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Ka-Band: Revolution or Evolution?

Posted By Robert Bell, Friday, August 26, 2011
When the Tivo was introduced in the last year of the last century, I remember saying to somebody, "Well, that’s the end of advertiser-supported television."  So much for my powers as a technology prognosticator. 

When you try to draw a straight line from changing technology to changing markets, life in all of its glorious complexity gets in the way.  People like what they are used to.  Companies adapt to change.  Adoption depends not only on raw capability but on how users experience it.  The great legacy of Mr. Jobs at Apple has been to demonstrate the power of designing a great user experience – while his competitors have demonstrated how hard it is to do right.   

And so it was that the success of television did not destroy radio.  The Internet did not destroy the brick-and-mortar companies of the world.  The iPad, for all of its talents, does not eliminate the need for a personal computer. 

What does this have to do with the future of Ka-band?   

Certainly, Ka-band represents a big change in technology.  I spoke last year with a Hughes executive about Spaceway 3 and the Hughesnet Ka-band service.  He took me through an exercise in arithmetic.  A typical 36 MHz transponder with $1.5m in lease costs, he said, can only support 3,000-4,000 broadband customers, which means that the space segment alone costs $25-30 per user for 500 Kbps downstream service.  The Spaceway service, with 10 times the capacity of a conventional Ku-band satellite, lets Hughes offer consumer plans from 1 to 5 Mbps – 2 to 5 times faster – at a lower price point.  Take a step forward with Jupiter, to be launched next year, and you have another 10-times gain in capacity and a cost per subscriber that drops another 2 to 3 times. 

And that's just one of the $5 billion worth of Ka-band satellites being put into orbit, including Eutelsat's KA-SAT, ViaSat-1, Arabsat 5C, Hylas 1 and 2, the O3B constellation and Inmarsat's I-5 birds.  It is a tsunami of new bandwidth, architected into tightly closed networks, chasing the home, SOHO and maritime-aeronautical markets.  It offers high capacity but – probably – lower availability, because weather can more easily interfere with it than Ku and C band frequencies.  And it will be cheap relative to other forms of satellite capacity, maybe even so cheap as to compete with terrestrial alternatives in some markets. 

That is a combination we have not seen before. 

Will the business plans work, so that rural users find themselves on a level broadband playing field with urban ones?  Will Ka-band become the means by which DTH introduces true triple-play services?  Will it make current VSAT technology obsolete, transform satellite newsgathering and penetrate into other Ku and C-band applications?  Or will it find a comfortable niche that complements and enhances existing satellite communications? 

The Great Prognosticator – yours truly – will not venture an opinion.  That Tivo thing taught me that it is a lot easier to ask the questions than to find the answers.  But I do predict that the revolution or evolution of the Ka-band market will be one of the top stories to follow in the coming decade.

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