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Web Exclusive: Ka-band In North America: The Time HasCome?

By | October 1, 2002

      Peter J. Brown

      Throughout the next 18 months, the North American skyscape will undergo a significant transformation as a long-awaited sequence of commercial Ka-band satellite launches get underway. It starts late this year with the launch of Telesat’s Nimiq 2 in December, and then the rush is on as satellites such as Loral Skynet’s Telstar 8, Telesat’s Anik F2, Hughes’ Spaceway and SES Americom’s AMC 15 are lofted into orbit.

      In Asia and Europe, Ka-band capacity is already in place. In Europe, SES Multimedia has been using Astra 1H for months as part of its Broadband Interactive (BBI) initiative, which is now part of the new SatLynx venture uniting SES Astra, Gilat and Alcatel Space. Ongoing BBI development work has been shifted to Alcatel as a result. Ka-band capacity will continue to expand in Europe with the launch of the new Astra 1K satellite, along with Eutelsat’s Hotbird 6 at 13 degrees E, which went up on August 21 with four Ka-band transponders.

      In Asia, Koreasat 3 has been flying with three Ka-band transponders. Over Japan, one can count several SCC Superbird and Jsat Nstar satellites. New Skies Satellite N.V. in The Hague, Netherlands, is getting ready to launch NSS 6 in late 2002 with a Ka-band payload aboard at 95 degrees E. Shin Satellite is making steady progress in its effort to launch the iPSTAR Ka-band broadband satellite in late 2003, which will cover from Australia to China.

      Is North America playing catch up? Or is timing the real issue? Have North American satellite service providers simply been awaiting a turn in the market, so that the right technology is in place to address a measurable and growing demand for new Ka-band services in the enterprise, and possibly e-government market as well?

      NASA’s Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS) now in inclined orbit helped to set the stage for a broad range of Ka-band services. The U.S. military with Ka-band programs such as the Global Broadcast Service (GBS) and a trio of UHF Follow-On (UFO) satellites that emerged starting in the mid-1990’s has pushed Ka-band technology ahead as well.

      “Uncle Sam is moving forward with Ka-band,” says Larry Krebs, vice president, strategic programs, ITT Industries, Systems Division in Reston, VA. ITT has been contracted to provide Ka-band satellite earth terminals and support to the U.S. Army’s Project Manager Defense Communications and Army Transmission Systems as a part of the Interim Wideband System (IWS) program scheduled for activation in mid-2004.

      Krebs is quick to point out that there may not be any viable Ka-band commercial spinoff to this uptick in U.S. Ka-band military activity in space. For example, when it comes to satcom in general, Krebs sees the Pentagon space planners as gradually exiting RF technology in favor of free space laser communications.

      “I do not see any commercial market need for such technology. So, I do not see strong synergies between U.S. government and commercial satcom in terms of technologies incubated in one and transitioned over into the other,” says Krebs.

      Proponents of commercial Ka-band services are well aware that they face numerous obstacles and a steady uphill climb as they try to entice new customers with an emphasis on enterprise customers in particular.

      “We are taking incremental steps,” says Paul Bush, Telesat Canada’s vice president of business development. Nimiq 2 at 91 degrees W will have a pair of Ka-band transponders designated for Canadian users, while Anik F2 will open up a regional market by offering 45 North American Ka-band spotbeams when it goes up in mid-2003.

      “You have to be very cautious in assessing the promise of a satellite alternative to an existing terrestrial service,” says Robert Nelson, president of Satellite Engineering Research Corp. in Bethesda, MD. He wonders if Ka-band satellite ventures will figure out ways to serve a huge pool of customers with handhelds, laptops and mobile service requirements.

      “The industry is going forward with Ka-band simply because that is where the available spectrum lies. It is doing so with the knowledge that Ka-band offers significantly less reliability than Ku-band, due to significantly higher rain loss,” says Nelson. He sees Ka-band broadband satellite systems as a niche market for those without any access to terrestrial alternatives.

      Bob Fitting, CEO of Radyne Comstream in Phoenix, AZ, views the Ka-band broadband arena with some skepticism as well.

      “Is solving the problem of the last mile with a 46,000 mile problem a good idea? Doing this involves lots of risk tied to an enormous upfront cost,” Fitting says. “How much demand is really out there for two-way satellite services of this type?

      “Besides, this is very similar to the situation that Iridium encountered. In other words, yes, there are lots of people who need these services. But they do not have the money to pay for these them,” Fitting adds.

      According to Fitting, Radyne Comstream has found a very practical and profitable way to proceed. They offer L-band interfaces to what Fitting describes as, “block everything.”

