With Hylas-4 in orbit, Avanti hopes to take lead in African HTS

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WASHINGTON — In the months preceding the launch of Avanti’s Hylas-4 satellite, the British operators didn’t mince words when it described the importance of a successful mission as “critical.”

Avanti had recently deorbited a 16-year-old satellite, and told the London Stock Exchange its two Ka-band broadband satellites, Hylas-1 and Hylas-2, were losing value faster than anticipated as newer satellites brought fresh capacity to sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

A European Space Agency satellite carrying a Ka-band hosted payload called Hylas-3 was supposed to launch three years ago, but still hasn’t, leaving Avanti without growth capacity.

Hylas-4 launched April 5 on an Ariane 5 rocket. Built by Orbital ATK, the satellite more than doubles Avanti’s on-orbit capacity, layering over and extending the operator’s coverage.

The next three years are likely to bring a deluge of new capacity over Africa, Avanti’s biggest market. Eutelsat, Spacecom, Viasat and Global IP all have Ka-band high-throughput satellites (HTS) under development to bring broadband to the continent.

David Bestwick, Avanti chief technology officer and co-founder, says the 18-year-old company is hedging its bets on having a first-to-market advantage.

“It gives us a lead to market,” Bestwick said of Hylas-4. “We’ve been operating Hylas-2 over Southern Africa since 2012, and we gained a huge amount of insight into how the markets work in Africa, what customers want, and how they like to do business. Now we can build on that expertise with Hylas-4 and create a strong, entrenched position for ourselves ahead of other proposed satellite systems.”

Fending off competition

Hylas-4 begins operations in July, enabling broadband connectivity through 64 fixed spot beams and four steerable beams that can add capacity in existing coverage or reach new areas such as Latin America. Bestwick said the satellite has “between 75 and 100 Gbps” of capacity and is “the biggest and most powerful communications satellite that Orbital’s ever built.”

“With a satellite of this size it brings down our cost per bit in orbit,” he said. “We are able to blend the cost per bit across the fleet and achieve a much lower price point for our customers.”

Bestwick said Avanti is watching the developments of powerful “very-high-throughput satellites,” particularly in the U.S. by Viasat and Hughes. Those satellites emphasize direct-to-home consumer broadband as well as mobility applications like beaming Wi-Fi to aircraft — two markets Avanti isn’t actively pursuing.

“What we found in Africa is that the [consumer broadband] market isn’t as developed,” Bestwick said. “What we do find is that the market for services with governments, mobile network operators and with enterprises is growing and it’s growing very strong.”

While many satellite operators, especially global companies Intelsat, SES and Eutelsat, have charged headlong after inflight connectivity as a lucrative, bandwidth-hungry revenue source, Bestwick said Avanti has opted to “to stick to our knitting and stay focused” on other verticals in growing economies. Being active in mobile connectivity markets means designing spacecraft for popular air and sea routes, he said, something Avanti did not do with Hylas-4.

Of greater interest was creating a satellite that emphasized coverage over high-demand markets like Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria, he said.

“We specifically designed our satellite network to give us a local presence in many of these countries,” he said. “We’ve invested a lot of money in putting gateway earth stations in Johannesburg, Lagos and Senegal so that we have a local presence in those markets. We’ve found that’s important because some customers want to land their traffic in country. They don’t want it going back to Europe or elsewhere, they want it locally so they know their banking or government applications are secure.”

Bestwick declined to give Avanti’s pre-launch fill rate for Hylas-4. He said the satellite gives Avanti complete coverage of Africa, and its capacity is competitive enough to sell without fretting over price drops from oversupply.

“We think there is enough opportunity there for many many satellites … [and] we have complete confidence in the African market,” Beswick said. “In the regions we cover, high-throughput revenues are expected to grow from about $540 million in 2017 to about $2.6 billion by 2022.”

Staying the course with Hylas-3

The yet-to-launch Hylas-3 is a 9-Gbps hosted payload of steerable Ka-band transponders from MDA Corp., now part of Maxar Technologies, awaiting a ride to orbit on the European Space Agency’s European Data Relay Satellite C (EDRS-C). OHB Systems is building the satellite with Airbus Defence and Space.

Avanti, in its 2017 financial report released in December, said the long-delayed Hylas-3 was supposed to launch this year but had the potential to slip even further behind schedule. That premonition proved true. ESA spokeswoman Brigitte Kolmsee told SpaceNews April 23 EDRS-C is now scheduled to launch in May 2019.

“We don’t have any control over that schedule,” Bestwick said. “It’s purely down to ESA and Airbus.”

Harper, Avanti’s CEO at the time of the financial report, said the company was “considering all options,” of recourse for the still-grounded payload.

Bestwick declined to explain what those options are, but said they stem from “contractual remedies” linked to anticipated revenue that Avanti hasn’t been able to produce.

Avanti’s intention with Hylas-3 was to use the payload to identify new markets with significant demand and start cultivating them in anticipation of Hylas-4. Now that Hylas-4 is already in orbit, Bestwick said the late hosted payload can instead bring extra capacity to high demand areas.

“Hylas-3 still fits within our strategy,” he said.