SES Chief Still Skeptical About Satellite Broadband in Europe

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PARIS — The chief executive of satellite fleet operator SES said he remains deeply skeptical of whether satellite consumer broadband will be a big market in Europe but is nonetheless investing in Ka-band payloads to serve that market.

Romain Bausch, whose Luxembourg-based company already owns a 70 percent economic stake in start-up operator Ciel of Canada, also said he expects SES to assume a 70 percent voting stake given recent changes in Canadian telecom law.

Bausch said he expected that another Canadian company, satellite operator Telesat, will attract strong acquisition interest from private equity or financial investors now that Canadian law permits outside ownership of domestic telecommunications companies.

Speaking with reporters on a variety of topics here Sept. 9 at the World Satellite Business Week, Bausch said SES is interested in using satellites as part of a maritime vessel monitoring program called Automatic Identification System (AIS) and is backing Luxembourg government investment in an AIS effort coordinated by the European Space Agency (ESA).

Addressing one of SES’s recent commercial disappointments, Bausch said the company is changing its strategy on developing the 31.5 degrees east orbital slot, from where the company began service in 2008 and now has two satellites aimed at Central and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Growth there has not occurred according to plan, and Bausch said SES will now attack the market more aggressively.

“We learned our lesson,” Bausch said of the Central and Eastern European markets. “The market was not prepared to pay the levels we thought we could apply. It’s the Wild West out there, and while we will not be the wildest, we will be a bit wilder.”

Bausch has never hidden his disbelief that the success of satellite consumer broadband in North America — there are more than 1 million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada — could be duplicated in Europe. There are too many regulatory obstacles to clear as each nation makes its own decisions, he has said.

One recent example, Bausch said, is Germany, where regulators distributed 80 megahertz of spectrum to four telecommunications operators on the condition that they first roll out terrestrial broadband in areas not served today.

German regulators further agreed to permit the four licensees to divvy up the uncovered regions among themselves to speed terrestrial broadband deployment in areas that are among the best suited in Germany for satellite broadband.

Citing rival Eutelsat’s plans to launch a Ka-band spot-beam satellite for consumer markets late this year, Bausch questioned what would happen if others followed Germany.

“If a satellite with 80 spot beams is launched and 50 of those beams are in areas soon to be covered by terrestrial means, that leaves only 30 beams with full market potential,” he said. That’s not good business. Betting on this in a very fragmented market is risky.”

Paris-based Eutelsat, which is co-locating its Ka-Sat spacecraft at a slot used for TV broadcasting, has said the satellite could be used to provide local television. Ka-Sat does not have on-board processing, but it is able to perform at least some steering to modify coverage areas once in orbit, Eutelsat says.

Notwithstanding its doubts, SES is gradually moving its Astra2Connect two-way broadband service toward Ka-band from the current Ku-band. Astra2Connect has about 65,000 subscribers and is adding customers at a rate of more than 3,000 per month, according to SES.

The service uses six or seven Ku-band transponders on SES satellites whose main mission is TV broadcasting. SES expects to add Ka-band links between the Astra 3B satellite and the Astra2Connect hubs to increase the amount of customers it can accommodate per transponder in the short term.

Longer term, the Astra 1L satellite, which was launched in 2007, will offer Ka-band service to consumers, and four satellites under construction for SES will carry Ka-band alongside their main Ku-band transmission capabilities.

“We have invested in four satellites — three at 28.2 degrees, one at 30.5 degrees — that have Ka-band and will be in orbit between 2012 and 2014,” Bausch said. “These satellites can handle up to 60,000 subscribers each in large markets like France, Germany and Poland. The beauty of this is that it’s on four satellites, so we have a backup in case of a problem.”

Meanwhile, Luxembourg, one of the smallest of ESA’s 18 members, has recently shown an unusually large interest in a European AIS service. While no formal satellite AIS program has been approved, Bausch said SES interest is one reason for Luxembourg’s investment.

Any ESA program that is developed presumably would compete with two firms — Orbcomm in the U.S. and Com Dev in Canada — that are investing in AIS services.

According to the the Luxembourg Maritime Commission, nearly 200 merchant vessels were Luxembourg-registered as of mid-2010, with more than half of them weighing over 300,000 kilograms — the class of vessel for which AIS terminals are now required by international regulation.