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Convergence Friction In The Skies

Satellite operators are steeling themselves for another raid on the C-band spectrum by mobile network providers, who are looking for more capacity to meet growing demand for mobile broadband.

C-band is widely used in Asia, as the signal covers wide areas and is relatively resilient to heavy rainfall. At the same time, operators are also worried that moves on other spectrum bands may follow, if the satellite industry is unable to make a strong case for its current access.

Speaking at this year’s Casbaa Satellite Forum, held earlier this week in Singapore, Eutelsat chairman and CEO, Michel de Rosen, announced: “There is the battle for C-band, but behind that battle there is the battle for all our spectrum, which the ICT industry would gladly take away from us.”

De Rosen, also chair of the European Satellite Operators Association, outlined the industry’s defence, arguing that while telcos have multiple options to pursue, C-band remains indispensable to satellite communications.

The topic is up for debate in November at this year’s WRC conference, an event held every three to four years by the UN’s telecoms agency, ITU, to review global spectrum use and satellite orbits.

As the world becomes more connected, the debate is likely to become a recurring theme as the goals of the two sectors increasingly overlap, working out the best way to expand bandwidth and evolve their services while keeping costs under control.

They have less in common however, when it comes growth or scale.

The telecoms industry dwarfs the satellite industry, earning US$5.4 trillion in global revenues compared with US$200 billion for satellite.

Telcos are also more willing to invest in R&D, on average budgeting 5% of turnover, compared with 2% for satellite. Perhaps as a result, the ICT business is growing twice as fast.

Cheaper services, more customers

The satellite business should set its sights on hitching a ride, advocated Intelsat CEO Stephen Spengler, by using telecom innovations to develop additional services that are cheaper, simpler and easy to install and maintain, appealing to a wider customer base.

“The gap is getting wider,” Spengler said, also speaking at Casbaa’s forum as the opening keynote.

“It’s a lesson for us – something we have to take seriously,” he added.

“So, the question is if we can compete in the broader global telecom industry, and can we leverage the strengths of the broader telecom marketplace to our advantage, to drive growth in our sector? Can we leverage that R&D that is happening in the broader marketplace?”

This also means more collaboration, Spengler added – citing Qualcomm’s investment and technological involvement in OneWeb, a new company which aims to start delivering broadband via low-orbit satellites by the end of the decade – as well as more consolidation, to create the scale needed to justify higher spending on R&D.

The industry must also advance through innovations of its own such as high-throughput satellites, offering smaller but stronger signals.

At the same time, hybrid solutions, incorporating fiber and wireless technologies, will also be needed to meet customer needs, Spengler said.

The satellite business has to contend with multiple challenges, not least of all budget constraints from customers in both the public and private sector. An excess of supply in the short-to-medium term will apply additional pressure on prices.

The industry also suffers from a perception problem – often regarded as a last resort, if no other communication channel will do.

That has to change, Spengler declared. “We have to get into the mainstream, we have to be part of the solution,” he told Casbaa attendees.

“We do that by providing higher performance, by providing better economics, and improving the accessibility.”

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