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Historic Goonhilly Earth Station Revitalized by New Business

By Caleb Henry | August 13, 2015
      Goonhilly Earth Station GES

      Goonhilly Earth Station’s (GES) largest antenna, Goonhilly Six, lit up against the backdrop of the summer night sky. Photo: GES

      [Via Satellite 08-13-2015] The U.K.-based Goonhilly Earth Station is shifting back to prominence in the satellite industry after rebounding from an uncertain fate. The iconic facility, which beamed the very first transatlantic television signals from the original Telstar satellite, was on the verge of demolition a few years ago after its previous owner, BT, had moved substantially out of the satellite business. Upon learning of this destiny, Ian Jones, now CEO of the company Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd., (GES) intervened, striking a deal with the telecom giant to rescue the facility and set about restoring its former glory.

      Jones inked an agreement to lease the antennas at Goonhilly for three years, providing time to find customers and investors. GES formed as a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to acquire the site from BT.

      “It was a two-stage process,” Jones told Via Satellite. “Initially we leased just the antennas on a fixed term of three years. Within those three years we had an exclusive option to buy the site at a pre-agreed price. From January 2011 we went out and got customers. We built the business, found our investors, and that enabled us to exercise the ‘purchase option.’ In January 2014 we paid BT and the site became ours.”

      GES revitalized the Earth station and now owns the entire 164-acre estate. Jones said the site, which NASA, France Telecom, and BT’s predecessor, the then-general post office in the U.K., built in 1962, still has “fantastic infrastructure.” Fiber cables connect Goonhilly to subsea headends and tap into the BT network. BT and GES maintain a cordial relationship today, with BT leasing office space from GES at Goonhilly. BT also operates the SEA-ME-WE-3 subsea cable, one of the main Internet connections between Europe and Asia.

      Goonhilly has antennas that open business opportunities in Asia, Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, Jones said. Still, the company is upgrading and updating infrastructure across the site to accommodate new and returning business.

      “As well as doing the gardening, painting the rooms, and those sorts of things, we have been investing in existing antennas and building new ones,” Jones said. “We’ve been turning the amplifiers on, in some cases freeing up motors and replacing some mechanical systems, but also we have now installed a cross site RF-over-fiber system. We already had fiber delivering IP all the way around the site, but now that’s enabling us to concentrate all of our baseband equipment in the central part of the site where we can have secure rooms for different customers.”

      Jones said the RF-over-fiber system separates the baseband equipment of different customers while also enabling GES to switch the service between different antennas for maintenance purposes or if requirements change. This is helpful, because several satellite operators have sought out services from the site. Jones said GES provides telemetry and control services for SES, monitoring services for Inmarsat’s Global Xpress High Throughput Satellite (HTS) network, and helps Planet Labs beam down data from its constellation of “Dove” CubeSats. Earlier this month the company announced an agreement with Hispasat for Second Generation Digital Video Broadcasting – Satellite (DVB-S2) TV uplink services that will saturate a full transponder on Hispasat 1E. This influx of customers is driving a surge in the need for new equipment.

      “Recently the BBC moved out of their traditional Shepard’s Bush home in London and left behind about 16 antennas. We acquired those and we’ve moved them down to Goonhilly now. We are in the process of reinstalling those … we almost can’t build them quick enough with the level of interest that’s coming in,” said Jones.

      GES is also working with Avanti Communications, hosting an antenna for the U.K.’s Satellite Applications Catapult, and is bringing an existing iDirect service to Goonhilly in October. Along with satellite companies, Jones said GES works with a number of universities, such as Oxford, Manchester, Leeds, Herts, Durham, and Southampton, which are developing radio astronomy instruments that will soon find a home at Goonhilly.

      “We also just started now working with the European Space Agency (ESA), QinetiQ, and BAE Systems to look at the possibility of upgrading our largest antenna, Goonhilly Six (GHY 6), to potentially support the NASA Orion mission around the moon,” Jones added.

      GES has private equity investment in place today as well as a U.K. government Regional Growth Fund grant to help develop the Earth station. Jones said the turnaround regarding Goonhilly’s profitability is in part because, as a small company, GES is able to pursue opportunities that would likely have been of too low an order of magnitude for a large company like BT to be interested in initially.

      “We are not scared off by tiny contracts. If that’s what it takes, we will get our foot in the door, win a small contract, do a really good job on it, and we build from there. That’s the way that small companies work,” he said.

      The majority of GES’ antennas are devoted to commercial activities, with one antenna devoted fully to radio astronomy and another spit between radio astronomy and commercial use. Soon the company will be linking GHY 1 to Jodrell Bank Observatory to join the enhanced Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network (e-MERLIN) radio telescope.

      Jones said future projects include some human capital development and healthcare projects in Africa, potentially supporting domestic space missions in the U.K., and forming new partnerships with other satellite operators. With Goonhilly’s destruction averted, GES can focus on bringing new business, which fits nicely with the U.K.’s goal of growing its place in the global space industry to 10 percent by 2030. Last but certainly not least, GES hopes to get its visitor center online so enthusiasts can see the historic facility.

      “We are desperate to get our visitor center open,” said Jones. “The public tell us all the time they want to come and visit.”