Manufacturers Seen as Likeliest Beneficiaries of French Satellite Broadband Funding

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PARIS — The French government on Feb. 6 committed another 30 million euros ($40 million) to cost-shared work with French satellite builders on next-generation broadband satellites that could be in orbit starting in 2017, but probably will not cover France.

The planned disbursement, from the French public bond fund to support job-producing technologies, follows a 40 million-euro commitment in November 2011 as part of a program now called THD-Sat, for Très Haut Débit, or very high speed, satellite.

Manufacturers Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space likely will be the biggest beneficiaries of the new funding, as they were in the first tranche distributed in 2012.

While THD-Sat is part of a broader program designed to eliminate the digital divide in France by assuring broadband access in rural areas, its most likely outcome is sharpening the two prime contractors’ commercial offerings in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Government and industry officials said France, like the United States and much of the rest of Europe, tends to favor fiber over satellite in its national broadband deployment strategy.

At a conference here Feb. 6 to take stock of the plan to extend broadband everywhere in France, local political leaders and others were shown videos of superfast fiber links. Unstated was the fact that fiber deployment will take years — and perhaps well more than a decade — to reach full suburban coverage in France. Fiber access in rural or remote areas is so far out in the future that no one will put a date on it.

During the same three years that the THD-Sat project has been underway, Paris-based Eutelsat has placed into operation the Ka-Sat satellite, whose 90-gigabits-per-second of capacity has eight beams devoted to France.

At its launch, Ka-Sat was expected to fill quickly as French, Italian, German and other governments rushed to take advantage of full national coverage by offering subsidies for the purchase and installation of two-way satellite antennas pointing at Ka-Sat.

That has not happened. Eutelsat officials have revamped their initial Ka-Sat offer and fine-tuned their distributor network to improve the business. The company has said recent months have seen an uptick in subscribers. 

But it remains rough going in France for satellite broadband, according to government officials. “There are local politicians that still don’t know that a satellite capacity exists, that it’s reliable, and that it’s not expensive. They are waiting for fiber even if they know that, realistically, fiber will not arrive in their jurisdictions for a decade or more,” said one official familiar with France’s broadband deployment program.

The French space agency, CNES, which will be responsible for distributing the THD-Sat money, said in a presentation here Feb. 6 that 46 of France’s 100 regional government departments have adopted a satellite-subsidy program.

“That’s not much after all this time, but it’s a lot better than a year ago, when it was less than 30 departments, and I’ll wager that in a year’s time the figure will be 75 departments,” one official said. “These things take time to develop, but I am hopeful we have reached an inflection point.”

The European Satellite Operators Association (ESOA), which includes Eutelsat and Luxembourg-based SES — both have tried different strategies for consumer broadband — has repeatedly asked the European Commission to put satellite services at the center of its broadband-deployment program.

SES Chief Executive Romain Bausch, speaking on behalf of ESOA at a Jan. 28 space policy conference at the European Commission in Brussels, said the commission’s current policy of financing fiber deployment is “a huge subsidy for fiber” companies that puts satellite providers at a disadvantage.

Bausch said that while the subsidies are billed as eliminating the digital divide in Europe, most fiber is used to transmit video programming — which is the main business of most commercial satellite fleet operators.

Bausch said that in addition to questions of neutrality, the pro-fiber stance will not end in anywhere near the level of broadband access that the commission is advertising. With bandwidth-hungry ultrahigh-definition television coming on the heels of high-definition TV, he said, only a combined satellite-fiber solution will be able to meet the commission’s goals.

Satellite broadband providers in the United States have often made the same complaints that government officials have a natural bias in favor of fiber because of their ignorance of what the latest high-throughput satellites can do. Officials have also acknowledged that local politicians prefer hiring local construction crews to dig up streets to lay fiber to financing rooftop satellite antennas.

In part because of the difficulty in breaking through to a wider audience up to now, Eutelsat has not ordered a backup for Ka-Sat, unlike the U.S. satellite broadband companies.

Eutelsat has no plans to join the French government in an investment in a THD-Sat spacecraft, at least not for now, Eutelsat officials said.

CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall, signing the fresh THD-Sat financial agreement here, acknowledged that a THD-Sat covering France is not in the immediate future. He said the main goal of the program is to give French industry the needed tools to win high-throughput satellite orders in export markets.

 

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