Emergence of Ka-band Services Seen Shaking Up Global Market

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PARIS — The arrival of Ka-band satellites promises to reshape the global market for satellite ground networks serving businesses, much as it has done for the consumer satellite data-services market in North America, according to the annual VSAT Report published by Comsys of Britain.

The report says that in certain regions where Ka-band’s rain-fade problem will not be an issue, the arrival of Ka-band spacecraft in the next two years could ease the supply bottlenecks and related high prices that continue to be one of the biggest problems facing the industry.

“Satellite capacity pricing and supply constraints remain major issues in 2009 despite the improvements in [bandwidth] efficiency,” the report says. “Operators cite these two issues, not the economy, as their single largest concerns.

“The importance of independent satellite systems in the future rebalancing of capacity pricing is expected to be critical, especially as there is a view that the major operators will resist price reductions even as supply eases.”

Simon Bull, a senior consultant at Comsys and a principal author of the report, said prices of $4,000 and above per megahertz of satellite capacity for certain links in Latin America and Africa are still in evidence despite the arrival of new spacecraft in these regions and the promise of more to come.

In a Feb. 1 interview, Bull said numerous operators of VSAT, or very small aperture terminal, networks told Comsys that they fear that some of the major satellite-fleet operators have locked up orbital spectrum even if they do not plan to use it, thereby maintaining a shortage.

“That is why it is so important that new operators arrive on the scene,” Bull said. “In the Middle East and Africa, for example, Yahsat really could shake things up.” Start-up operator Yahsat of the United Arab Emirates is building two large satellites for launch in 2011, one of which will be fitted with a commercial Ka-band payload.

Bull noted that in Latin America, part of the Ku-band capacity crunch is being eased, albeit slowly, by the fact that Hughes Communications of Germantown, Md., which has been one of the biggest users of Ku-band in the Americas, is transferring its broadband business to Ka-band.

The Comsys report suggests that Ka-band may have a bigger impact on the fixed and mobile VSAT market for corporate communications links than most industry experts would have guessed until recently.

Eutelsat of Paris and Avanti of London are both building Ka-band satellites for the consumer broadband market in Europe, while Hughes and competitor ViaSat Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., are both building large all-Ka-band satellites for North America.

Despite the satellite pricing issues, the global VSAT industry serving individual consumers, small businesses and large corporate networks shows little sign of having suffered from the economic downturn in much the world in 2008 and 2009, according to the Comsys report.

Revenue reported by operators of VSAT networks worldwide grew nearly 30 percent between 2006 and the end of 2008, to about $3.7 billion, the report says. Growth drivers continue to include government-financed projects to guarantee universal access to the telecommunications grid, which for many rural communities in South America, Africa and Asia means installing satellite links.

In 2008, the biggest single market for corporate VSAT networks was for lottery systems, according to Comsys.

Bull said that the industry’s continued health may be slowing down the consolidation among small VSAT operators, a long-predicted development that would enable the larger survivors to reap considerable savings.

“What we see is that operators of VSAT networks with, say, 500 or 1,000 sites continue to plod along, and they do not appear to be in any rush to sell out to larger players,” Bull said.

For sheer numbers, the consumer broadband market in North America continues to be the biggest VSAT sales story of the past few years as Hughes and ViaSat — which in 2009 purchased consumer broadband provider WildBlue — expand their markets.

The Comsys report says slightly more than 405,000 consumer satellite terminals were shipped in 2008, down from more than 500,000 in 2007 only because of a large WildBlue order for ViaSat terminals that made 2007 an exceptional year.

WildBlue has been working through its ViaSat order more slowly than expected because its satellite capacity is at or near the limit in certain regions. That is one reason ViaSat had ordered a large ViaSat-1 Ka-band satellite, a decision that ultimately led to ViaSat’s purchase of WildBlue.