European Operators Face Terrestrial Challenge on Two Fronts

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BRUSSELS — European operators of telecommunications satellites urged the European Commission Jan. 29 to correct what they say is a bias in their broadband deployment investments that now favors fiber and 4G wireless even in regions where satellite broadband is far less expensive.

They also asked European governments for help in waging a repeat of a 2007 battle with terrestrial wireless interests, in Europe and worldwide, over who has access to certain C-band spectrum now used by satellites but coveted by terrestrial providers.

In a rare display of unified defense, satellite operators mainly beat back an attempt by terrestrial interests to advance into C-band in 2007 during a meeting of global telecommunications regulators.

Six years later, these same interests are preparing for another attempt to repurpose C-band capacity during the next World Radiocommunication Conference, preparations for which are under way, said Cato Halsaa, president of the European Satellite Operators Association.

“This valuable spectrum is under threat,” Halsaa said here during the 5th Conference on EU Space Policy. “It is spectrum that satellite operators are using and others want it.”

Halsaa, who is retiring this year as chief executive of Telenor Satellite Broadcasting of Norway, and other satellite operators have said that unlike spectrum reserved for certain mobile satellite services in Europe and the United States, which for many reasons has not been developed as intended, C-band services via satellite remain a key communications line in many parts of the globe.

It was in recognition of this that the 2007 World Radiocommunication Conference sided with satellite operators and attempted to fence off C-band spectrum to prevent encroachment by broadband terrestrial wireless technologies that, when switched on, often knock out the weaker satellite transmissions.

The next global conference, organized by the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU), is scheduled for 2015. Regional preparatory meetings have already been scheduled to permit telecommunications authorities to solidify their positions on subjects on the meeting’s agenda.

The second issue of concern to European satellite operators is that the European Commission, which is the executive arm of the 27-nation European Union, appears to countenance a bias in favor of terrestrial broadband even as it seeks to support Europe’s satellite industry.

Several European Commission officials attending the conference agreed that it was often easier to help finance a project to install fiber-optic cable than to gather together the players — satellite operators, local service providers, satellite broadband equipment suppliers — to make the case for satellite broadband.

None of these officials challenged the argument that, as broadband moves from the cities to the suburbs and beyond, the case for satellite broadband becomes increasingly strong given the cost of laying cable to users’ doorsteps. Similarly, the deployment of 4th generation wireless will start in the cities and then ripple out to the suburbs at a rhythm that is not yet clear.

“What I fear is incoherence,” said Romain Bausch, chief executive of SES of Luxembourg, the world’s second-largest satellite fleet operator when measured by annual revenue. “I am speaking of incoherencies in policies that promote broadband infrastructure in a way that seems to forget satellites.”

Bausch said the European Commission has set ambitious goals — 100 megabits per second on the forward and return links for every European citizen — for broadband access, without determining what services would be provided, and how.

As satellite operators broaden deployment of high-definition television and, in the coming two to five years, ultra-high-definition television, they are already providing broadband-level connections just for the delivery of TV programs.

Bausch suggested that some of the funds at the European Commission that now support efforts to reduce the digital divide between urban and rural citizens be spent to promote satellite broadband given that it costs much less to connect a given household via satellite than it does using terrestrial services.

Some officials here said the problem is that the European Commission divisions responsible for helping regions deploy broadband are unaware that a satellite alternative is available and relatively inexpensive.

Michel de Rosen, chief executive of Eutelsat of Paris, the world’s third-largest satellite fleet operator, urged the commission to allocate its resources “with a sense of fairness — and with a recognition that what we do is useful to people.”

Eutelsat spent some 300 million euros ($400 million) building and launching an all-Ka-band broadband satellite, called Ka-Sat, that has struggled to win the support of regional governments that have funds to promote broadband access.

The lack of coordinated support in the European Union for satellite broadband, even as satellite television is now reporting record numbers of subscribers and besting cable television in many markets, is one reason why SES, unlike Eutelsat and Avanti Communications of London, has resisted building an all-Ka-band satellite.