locations to 12 companies. In 2001, the second licensing round was completed, resulting in the granting of 29 more licenses at 27 orbital locations.

Unfortunately, the height of the dot-com bubble occurred when many of the second-round Ka-band licensees submitted their applications. Each of these companies saw Ka-band as the “next big thing,” but FCC implementation milestones imposed in the face of the telecom/Internet bust made continuing with construction of Ka-band systems an unattractive prospect. There was no longer a real shortage of Ku-band capacity, nor was there yet a tidal wave of demand for interactive residential services.

In response to this downshifting, Ka-band licensees began to rethink their business plans. Today, despite the more conservative attitudes of satellite operators, a number of the original Ka-band licensees have retained their plans to implement Ka-band satellite systems. Many of the names have changed through acquisition or merger, but only Rainbow DBS is really new to the game.

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Ka-band has failed to fulfill the dreams of both satellite operators and potential customers. On the other hand, time has provided an opportunity for considering new ways to leverage the potential. The HNS Spaceway system is a notable example. It was once touted as the answer to business broadband needs but has been re-focused prior to its commercial launch to support DirecTV’s DTH service. Specifically, it would provide capacity for local-into-local broadcasts. And while Spaceway will no longer be the pioneer of high-speed Internet access via Ka-band, DirecTV will use not only the Spaceway 1 and 2 for high-definition broadcasting, but the company filed applications last month for two other Ka-band satellites, DirecTV 10 and 11, which will launch in 2006.

Others also recognized the potential benefit of using Ka-band for HDTV alone or in combination with high-speed Internet access. EchoStar’s EchoStar IX, launched in 2003, is operating at 121 degrees West Longitude and is capable of providing high-speed Internet access as well as local-into-local broadcast or other video programming. EchoStar has two other licenses granted earlier this year and a third application filed in August. At least one of the licenses is planned to provide two-way broadband access in the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. EchoStar will be leasing all of the capacity on AMC 15. In addition, the Canadian Anik F2 satellite will launch of WildBlue service early next year to provide high-speed Internet access and digital communications.

Other systems, such as those of Northrop Grumman, seemingly have been raised from the dead. Having surrendered its Ka-band licenses in 2003, Northrop Grumman re-introduced its concept for a Ka-/V-band GSO/HEO hybrid system earlier this year after V-band rules were established internationally. This proposed system is designed to provide broadband coverage to most areas of the Earth and even the Moon, with data rates upwards of 100 Mbps. A similar proposal has also been filed by contactMEO Communications.

In July, the FCC announced that only 28 active GSO commercial Ka-band licenses remain, including: Celsat America, Cyberstar Licensee, The DirecTV Group [DTV], EchoStar Satellite, Intelsat, Loral Orion (Debtor-in-Possession), NetSat 28, Pegasus, Rainbow DBS, SES Americom [SES], VisionStar and WildBlue. In addition to these companies, both contactMEO Communications (aka @contact) and Northrop Grumman have applied for NGSO Ka-band systems employing both GSO and HEO satellites.

Shortly after the FCC released its public notice, the commission cancelled VisionStar’s license for 113 degrees West Longitude, and it denied NetSat 28’s milestone extension request and application for a second satellite at 95 degrees West Longitude. Both of these were immediately resurrected, however, with VisionStar’s indirect majority owner, EchoStar, applying for Ka-band authority at 113 degrees West, and SkyTerra Communications applying for two Ka-band licenses at 95 degrees West Longitude.

Despite a rocky past, Ka-band definitely seems to be part of the industry’s future.

Eileen McGowan, senior analyst at Futron Corporation, runs the FCCFilings.com service that tracks satellite regulatory activity at the FCC. She can be contacted at 301/347-3431 or by e-mail at emcgowan@futron.com.

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