SES Designing Its Satellites To Take Aim at Shipboard and In-flight Broadband

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Updated at 9:50 a.m. EDT

PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES, seeing the same maritime and aeronautical market growth potential as other satellite owners, has begun designing its satellites with dedicated beams for mobile markets, SES officials said.

The first of these, SES-6, entered service in August at 40.5 degrees west with two Ku-band beams that, taken together, cover just about the entire North Atlantic sea and air corridor.

The SES-9 spacecraft, now in production and slated to begin service in early 2015 at 108 degrees east, will include two Ku-band beams for maritime and aeronautical customers in the east and west Indian Ocean regions.

Luxembourg-based SES is not the only fleet operator looking to tap into the growth in bandwidth demand from maritime and aeronautical users. In addition to the mobile satellite service providers such as Inmarsat of London, Iridium and Globalstar, both owners of low-orbiting constellations of satellites, Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington has designed some of its newer satellites to include specific beams for mobile markets.

In an Oct. 17 presentation on SES’s plans, Simon Gatty Saunt, SES vice president for data and mobility, and Gez Draycott, senior manager for sales engineering, said demand for Ku- and C-band links from maritime users is accelerating as quickly as market analysts predicted it would.

Maritime satellite revenue reached $1.82 billion in 2012, according to SES, and will double to $3.9 billion per year by 2021. During that same period, the number of active maritime satellite terminals will double as well, from 300,000 to 600,000.

With the advent of smaller terminals, C- and Ku-band VSATs, or very small aperture terminal antennas, are finding their way onto ships that until recently carried only L-band satellite communications gear for Inmarsat or Iridium connections. There were fewer than 6,000 in 2005 and an estimated 9,000 by the end of 2011.

“The SES-6 satellite was built around requirements from European maritime operators,” Gatty Saunt said during the presentation. “Now we can offer full North Atlantic coverage to hubs based in Europe.” European customers had said being able to uplink from Europe was a priority.

In the latest indication of the increasing demand for maritime broadband, luxury yacht satellite communications provider OmniAccess of Palma de Mallorca, Spain, on Oct. 24 announced it would be leasing capacity on SES’s NSS-12 satellite at 57 degrees west.

OmniAccess said the new capacity, which one official said is part of a one-year lease commitment, will serve OmniAccess customers in the Mediterranean, Black, Caspian and Arabian seas.

The Ku-band NSS-12 bandwidth “will allow us to continue to provide high-speed Internet connectivity to our customers even as they sail between continents,” OmniAccess Chief Executive Bertrand Hardman said in a statement.

OmniAccess, using the new X7 modem from manufacturer iDirect, recently announced it is offering 100 megabit-per-second links to customers in the Caribbean and Mediterranean markets.

Starting from a smaller base, aeronautical satellite revenue is also growing quickly after several years of not meeting expectations. Revenue was $870 million in 2011 and should reach $2.39 billion by 2021, or 11 percent average annual growth, according to SES. 

The company estimates that there were 2,700 commercial aircraft connected to a broadband satellite source in 2012. While that is just 11 percent of the commercial aircraft global fleet, it is up 60 percent from 2011.

Draycott said SES’s Global Access Network, which is not new, has been enlisted to complement the additional satellite capacity being made available to mobile markets. The company owns outright, or has partnerships with, 19 teleports around the world, enabling quick uplinks for customers without the need for long negotiations with teleport owners on pricing.

Draycott said the northern sea routes are becoming much more heavily traveled, in part because of global warming that has opened these previously icebound regions to commercial traffic.

In 2010, he said, there was an estimated 110,000 metric tons of traffic in the northern sea routes, a figure that grew to nearly 1 million metric tons in 2012 as commercial shippers took advantage of the lack of piracy concerns along these lanes and the reduced fuel costs associated with arctic sea passage.

Elevation angles are a permanent concern at arctic latitudes, and Draycott said SES is looking at future satellite designs to minimize this inherent disadvantage of satellites located over the equator when providing service in the far north.

Gatty Saunt said that the fastest-growing element of the mobile market in recent months as been the so-called superyachts, whose wealthy owners want permanent broadband access. The broader cruise market — Mediterranean between June and September, Caribbean between November and March — is growing quickly as passengers, and especially families with children, want access to the Internet.

SES is the biggest shareholder in O3b Networks of Britain’s Channel Islands, which is planning a constellation of satellites in an unusual equatorial medium Earth orbit some 8,000 kilometers in altitude. O3b is targeting large cruise ships as well with 500 megabits per second of bandwidth provided to a given ship carrying several thousand passengers.

O3b’s orbit focuses on a band around the equator between 45 degrees north and 45 degrees south. There is room enough in the market for both kinds of service, Gatty Saunt said.

 

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