Ka-band satellite broadband ready to launch

Despite great enthusiasm for Ka-band satellite broadband service in the mid-1990s, the sector seems to have fallen flat. But according to one industry watcher, Ka-band has been gaining momentum and it could be just another couple of years before the technology becomes viable.

Karim Nour, satellite communications research analyst with Frost & Sullivan, based in Burligame, Calif., and author of Ka-band: The Next Step in Satellite Communications, said North America is poised to lead the way with Ka-band service.

However, he said the industry needs a pioneer – an operator who could prove the technology’s worth. Currently no commercial Ka-band service is available on the continent.

Still, a handful of providers plan to launch Ka-band service in the near future. They say quick satellite connections spell benefits for Canadian businesses.

Nour said Ka-band is faster than existing C-band and Ku-band service and can accommodate more traffic. With Ka-band technology, the same frequencies can be re-used as long as they are pointed at different geographic locations.

Nour said it’s only a matter of time before Ka-band broadband materializes. “More Ka-band spectrum is available,” he explained. “Ku-band and C-band are being used up.”

Nour said the business and military markets hold the most promise for profit, although the industry’s future is still in danger. He cited lack of interest on the part of financial institutions, high equipment costs, and small returns on existing ventures as deterrents.

These factors derailed attempts to launch Ka-band service in the 1990s. Companies dedicated to providing the service spiralled into bankruptcy.

Nour predicts that large service providers would take the lead this time around. One such example is SpaceWay, owned by Hughes Networks Systems (HNS), based in Germantown, Md., a division of Hughes Electronics Corp. SpaceWay intends to introduce Ka-band service in early 2004.

Closer to home, Gloucester, Ont.-based Telesat Canada intends to launch Ka-band service across the continent.

According to Nour, businesses could use satellite service for peer-to-peer connections. Companies could connect locations around the world via satellite.

Ken Gordon, director, broadband technology development at Telesat, said the company is focused on businesses where terrestrial service is not available, as well as small- and medium-sized businesses, branch offices, and the home professional.

Right now Telesat provides Ku-band band service to companies such as Ford Motor Co., based in Dearborn, Mich., for point-to-point communication between its dealerships and head office.

However, only a few dealers use Telesat’s service. Most employ cable or DSL lines, said John Marshall, supervisor of satellite transport services for Ford. For the moment, company is undecided on Ka-band service.

“We don’t have a clue as to whether it would be cost-effective to use, but we’re certainly interested enough to keep an open mind on it,” Marshall said.

Gordon from Telesat said airtime and equipment costs for Ka-band service would be less than Ku-band costs, although he provided no figures.

Speeds would range between 1Mbps on the downlink and 100Mbps on the uplink, Gordon said. Mind you, he pointed out that bandwidth would be shared among all of the users in the same spot beam.

Telesat’s Anik F2 satellite, to be launched later this year, will maintain a geostationary orbit, and focus 45 spot beams over North America – 30 on the U.S. and 15 on Canada.

“This is the ADSL equivalent being provided via satellite for consumers who are outside the economic reach of those technologies,” Gordon said, adding that he expects Telesat to be the first to deploy Ka-band broadband service in North America.