European Ka-Band Satellites

By | July 1, 2010 | Telecom, Via Satellite

The opening of CommunicAsia comes at what could be the beginning of a new era in the Asia-Pacific region. For many years, the satellite communications sector has viewed the region with a sense of frustration, as governments throughout the market placed national pride above economic sense, and the desire to operate their own satellites hurt the business climate for established regional players that were trying to grow their business in order to compete with global players.

Progress seems to have been made with some governments, such as Asia Broadcast Satellite’s (ABS) November acquisition of Mabuhay Satellite of the Philippines. While parent company Philippine Long Distance Telephone (PLDT) may have enjoyed owning and operating its own satellite, the financial realities of having to replace the nearly 13-year-old Agila-2 as well as continue to operate and maintain a satellite communications facility probably did not make much sense. Selling the satellite and associated facility to ABS benefits PLDT, ABS and the overall satellite communications sector in the region, as a smaller number of healthy players and more reasonable transponder prices for the operators will help those surviving regional players compete against the global operators in a market considered ripe for satellite communications growth.

But moves like this likely will remain few and far between, as Asian governments continue to both invest in their own space technology as well as try to protect their markets for their domestic satellite operators.

It is due to these twin problems that operators like ABS have been or are turning more attention to areas outside of the region for growth. ABS expects only 20 percent of its future revenues to come from within the Asia-Pacific region, and the majority to come from markets in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, where competition is healthier according to CEO Tom Choi. “Unless the growth rate in Asia catches up with the supply in Asia, we are not going to see high fill rates or strong capacity prices. In other markets, supply is outstripping demand, resulting in higher prices.”

Another operator, Measat, also wants to become a global player. “While Asia will remain our core market, we are developing more into an emerging market operator. We want the company to be more of a global player than an Asian player,” says COO Paul Brown-Kenyon. Markets such as Africa are “easier” for new operators to gain a foothold than in some promising countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

While this may mean good news for users in Africa, who often complain that transponder prices are too high, it is customers and end users in the Asia-Pacific region who will suffer if governments around the region continue to place their own pride above smart business practices. Maybe some of the moves by the larger satellite operators in the region will convince governments to change and improve the situation once and for all.

At a May meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, European spectrum managers in the Working Group on Frequency Management (WGFM) approved a draft report on the use of Ka-band frequencies by satellite networks. In this case, Ka-band is short hand for frequencies in the range 27.5–30 GHz and 17.3–20.2 GHz.

Under normal WGFM procedures, the 48 countries in the European Conference of Post and Telecoms Administrations (CEPT) will have two weeks to raise any objections to putting this report on public consultation. Such objections are rare – the report was predicted to go to public consultation in early June for a two-month period. In the absence of any substantial input, the report could be approved at the WGFM meeting in September, scheduled to be held in Sweden.

The report seems designed primarily for awareness raising. It “provides administrations with an overview of current and planned satellite applications in Ka-band and identifies areas that require further studies to facilitate such applications.” It states its primary goal to serve “as a guide to administrations regarding further work that might be needed” while at the same time identifying possible changes in European regulation that could promote “speedy adoption of broadband satellite services in Ka-band.”

This speedy adoption has been a long time coming. The U.S. granted its first applications for geostationary Ka-band satellites in March 1997. (Teledesic’s ill-fated non-geostationary system, at that time proposing to operate 288 satellites, was approved in the same processing round.)

Now, some years later, Ka-band is coming into the limelight in Europe. The WGFM report notes that an enormous number of number of Ka-band FSS satellite network filings have been made with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to cover the CEPT countries. More than 200 such filings are at the coordination stage and about 50 at the notification stage. These figures clearly show that there is “considerable evidence,” as the report says, in the use of Ka-band allocations for future systems.

Lower, more traditional spectrum bands are essentially congested across Europe, so Ka-band offers new opportunities for innovative service. Much more than using otherwise vacant spectrum, however, the new generation of Ka-band satellites offer substantial technical benefits, according to the report. These include much greater spectrum efficiency through use of narrow spot beams as opposed to coverage over a wide region. Also, the higher Ka-band frequency allow smaller cells for coverage patterns, which in turn permits more frequency reuse.

These technical claims are not new — the smaller cell coverage was emphasized back in 1997 for Ka-band systems. What is more recent is the way that Ka-band, with its larger frequency blocks and available spectrum, can contribute to the widespread demand for broadband services.

CEPT decisions to permit use of Ka-band satellites date back to 2000, as outlined in the report. Not all CEPT countries have implemented those and subsequent rules. As the report also makes clear, full implementation of these decisions, plus adjustments to spectrum allocations to make the amount of uplink and downlink spectrum match, are important steps towards allowing these satellites reach their full potential. Moreover, there could be possibilities for Ka-band satellites to accommodate mobile services as well, the study notes.

The WGFM approved its draft report the same week that the European Commission adopted a Digital Agenda paper proposing to ensure that all Europeans have access to basic broadband by 2013, with access to much higher Internet speeds of above 30 megabits per second by 2020. The paper notes that “wireless (terrestrial and satellite) broadband can play a key role to ensure coverage of all areas including remote and rural regions.”

The Ka-band report describes in detail the various services that satellite systems can provide using this band, starting with the provision of broadband Internet access to small and medium enterprises, households and individuals in low density populated areas (more than 50 percent of European territory). It also gives a wide array of statistics on the proportion of Europe that will not be served by terrestrial means by the desired deadlines without satellite help.

Europe wants broadband services. Satellite operators want Ka-band to provide broadband services. Seems like a match.

Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Hogan Lovells Brussels office.

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