Satellite Broadband: Bridging The Digital Divide

Satellite broadband is not everything to everybody, but it could be crucial for helping the government create a Digital Britain, says Chris Britton

Satellite broadband has long been proposed as a way to address Europe’s digital divide, going some way to solving Europe’s connectivity problems by providing Internet access in remote areas of the continent. However, only since the launch of Avanti’s HYLAS 1 satellite in November 2010 has this become a realistic option within the context of 21st-century expectations.

The HYLAS 1 is a hybrid Ka-band/Ku-band satellite, offering interactive broadband services to 23 countries across Europe. Built by British-based company Avanti, HYLAS 1 uses a 28GHz high-frequency signal, which has good penetration and offers download speeds of roughly 8Mbps.

Where older satellite services required a separate back channel over a phone line, which was very slow, satellite broadband using the Ka-band can have a back channel provided through the satellite. This uses a low-power transmitter on the user’s satellite dish, with about half the speed of the downlink.

Plugging broadband not-spots

While HYLAS 1 is wholly owned by Avanti, all of the the infrastructure for the base station and the customer terminals is provided by Hughes Europe, a subsidiary of the Hughes corporation. However, Hughes does not run the service itself. It will simply supply the equipment to service providers who buy access to the satellite through value-added resellers, along with help desk and billing support.

In December, BT announced it would use satellite broadband services delivered by HYLAS 1 to plug broadband not-spots in the South-West of England, and help out the £132 million Next Generation Access project which aims to get 90 percent of homes in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly on a decent broadband speed.

eWEEK Europe spoke to Chris Britton, managing director of Hughes Europe, to find out more about the future of satellite broadband. Britton reckons that, under the HYLAS 1 footprint, there are currently 23 million homes with either no broadband access at all, or speeds of less that 2Mbps.

“If you live in Bulgaria, if you’re in the centre of Sofia you can get very high-speed broadband on fibre, but you step one kilometre down the road and you’ve got nothing,” said Britton. “In Oundel in Northamptonshire I only get 0.4Mbps with BT. So you can be in a really nice village area and have nothing.”

He explained that, in these under-served areas, satellite broadband is ideal. “The beauty of the satellite is it has one big footprint. So you get the same product offering, the same quality of service, wherever you are ,” he said.

The latency problem

It is well known that the main drawback to satellite broadband is latency – the delay between requesting data and the receipt of a response. Compared to ground-based communication, all geostationary satellite communications experience high latency due to the signal having to travel 35,786 km to a satellite in geostationary orbit and back to Earth again.

While this largely rules out video streaming, interactive gaming and large-scale data transfer, for most day-to-day application, the speed of satellite broadband is more than adequate, said Britton.

“In a normal household, 8Mbps lets you watch YouTube, do your emails, get online and do your shopping,” he said. “It’s like when you live in the city, a Smart Car’s ideal. But if you want to do 3D download, real-time TV, IP voice, IPTV, all simultaneously, you don’t want a Smart Car, you need a bus. You need something appropriate to the technology that you’re doing.

“The key is that the sales people don’t sell it the way broadband has been sold traditionally in the UK. If it’s sold as doing everything, ‘up to’ this speed and ‘up to’ that speed, we set such a high expectation in the market place when it comes to achieving those speeds.”

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