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Satellite broadband rollout for all in US: But Europe just doesn't get it

Why don't Brits trust companies selling dishes?

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Dish, the US satellite provider, has switched on its home domestic broadband service, but while Americans embrace satellite Europeans don't seem interested in talking to their birds.

dishNET is offering 5Mb/s down, 1Mb/s up, for $40 to anywhere in the USA, via the Jupiter-1 bird. That will compete with HughesNet, which has already got 700,000 connections in America, and ViaSat, some of whose 500,000 customers are signed up through Dish's existing broadband offering (which resells capacity on ViaSat-1 and Hughes Satellite).

But while Americans are lapping up satellite broadband, here in Europe it's perceived as a stop-gap at best - certainly not for the long term despite the fact that just about every UK lottery ticket is authorised over satellite and there's enough capacity to supply broadband to the remotest regions of the British isles.

Chris Britton, MD of Hughes Network Systems Europe, is pretty clear why that is: historical prejudice and lack of government investment, combined with protectionist telcos more worried about squeezing their copper than providing connectivity to the boondocks.

The arguments against satellite broadband are twofold: the inevitable latency involved in bouncing a signal up to geostationary orbit, and the inherent inefficiency in broadcasting the downstream signal to the whole footprint. The latency is still there, but these days satellites use the same beam-forming tech which makes wi-fi so much better, enabling directional spot beams at frequencies high enough to permit simultaneous connections without interference.

The higher frequencies (Ka, starting at 26GHz) also mean a smaller dish. HYLAS-2, the Avanti bird which went into orbit last month and should complete testing in the next few weeks, can use a dish less than 70cm across - a shade bigger than the 50cm Sky Minidish, but with similar requirements for fitting, which should make it an easy sell to residential customers if only the channel existed to do that.

Avanti has, we're told, been talking to the telcos about reselling HYLAS connections. HYLAS-1, the operational bird which does TV as well as broadband, is filling up at an acceptable rate, but ordinary customers are often put off by the necessity of dealing with unknown resellers operating out of light industrial units: filling HYLAS-2 will require a better route to market.

Enterprise users are better served - Hughes likes to highlight the UK's National Lottery, which uses more than thirty thousand satellite connections to authorise every ticket sold. DSL is used for a few sites, but the vast majority use a dedicated satellite connection for the reliability and independence it offers - justifications that are repeated at other deployments.

Another good satellite customer is out-of-town shops, which don't want to be beholden to the developer's connectivity. But for European end users satellite is still perceived as expensive: a temporary solution at best.

Britton would like to see more government subsidy for satellite installations - some of that £150m broadband pot - but the EU has already stumped up half the cost of developing the first HYLAS bird and if the UK government were to start subsidising ground stations then BT would want equivalent funding for putting wires and fibres in the ground.

And it's hard not to see their point - fibre, ultimately, provides greater capacity and lower latency, and an investment which will never be redundant. Your correspondent has two satellite earth stations, both capable of connecting to services which went bankrupt years ago. HYLAS-2 should be good for 15 years, but buying connectivity that way requires a trust which doesn't exist in Europe just yet, and won't until our version of Dish or similar gets behind the idea. ®

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