At SATELLITE 2013, Hughes announced the new Jupiter 2/EchoStar XIX satellite. This satellite will be built by Space Systems/Loral on the SSL 1300 bus and will have 50 percent more capacity than its predecessors Jupiter I/EchoStar XVII and than ViaSat-1, both also built by SSL. With average broadband speeds growing every year (20 percent, according to the FCC’s last broadband report), new capacity is necessary in order to stay in the game. Each successive satellite (broadband or otherwise) has more capacity than those before, lowering the per-bit cost and allowing improvements in service without a corresponding increase in prices or decrease in number of subscribers.
It is easy to get the impression that it is solely the satellite that determines the quality of broadband service; but the situation is more complex. New satellites are necessary but they are not sufficient to maintain quality of services. A good analogy for increasing satellite network capacity is the desktop PC. In its early days PC growth was simply a matter of increasing processor speed. Each successive generation of processors enabled fast computers by its very existence. Likewise, for many years satellite growth was a matter of increased power and the power of a satellite was a reasonable indicator of its capacity. In both cases this is no longer true and for the same reason, computer speed (or satellite capacity) is less driven by the fastest part of the system than restrained by the slowest.
In the satellite world, spectrum is a major bottleneck and it is worth noting that, in spite of its greater capacity, Jupiter 2 will use the same amount of spectrum as Jupiter 1, and will have twice as many spotbeams. More spotbeams call for more onboard hardware, more antennas, and generally an increase of the satellite’s mass. Overall, a broadband satellite masses roughly 50 percent more than a similar broadcast satellite because of the greater complexity called for by the two-way nature of a broadband connection.
Jupiter 2 is sized be launched on an Ariane 5 in a dual launch configuration. Hughes could have ordered a larger satellite to get a greater increase in capacity but chose to keep their satellite within a conventional envelope, size and development time. It appears that ViaSat is attempting to make a greater capacity leap with ViaSat-2 (and hence have not yet signed a contract). What this will do to their cost and schedule remains to be seen. If ViaSat is able to gain considerably more capacity while maintaining a similar cost and schedule profile, they will look like geniuses. If they find themselves short of capacity because their satellite took too long to get into service, they will not look so brilliant.
To continue the analogy, it is not just the computer that determines the speed of Internet access and it is not just the satellite that determines the quality of service that a Hughes or ViaSat subscriber experiences. In the hoopla over the announcement of a new broadband satellite, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is the entire network that determines the quality of service provided by satellite Internet. Both Hughes and ViaSat introduced new hardware to go with their previous generation of satellites. And it was only with this hardware that subscribers would gain access to the full power of the new satellites.
In addition to customer premises equipment (CPE) able to support a new satellite’s full capability, there are also important, behind the scenes, efforts that have a major effect on the satellite broadband users experience. Every time a signal is sent to the satellite it must travel to GEO and back, which increases latency and uses satellite resources. A great deal of effort has gone into technologies to reduce this back and forth. These “acceleration” technologies are not on board the satellite they are ground based. As such, the potential capacity of a satellite and the quality of user experience it providers are constantly improving. These technologies can only accomplish so much, of course, and they develop in tandem with satellite capabilities so a new spacecraft with refreshed technology and greater capacity is an important step forward, but not wholly sufficient.
While it is easy to look at the satellite broadband market as one dominated by who whoever has the largest satellite one should remember that the picture is more complex. Broadband experience is influenced by other technological factors imbedded in other technological platforms (Networks, CPE, etc.) and by overall economic considerations. In the end, satellite technology is only one strand in a rope woven with many different components that represents the final broadband experience.
Max Engel is an experienced satellite industry and telecom industry analyst and founder of The North Star Consultancy. He can be reached at email@example.com.