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Major satellite operators adopt contrasting approaches to next-generation high-throughput capacity

The approaches that the major Europe-based satellite operators are taking to next-generation capacity vary widely.

On 7 June 2012, Intelsat announced its plans for its EpicNG platform, comprising two high-throughput satellites to be launched in 2015 (Intelsat 29e, with coverage of the Americas) and 2016 (Intelsat 33e, covering Asia, Europe and Africa). This announcement means that we can now see the approach that each of the major Europe-based satellite operators is taking to next-generation capacity. The approaches vary widely (see Figure 1).

 

Figure 1: Next-generation satellites ordered by Europe-based satellite operators [Source: Analysys Mason, 2012]

 

Eutelsat

Inmarsat

Intelsat

O3b Networks1

Name of platform

KA-SAT

Global Xpress

EPIC NG

O3b

Number of satellites ordered

1

3

2

12

Launch date

2010

2013–2014

2015–2016

2013–2014

Transmission bands

Ka

Ka

C, Ku, Ka

Ka

Beams per satellite

82 fixed

89 fixed
6 steerable

TBA

12 steerable

Throughput per satellite

~70Gbps

~12Gbps

25–60Gbps

10.5Gbps

Mass per satellite (at launch)

6150kg

5900kg

TBA

700kg

1 35.6% owned by SES (45% from 2013)

First into space was Eutelsat's KA-SAT, which has been providing fixed broadband coverage over Europe and the Mediterranean since May 2011. The consumer service delivers speeds of up to 10Mbps per user, while the forthcoming professional service is designed to deliver speeds of up to 40Mbps. However, at its third-quarter results presentation on 10 May, Eutelsat declined to say how many customers it had signed up in KA-SAT's first year of operation, and downgraded its full-year earnings forecast. This may indicate that initial take-up has been slower than Eutelsat hoped.

Global Xpress will be Inmarsat's next-generation fleet, comprising three satellites to be launched during 2013–2014. The satellites will be a similar size to KA-SAT, but will provide worldwide coverage and, according to Inmarsat, will deliver download speeds in excess of 60Mbps to a 60cm dish, enabling the operator to target the professional fixed broadband market as well as its traditional mobile customers. Each satellite will also carry six fully steerable beams that can be pointed at commercial or government traffic hotspots. This level of performance and flexibility comes at a price: the total throughput of each Global Xpress satellite is only around 12Gbps – about one-sixth of the speeds offered by KA-SAT.

Intelsat says that it is still evaluating manufacturers' offers for EpicNG, but it is likely that these satellites will also have a launch mass of about 6000kg. Unlike Eutelsat and Inmarsat, Intelsat plans to offer high-throughput capability in the C and Ku bands as well as the Ka band, and hopes that this will result in better backwards compatibility with users' established ground equipment. Again, it looks as if this strategy will result in lower overall throughput than a straightforward Ka-band broadband satellite.

This leaves SES as the only major Europe-based player with no high-throughput strategy of its own. The company has said publicly that it does not plan to build a dedicated broadband satellite for Europe. However, it has a major stake in O3b Networks, which intends to launch eight medium earth orbit Ka-band satellites in 2013 and four more in 2014. O3b's satellites will be much smaller than those of Eutelsat, Inmarsat and Intelsat, and are designed to target the 'fat pipe' trunking market, since the ground equipment required to track non-geostationary satellites is expensive compared with a fixed dish. 03b's approach appeared to be promising when it was first announced in 2008, but now there are doubts about how large and profitable this market will be by 2014, because of the continuing extension of fibre networks in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific, and increasing competition for satellite business not just from the major global operators but also new entrants such as Avanti Communications.

Analysys Mason will be closely following these different approaches to next-generation capacity to see how they play out with investors and customers.