Regulators Still Give Short Shrift to Satellites

Recent reports issued by U.S. and international radio frequency regulators show how far satellite broadband has to go in making the case that satellite connectivity has a place in the front row of technologies governments should consider to connect their unconnected populations.

Memo to OneWeb, SpaceX, Hughes, ViaSat, Eutelsat, Facebook, O3b, iDirect, Gilat, Newtec and others studying how to deliver basic broadband to the 60 percent of the world’s population that does not have it yet: Read the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 “Measuring Broadband America” report and the International Telecommunication Union’s “Working Together to Connect the World by 2020” study presented Jan. 21 to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

If the satellite sector needed any reminder of how small it appears to some, these reports drive home that message.

Satellite broadband promoters have long complained that regulators and politicians still have 1990s-era views of what satellites can do, and how much they cost.

It’s not that the two principal consumer satellite broadband providers in the United States, Hughes and ViaSat, come off badly in the FCC report. Both bested the terrestrial competition measures of actual download and upload speeds versus what is advertised — Hughes especially.

But it’s worth wondering what conclusion a political decision maker would take from the report. For example, there is a striking graphic showing the huge difference in latency — the time for a signal to reach the user — between satellite and terrestrial technologies.

No one contests that. But given that the explosion in mobile and fixed broadband demand is in video, latency is not hugely important as a metric. Any doubt about this should have been put to rest years ago as SES, Eutelsat, DirecTV, Dish and others have maintained — in some cases, expanded — their market share of television customers worldwide.

The FCC’s methodology at least sticks to observed performance, and it does in fact seem to take more notice of satellite broadband than previously. One measure: Hughes has declined to participate in earlier FCC surveys but agreed for the latest version.

The ITU assessment goes further. It attempts to estimate what it would take to add 1.5 billion people to the 3.2 billion people who now have at least some Internet access.

The ITU is acting on behalf of the UN’s Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development and its report bravely estimates how much it would cost to connect 1.5 billion more people by 2020.

The infrastructure alone would cost $450 billion, including roughly:

  • $26 billion for the Americas
  • $62 billion for Africa
  • $18 billion for Europe
  • $314 billion for the Asia-Pacific
  • $14 billion for the Arab states
  • $14 billion for Russian and the former Soviet Union

A closer look at the European figures finds that it would cost nearly $200 to connect each urban household, and 13 times that amount for each rural residence. One of the studies cited by ITU specifically omits satellites (and WiMax) as options.

The ITU report assumes that each satellite will cost around $330 million to build and launch, and could handle 1 million subscribers.

The figures being floated now for future satellites — with near-terabit-level throughput for a large geostationary satellite and OneWeb talking about a constellation of $500,000 satellites each producing 6 Gbps — suggest the ITU cost estimates need updating.

Those wishing to make their case are invited to comment to the ITU at bbcommission@itu.int.