      “The psychology of the investment community is of paramount concern. With the glut of fiber and the telecom market in general in such sad shape, it is difficult to get people excited and to attract investors,” says David Hershberg, president and CEO of Globecomm Systems Inc. in Hauppauge, NY. “In terms of Ka-band, people have to decide if they are going to put money down now or wait for the market conditions to improve.”

      “I guess I am somewhat skeptical about a large, untapped Ka-band commercial market, assuming they continue with the currently planned service model–direct to end user for home or SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) markets. And given the proliferation of fiber optic, I tend to agree this is the highest risk mitigation strategy,” says Krebs.

      Echostar Communications Corp.’s Echostar 9 was supposed to go up in late 2002 at 121 degrees W with a payload of eight Ka-band spotbeams, but it is now in limbo due to a recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision that deprived Echostar of this and another Ka-band slot. Echostar is appealing.

      Loral Skynet plans to initiate Ka-band services on Telstar 8 at 89 degrees W in 2003. This satellite will carry 24 Ka-band transponders, along with C-band and Ku-band capacity for hemispheric coverage.

      In North America, Hughes Spaceway remains the heavyweight with $1.2 billion already spent for its planned roll-out in the second quarter of 2004. Spaceway could become part of Echostar if the proposed merger of Echostar and DirecTV Inc. is approved by the FCC and the U.S. Department of Justice.

      What is propelling Spaceway and its concept of a commercial Ka-band service? An integrated enterprise business model, according to Mike Cook, vice president and general manager of the Spaceway business group at Hughes Network Systems (HNS) in Germantown, MD. Cook describes the market opportunity for Spaceway as 10 times greater than the existing VSAT market that generates $350 million in revenues.

      Among other things, Spaceway is telling Wall Street that 60 percent of its existing 200,000 Ku-band VSAT customers in North America will migrate over to Spaceway. Because it will own the fleet of spacecraft in question, it will end up saving itself an estimated $60 million to $70 million in space segment costs each year as well.

      Spaceway will use the Boeing 702 bus for each of its three satellites, and, as of early August, Cook describes the work on the payload as being in a very advanced stage. What might be one of the most surprising elements in the Spaceway business plan is the decision to take what Cook describes as the Spaceway Optimized Air Interface, and make it an international standard. Cook says that the Spaceway team is working with ETSI to accomplish this goal. In the past, HNS has maintained a tight grip on its VSAT-related software and hardware.

      In terms of broadband multimedia via satellite platforms, the debate over international standards to date has revolved around acceptance of the new DVB-RCS standard and how easy or difficult–as well as how costly–it is to implement. Support for use of the Data Over Cable System Interface Standard (DOCSIS) is also worth noting, although no attempt to implement DOCSIS over satellite has yet taken place. However, by allowing a mix of outside vendors to access that Spaceway Optimized Air Interface–absent burdensome licensing requirements–and to participate in the roll-out of the Spaceway platform, a new set of shrewd, yet logical, tactics can be discerned, which the Spaceway team no doubt views as mutually beneficial for all concerned.

      Does such a large-scale leap to two-way broadband multimedia via satellite make sense? This willingness by Spaceway to proceed on a much more open basis by itself suggests that it does.

      With the recent downshifting by ventures such as Wildblue and Astrolink, see numerous yellow lights are flashing. Still, the future for Ka-band appears intriguing, and new ventures are continuing to map opportunities in this broadband multimedia via satellite arena.

      Princeton, NJ-based SES Americom, for example, plans is to use one of its GE*Star Ka-band authorizations at 105 degrees W for its first Ka-band satellite, AMC 15 in late 2004.

      “We do anticipate that Americom2Home with both the BSS Ku-band payload at 105.5 degrees W–the proposed AMC-14–and the Ku-/Ka-band payload operational at 105 degrees W will definitely include two-way broadband services bundled with multiple channels of video to the home,” says Monica Morgan, vice president of corporate communications for SES Americom. “That is the fundamental plan for the Americom2Home offer. By the way, GE*Star was simply a filing name–never a system or service name. To be clear, SES Americom received authorizations for up to nine Ka-band spacecraft/payloads in five orbital positions around the world.”

      So, while Ka-band capacity to date represents a mere fraction of the global bank of transponders, the value of this relatively untapped resource is not to be discounted. There is much work to be done here at a time when the mood is cautious at best. Still, the new generation of hybrid platforms in particular–many of which are just now easing past blueprint stage–will drive this industry on to new heights over the coming decade.

      Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia Editor. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

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