Regulatory Challenges Undercut Power of Thaicom’s High-throughput Satellite

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PARIS — At a time when high-throughput satellites, in both Ku- and Ka-band, appear about to disrupt the conventional satellite business, Thaicom’s experience with Thaicom-4/IPStar offers lessons.

IPStar was launched 10 years ago in August. At the time, its 45-gigabits-per-second capacity was huge.

Thaicom now says it has measured IPStar capacity as equivalent to 881 36-megahertz transponders on a conventional satellite — such as the Thaicom 5, 6 and 7 satellites also in orbit.

Thaicom said that when Thaicom 8 is operational in late 2016, the company’s four conventional satellites will have a total of 115 transponders.

But after a decade in orbit, and with a first-mover advantage so great it might have been a liability, IPStar’s growth has been stunted by the enormous regulatory challenges. A well-muscled satellite is one thing; getting landing rights in every nation in the satellite’s footprint is another.

In a June presentation to investors, Thaicom said IPStar is only 57 percent used, compared with 100 percent for Thaicom 5, 67 percent for Thaicom 6 and 50 percent for Thaicom 7, in service for less than a year.

Thaicom owns 14 transponders on Thaicom 7, with the remaining 14 transponders owned by AsiaSat of Hong Kong and marketed as AsiaSat 6 at 120 degrees east.

Thaicom has scheduled the launch of Thaicom 8 in 2016. Built by Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, Thaicom 8 is scheduled for launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The company’s decade-long effort to build an IPStar business in Southeast Asia has illustrated the difficulty of the regulatory approval process, but has also demonstrated that landing rights can be secured.

IPStar now operates in 10 nations providing broadband access and cellular backhaul, with 80,000 broadband users in Australia and New Zealand. The long-term stability of the Australian business is clouded by the imminent arrival of two large Ka-band broadband satellites by the Australian government-created NBN Co.

IPStar also counts 17,000 corporate customers in India using the service to carry mobile traffic from areas without terrestrial links back to the telecommunications grid.

In a business that startup operator OneWeb LLC hopes to serve with 648 low-orbiting satellites, Thaicom’s IPStar is already being used to connect 37,000 schools and government offices in Thailand and Malaysia. The Malaysian business has been helped by a 10-year contract with fleet operator Measat of Malaysia on the use of IPStar in that nation.

Following the example of other satellite broadband providers, Thaicom is moving into the aeronautical market, signing a deal with low-cost Thai domestic airliner NOK Air.

The question for Thaicom is what happens after IPStar and whether it can use its growing conventional fleet to serve as an IPStar backup if needed. The company has said it is weighing options for an IPStar follow-on. To ensure service continuity, a decision likely would need to be made by 2017.