Guest Blog: Is Satellite Broadband Just for Rural Markets?

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Broadband access via satellite has been viewed largely as a service for rural areas, but providers in the United States are finding a somewhat surprising amount of interest among urban and suburban consumers. As consumer satellite broadband expands around the globe, service providers may find willing customers in and around major cities as well as in rural areas.

Asia is at the top of every telecommunications company’s wish list for target markets, and broadband in particular is a major focus. TeleGeography Research estimates that of the projected 700 million broadband subscribers worldwide by 2013, more than 300 million will be from Asia, compared with about 100 million in North America, and nearly 200 million in Europe.

Satellites have long provided critical communications services in the Asia-Pacific region, including data, video and voice, particularly because the geography, dispersed population and huge variations in economic health have restricted the growth of terrestrial infrastructure. While some nations, such as South Korea and Japan, have wired networks reaching more than 90 percent of households, others, such as the Pacific Island nations, are among the poorest in the world, and least able to be connected by fiber. For some, satellite may be the only viable option to get basic communications services, live television and Internet connectivity.

At the recent the Pacific Telecommunications Conference, where the theme was “Connecting Life: 24/7,” I did an on-stage interview on this with Mark Dankberg, founder and CEO of ViaSat. ViaSat is in the process of developing ViaSat-1, the highest-throughput Ka-band satellite ever built. Dankberg compared satellite broadband to satellite television, which was originally conceived to meet the needs of a rural population outside the cable TV footprint. Dankberg’s company recently acquired WildBlue Communications, a major provider of Ka-band broadband service to North America, and is preparing to launch ViaSat-1 to expand that service.

Dankberg said WildBlue ran out of capacity sooner than anticipated because it found there were more subscribers in certain highly populated parts of the United States, such as New York, Massachusetts and Virginia, than there were in Wyoming and Montana. ViaSat has designed ViaSat-1 to better meet the demand distribution, which Dankberg believes is a factor that should be taken into consideration in the design of satellite broadband systems in other parts of the world in order for these services to be successful. Satellite broadband has a bad reputation because of technical issues of bandwidth limitations, latency and rain attenuation. But Dankberg believes these can be dealt with. He said the customers using broadband for video find latency to be less of an issue, and rain attenuation has been an insignificant factor for satellite television subscribers.

The question for ViaSat and other operators is whether a high-throughput broadband satellite can offer more bandwidth for the same amount of money as cable or DSL services. Satellite television broke into urban markets by offering more channels than cable for the same price or less and providing better customer service. Success for satellite broadband in urban areas of Asia will depend on the same basic economic factors that drive consumer decision-making the world over — providing more features for the same or a lower price.

 

Susan J. Irwin is president of Euroconsult U.S. Inc. and has over 30 years of experience researching and analyzing industry trends and developments in the use of satellite communications for voice, data and video applications. She is also the conference chairwoman of SATCON; director emeritus of the Society of Satellite Professionals International and the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation; and a member of the boards of the Pacific Telecommunications Council and the American Astronautical Society.