WildBlue Uses Technology To Reopen Previously Sold Out Beams

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WASHINGTON — Satellite consumer-broadband provider WildBlue Communications has reopened formerly sold-out beams on its satellites following efforts by the company and its ground-terminal supplier, ViaSat Inc., to squeeze additional capacity from the existing service, WildBlue officials said.

Erwin Hudson, chief technical officer for Denver-based WildBlue, said the new capacity has helped WildBlue add some 75,000 new subscribers in the first two months of 2008. He said further efforts at making the transmissions between the spacecraft and the ground users more efficient should permit WildBlue to keep these once-closed beams open through 2008 despite the expected demand growth.

“This will help keep our momentum going through the end of this year,” Hudson said here Feb. 28 at the Satellite 2008 conference.

WildBlue reported having 300,000 subscribers at the end of 2007. The company has discovered that demand for satellite broadband is strongest in those regions that are already densely populated, such as the Northeast and West Coast of the United States.

Hudson said customers in these areas are mainly in the suburbs of large cities and either do not have terrestrial broadband access or are unhappy with these services.

WildBlue is unable to apportion its Ka-band satellite capacity according to demand. Instead, its spot beams cover the entire 48 contiguous U.S. states in an evenly distributed way, meaning some beams are far from full while others are at near capacity.

WildBlue Chief Executive David Leonard said the company is reviewing several options for leasing additional Ka-band capacity to bridge the gap between the likely recurrence of the supply shortage in early 2009, and the arrival of a new WildBlue satellite.

But Leonard said he is confident that WildBlue will order a new Ka-band satellite this year, meaning new capacity could be in orbit by 2011.

That is also when Carlsbad, Calif.-based ViaSat plans to launch its own, high-capacity satellite, called ViaSat-1, which is under construction at Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto, Calif. Viasat’s plans have created friction between the company and its customer, WildBlue, with ViaSat now positioning itself as a possible WildBlue competitor.

ViaSat has entered into a partnership with satellite-fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris, which has commissioned its own all-Ka-band satellite with manufacturer Astrium Satellites. Eutelsat’s Ka Sat is scheduled for launch in 2010.

ViaSat will be providing user terminals for the Eutelsat system, and the two companies have agreed to explore Ka-band broadband opportunities in other regions of the world.

ViaSat Chief Executive Mark Dankberg said what WildBlue and its U.S. competitor, Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md., have found in the United States also will prove true elsewhere.

“Just like the U.S., in the rest of the world most demand [for satellite broadband] is where terrestrial broadband is in greatest supply,” Dankberg said. Dankberg mentioned Japan and Australia as examples of well-developed nations that have shown indications of high demand for satellite broadband.

Leonard said WildBlue also has international ambitions. “We will take it beyond the United States,” he said, without going into details.

Michael Caulfield, vice president for business development at Boeing Satellite Systems International in El Segundo, Calif., said the manufacturer has seen “lots of interest in Ka-band in the past year. Many customers go through the standard RFP [request for proposals] process, but new customers sometimes want help on the end-to-end system, with assistance with payload questions for example.”

Boeing has built about a dozen satellites with at least some Ka-band capacity, and also manufactured the Spaceway 3 satellite that will be used for commercial service by Hughes in April. Hughes’ HughesNet consumer broadband service, which uses conventional Ku-band capacity leased from various satellite operators, reported about 380,000 subscribers as of Jan. 1.

Paul Gaske, executive vice president of Hughes Network Systems, said the company would gradually transition customers from the existing Ku-band service to the Spaceway 3 Ka-band system over several years. All new HughesNet customers will be placed on Spaceway 3, he said.

Gaske said the likely demand for Spaceway 3, coupled with the transitioning of customers to the new satellite, will force Hughes to order a new satellite by the end of this year. “We’re talking to all the manufacturers,” Gaske said.

Hughes and WildBlue appear to differ on whether a simple, bent-pipe satellite design for future Ka-band systems is better than a more-sophisticated, and complicated, satellite architecture that includes a digital signal processor and a phased-array antenna, like Spaceway 3.

Hughes Vice President Arunas Slekys suggested that Hughes would prefer a spacecraft with a next-generation signal processor.

Space Systems/Loral President John Celli, whose company has built around 20 satellites with Ka-band capacity, argued in favor of the simpler design. “Onboard processing, flexible payloads they all look good. But it means an extended delivery schedule and higher cost,” Celli said.

Hudson said WildBlue favors the simpler design, which permits upgrades to the ground segment in response to changes in the business environment. “That’s the beauty of a bent-pipe satellite,” Hudson said. “You can change things on the ground.”