Ka-band Gaining Popularity, but Ku-band Not Going Away

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PARIS — Satellite broadband services appear to be moving toward Ka-band frequencies in North America, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere but Ku-band is not ready to throw in the towel, according to Ka- and Ku-band satellite operators.

This is especially true in East Asia, where Thailand’s Thaicom operator, after a slow start due in part to landing-rights issues, has now found traction with its IPStar broadband satellite, which uses Ku-band.

IPStar, launched in 2005, was a precursor for the mainly Ka-band high-throughput satellites that are in operation or planned over the United States, Europe and Australia. With 45 gigabits per second of throughput, IPStar — built by Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif. — dwarfed other commercial satellites then in orbit. Since then, Loral and Astrium Satellites of Europe have built Ka-band broadband satellites with far more throughput.

Nile Suwansiri, Thaicom vice president for sales, said the company is weighing whether an IPStar-2 satellite should move to Ka-band or stick with the well-known Ku-band.

“We are now in the feasibility stage for our next-generation satellite,” Suwansiri said March 15 during the Satellite 2012 conference in Washington. “We have an option at our orbital slot for both Ku- and Ka-band. But we would have to look quite hard at Ka-band before using it because of rain fade. Asia is a big place and not all areas have rain-fade issues. But those that do, like Malaysia and the Philippines — well, rain doesn’t come down like cats and dogs, more like cows.”

Suwansiri said a second-generation IPStar satellite likely will be targeted toward particular geographic regions or to specific markets based on the experience with the current IPStar, also known as Thaicom 4.

IPStar is now licensed to operate in some 13 nations and in the past 18 months Thaicom has sold more than 10 gigabits per second of throughput to customers in Australia, Japan and Malaysia.

Thaicom has 100,000-plus customers in Australia, which has a strong broadband stimulus policy in place that offsets the cost to users of the satellite broadband equipment. Australia is moving toward a Ka-band satellite system but is retaining IPStar for an “interim” capacity that is likely to last several years.

Suwansiri said Japan alone has committed to 3 gigabits per second of IPStar bandwidth.

The Philippines, Suwansiri said, has expressed a strong demand for broadband but is suffering from a lack of infrastructure in a nation composed of 7,000 islands. “In this market we are focusing on execution and finding the right partner” for a business that could include using IPStar for cellular backhaul for 3G mobile telephone networks.

How serious a problem Ka-band has in areas of heavy rain or snow remains a debate. DirecTV, the biggest U.S. satellite television provider, is moving toward an all-Ka-band fleet and has reported few problems even in areas such as Florida.

The Ka-Sat 9A all-Ka-band satellite owned by Eutelsat of Paris, which has been in operation since mid-2011, is showing fewer problems with signal strength than predicted, Arduino Patacchini, Eutelsat’s director of multimedia, said.

“The robustness of Ka-band has been better than what our engineers were expecting,” Patacchini said. Eutelsat placed Ka-Sat 9A at 9 degrees east, close enough to be able to take over some television distribution functions from Eutelsat’s Hot Bird series of direct-broadcast television satellites.

In March, Ireland’s RTE public broadcaster contracted with Eutelsat to use Ka-Sat 9A to deliver free-to-air digital television and radio services to all Irish homes. Up to 2 percent of Irish television householders are beyond the reach of terrestrial digital signals.

Until recently, Eutelsat had said it would wait for Ka-Sat 9A’s early results before committing to a second satellite to provide backup capacity. But Eutelsat Chief Executive Michel de Rosen told reporters on March 13 that the company currently sees no need for a backup solution. “We don’t feel we need to have a companion” to Ka-Sat 9A, de Rosen said. “Our customers are not demanding this.”

What Eutelsat may do, however, is develop a Ka-band satellite system elsewhere with partners, de Rosen said. Eutelsat has recently won an auction for an orbital slot over Brazil and ultimately could provide Ka-band service to South America from this position, industry officials said.

Eutelsat would not be alone in looking at Brazil for a Ka-band broadband network. Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md., a division of EchoStar Corp. of Englewood, Colo., also won an auction for a Brazilian slot.

Hughes’ HughesNet consumer broadband service in the United States is now gradually migrating its customers from Ku-band to the Ka-band offered by the Spaceway 3 satellite, which has 10 gigabits per second of throughput. Hughes’ Jupiter/EchoStar 17 satellite, scheduled for launch in late June, will offer some 140 gigabits per second of throughput in Ka-band, as does the ViaSat-1 satellite that entered service for Hughes’ competitor, ViaSat Corp. of Carlsbad, Calif., early this year.

Paul Gaske, Hughes’ general manager for North America, said that despite the obvious advantages of Ka-band, some HughesNet subscribers are reluctant to upgrade even when Hughes provides financial incentives.

“We have around 3,000 customers on our old one-way service,” Gaske said, referring to an earlier-generation HughesNet offer that has long since given way to the higher-performance Ku-, and now Ka-band, offer. “They say, ‘Leave me alone.’ We tell them we’ll drive to their house and install [the new-generation hardware] free of charge, and we’ll probably give them some money. But they don’t want to change.”