Page last updated at 14:20 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 15:20 UK

Satellite to fill broadband gaps

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News


Inside a satellite factory

"Satellite used to be expensive and bad, but it is set to become cheap and good."

So says David Williams, chief executive of satellite broadband firm Avanti.

Mr Williams has an ambitious plan to launch a fleet of broadband specific satellites which could fill some of the UK's so-called notspots and offer those in rural areas the chance of speeds that have, to date, been out of reach.

His vision is no pie in the sky. The first of the satellites - dubbed Hylas in a nod to Hercules' apprentice in Greek mythology - is set to launch in late 2009.

Covering gaps

Hylas will be a dedicated broadband satellite for Europe, the first to use the Ka-band of radio frequency and, if successful, will be followed by two bigger spacecraft - known as Hercules.

The Ka-band provides advantages for broadband services because it enables a more focused beam to be sent to Earth. The eight so-called spot beams targeted on Europe will be two to three times more powerful than any other European satellite, according to Avanti.

The European Space Agency has already committed funding to the Hercules project although Avanti will need to find another £500m to get the project off the ground.

Hylas will be able to provide broadband at speeds of 2Mbps (megabits per second) to some 350,000 customers in the UK.

The Hercules satellites will have the capacity to provide 2Mbps broadband to far more, including the 2.5 million homes in the UK identified as currently unable to get 2Mbps speeds.

Hercules will have the potential to offer much faster speeds - up to 50Mbps - although at these speeds only 800,000 could be served.

The network will face competition from Eutelsat which is planning its own launch of Ka-band satellites that will also offer broadband to consumers across Europe. The first Eutelsat launch is due in 2010.

Hylas satellite
How the satellite will look

Avanti's plans are timely given current government interest in getting the UK up to speed.

A key part of its Digital Britain report - due on 16 June - is a pledge to provide the whole of the UK population with a minimum 2Mbps speed by 2012.

Satellite is likely to play a role in achieving this ambition.

"Being able to reach a universal population with consistent speeds is one of the advantages of satellite," said Mr Williams.

"Satellite will feature as part of the solution to the 2Mbps universal service commitment."

Rural homes

As well as using Ka-band, Hylas employs a variety of other new technologies including a so-called flexi-tweeter that will offer what Mr Williams describes as a "dark pool" of capacity.

The amount of bandwidth that can be delivered is an important issue for satellite, as it is for other broadband technologies.

Like other technologies, satellite will be constrained by how many people are using the service at any one time and how much bandwidth they are using.

Mr Williams said that the way people viewed bandwidth would have to change.

"There is a debate to be had and I'm not sure I'm the man to start it but eventually customers will be accustomed to the fact that if they download a huge amount of data they will pay more for that," he said.

In the UK Avanti already has 4,000 subscribers using existing satellite technology. In Scotland it recently won a contract to supply 2,400 rural homes with its technology, all of which will benefit from faster speeds when Hylas is launched.

The Scottish government is subsidising the cost of installation of the satellite equipment after running its own notspot campaign, which asked residents to identify themselves if they couldn't get broadband via conventional means.

Further tie-ups are likely across the UK, possibly with BT.

"We are likely to collaborate on more projects. and the objective is to make sure consumers receive comparable service to ADSL in both terms of capabilities and price," said Mr Williams.

Delta II launch
Once launched, the satellite will remain in orbit for 15 years

The ambitions don't stop with the UK. Mr Williams sees potential markets across Europe, in countries such as Spain, Poland, Hungary and Greece.

"There are 30 million homes in Europe that potentially need satellite," he said.

The costs of satellite have proved prohibitively high in the past - with an average installation fee of around £400 plus a monthly cost of about £40, it has only been for those with deep pockets.

With the launch of Hylas, costs could come down to more mass market prices, with Mr Williams estimating providers could offer it for around £15 per month with an installation fee of around £300.

Testing times

Building a satellite is a time-consuming and costly process. Three of the four so-called payload panels of Hylas are currently being painstakingly prepared and tested at satellite manufacturer Astrium's Portsmouth headquarters.

The core box is being prepared in Bangalore in India, where the panels are due to be shipped imminently for a series of rigorous tests to simulate the conditions of space.

Transport costs alone will hit £120,000 with the specially sealed containers it is shipped in coming with a minimum £30,000 price tag.

For three to four weeks the spacecraft will be subjected to heating, freezing and incredibly loud noises to check it can withstand the conditions of the launch and the 15 years it is due to orbit the Earth.

Co-ordinating things back on the ground will be a 9.3m antennae due to be erected at Goonhilly in Cornwall, with a back-up dish down the road in Land's End.

Once in space Hylas will be surprisingly energy efficient.

"It is amazing to think that it will be delivering a service to thousands of people with the same power as an electric fire," said David Bestwick, Avanti's technical director.

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