Forty years on, satellites still fly

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Telstar thrilled viewers in the 1960s with the first intercontinental TV pictures. Today Telstar satellites deliver hundreds of channels to millions of viewers, but they also allow mobile operators to extend their coverage and deliver fast broadband to remote areas

For years satellites were the workhorses of international communications: they carried virtually all intercontinental calls and TV programmes. On most of those high-traffic routes they've been displaced by optical fibre and satellites have taken on a new role, delivering TV channels direct to viewers' homes.

But the universal demand for broadband is giving satellite operators a new market opportunity — something that many telecommunications companies are now learning about.

As those in urban areas are getting access to faster and faster speeds service providers are facing demands from rural communities to provide something comparable. Satellites can provide a route, says Patrick Brant, the president of satellite operator Loral Skynet.

He spoke at a Global Telecoms Business conference in the middle of 2006 and it was intriguing to hear senior executives from a number of operators explore his ideas as a potential solution to a long problem.

"Satellites provide an opportunity to extend terrestrial networks," says Brant. "Satellite become an extender or extensions to their current terrestrial networks." He is suggesting a mixture of satellites for the backhaul to a base station at the centre of small communities, with fixed wireless access to local subscribers.

Mobile phone networks commonly use satellite distribution in emerging markets where there is an inadequate terrestrial backhaul network. "If you have a carrier with a vast territory to cover a satellite can be used to extend or back up the mobile network."

An operator can use the satellite for the connections as the network is being built. When the fibre reaches the tower, "you can seamlessly switch the backhaul", says Brant.

Like many in the industry, he is an inveterate enthusiast about satellites. He's worked in the business for many years. He served as COO of Loral CyberStar, Loral's former data services company, and helped to integrate CyberStar with Skynet in 2003.

Telstar 11N
The first Telstar satellite was launched in 1961.
Loral Skynet plans to launch the huge
Telstar 11N in early 2008

The merged company, Loral Skynet, has a bit of unrivalled heritage: the name Telstar. The brand dates back more than 40 years, to when the old AT&T proposed a network of 50-120 active satellites orbiting about 10,000 kilometres above the Earth. The world's first active telecommunications satellite, Telstar 1, was launched on July 10 1962.

Today Loral Skynet's Telstar satellites orbit at the conventional geostationary altitude of 35,700 kilometres above the equator. The next in the series, Telstar 11N, is due for launch in 2008.

Telstar 10 is already in orbit, providing video services in Asia: "About 80 million people every day are viewing content on Telstar 10 from China to east Africa and Korea to almost Australia," says Brant.

And he sees an opportunity emerging over the next few years as telcos build out IPTV services, especially once they face the demand for high-definition channels. "Satellite will be able to provide content to the head ends," says Brant. With HDTV and with IP platforms networks will be able to serve mobile TV terminals too, he says.

Are carriers doing this already. "I can't say, because it's a competitive advantage for the early adopters. They're in test right now." Watch out in the first quarter of 2007, he says: "There'll be a big splash. The testing will be over and there'll be introductions next year."

Satellites provide "instant bandwidth availability" to broadband IP networks, he adds. "You can have speeds up to 45 megabits a second. Satellite has a vast capability to provide broadband capacity and you don't have to buy more and more fibre. It will cost a little more until you get scale."

Loral Skynet was "the first company to provide digital IP services by satellite", says Brant, "and we were the first to connect with the internet by satellite. Our network allows customers in any part of the globe to connect data or video or voice with any part of the world." GTB