Amazonas 3
Amazonas 3. Credit: SSL

Spotlight | Hispasat Group

PALO ALTO, Calif. — In 2008, Hispasat derived 60 percent of its annual revenue from European customers and 40 percent from Latin America. Seven years later, the reverse is true, a fact that illustrates why the Madrid-based satellite communications fleet operator must remain flexible enough to adapt rapidly to changing market conditions, Hispasat President Elena Pisonero said.

That flexibility is particularly important because communications satellites are designed to last 15 years or more, which means markets can chance dramatically during a spacecraft’s lifespan. Hispasat 1D, for example, a satellite with 28 Ku-band transponders launched in 2002 to an orbital position of 30 degrees west longitude to serve Europe and the Americas, is slated to be replaced in 2017 by Hispasat 1F, which is equipped with 40 Ku-band transponders, 10 C-band transponders and seven Ka-band spot beams.

Since Hispasat 1D was launched, demand in Latin America and North Africa has grown and new customers have begun clamoring for services that were scarce or nonexistent 15 years ago, including broadband Internet access, ultra-high-definition television and mobile communications.

“The digitalization of life is increasing and changing demand because citizens now demand connectivity everywhere all the time,” Pisonero said during a July visit to Space Systems/Loral, the firm based here that is building Hispasat 1F and Amazonas 5. SSL also built Hispasat 1E, which launched in 2010, and Amazonas 3, which launched in 2013. “This is changing the market and the business models.”

To keep up with growing demand, Hispasat plans to expand its fleet of seven satellites now in orbit to 10 in 2017. Hispasat AG1 is slated to launch in 2016, followed by Hispasat 1F and Amazonas 5 in 2017.

Hispasat also has rights to four orbital slots to pave the way for further growth. In May 2015, Hispasat paid about $15.8 million to acquire the rights to offer Ku-band service from the 74 degrees west position. In May 2014, Hispamar Satellites, a joint venture Hispasat formed in 2001 with Brazilian telecommunications carrier Oi, paid roughly $29.5 million to provide Ku-band from 61 degrees west.

Amazonas 5
Hispasat’s Antonio Abad (left) and Elena Pisonero in front of Amazonas 5 Central Cylinder. Credit: SSL
Hispasat’s Antonio Abad (left) and Elena Pisonero in front of Amazonas 5 Central Cylinder. Credit: SSL

In addition, Hispasat forged an agreement in 2014 with communications satellite fleet operator Intelsat to co-locate Hispasat’s Amazonas 1 spacecraft with Intelsat’s Galaxy 11 at 55.5 degrees west and to purchase capacity on Intelsat 34, the Galaxy 11 replacement scheduled to launch this year.

“This type of alliance will help both companies serve Brazil’s rapidly growing market for direct-to-home services, Pisonero said. “It’s an efficient way to supply our customer’s needs in this area.”

By working with other partners, Hispasat plans to be operating in at least six orbital positions in the near future, she added.

Efficiency is important because it helps fleet operators hold down costs. “People want more capacity and they want it cheaper,” Pisonero said. “Either we in this industry move in that direction or we will be replaced by alternative technologies.”

Fiber optic cable, for instance, has cut into demand for satellite bandwidth in Europe, which is prompting fleet operators to look for growth in emerging markets. “The option for digital development in Europe is fiber, but it’s costly and it takes time,” Pisonero said. “Time is something emerging markets don’t have. They want communication capacity and they want it now.”

To provide that capacity, satellites will need to increase throughput. “We should not be talking about doubling capacity,” Pisonero said. “We need to change the order of magnitude, moving from 100 gigabit-per-second satellites to terabit-per-second satellites.”

Hispasat plans to make its spacecraft higher-capacity, more efficient and more flexible through the use of advanced technology including onboard processors, electric propulsion, active antennas and photonics. “Active antennas can easily adapt their coverage and the onboard processor can give you the switchability that you will require in order to have flexibility,” said Antonio Abad, Hispasat chief technical and operating officer. “We are looking for that kind of innovation to provide efficiency for the satellites.”

Hispasat Group at a Glance

Top Official: Elena Pisonero, president

Headquarters: Madrid

Established: 1989

Employees: 185

Mission: To connect people in any region and be recognized leaders in the provision of advanced communications services via satellite.

A major hurdle, however, is the high cost of some of some of these new technologies. “We are not yet able to build these capabilities in an efficient manner,” Abad said. “They are still too expensive. We need to find a way to make them affordable.”

Eventually, Hispasat would like to operate software-defined satellites, which could be reconfigured in orbit to meet the changing needs of customers. “This is clear that we should be looking for that in the long term,” Abad said.

While software-defined satellites remain a distant goal, Hispasat is urging satellite manufacturers to move toward standardization of satellites and ground stations. “We believe that standardization of equipment will drive down cost and shorten satellite construction schedules,” Abad said. “We can build generic ground equipment while the satellite manufacturer builds generic spacecraft. Whenever we want to buy a satellite, we will call them, they will turn some screws and in some months, they will deliver the satellite.”

More immediately, Hispasat is preparing to test new communications technologies. Hispasat 1F and Amazonas 5 will include photonic payloads to demonstrate the ability of optical communications equipment to receive, process and switch radio frequency signals.

“We believe the use of photonics will help reduce mass and increase capacity of future satellites,” Abad said. “We are looking for this kind of innovation to provide efficiency for the satellites.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...