A satellite dedicated to plugging some of the holes in the UK and Europe’s broadband coverage finally took to the skies this week. The spacecraft, called Hylas 1 (Highly Adaptable Satellite), was scheduled to launch at the end of last year but went into orbit on 26 November.
The UK government see the launch as a possible answer to its prayers as it races to provide all homes with a minimum 2Mbps broadband connection by 2015. But others have questioned the relevance of satellite in the increasingly competitive and speedy broadband market.
In particular the service is seen by some as providing an answer to rural communities which had been quoted thousands of pounds from firms such as BT to roll out broadband services.
But does satellite offer a real solution to the problem of getting decent broadband to remote areas?
A colleague at work has recently been questioning his internet speed, he lives in a village to the East of Nottingham and was getting ‘broadband’ speeds no quicker than a dial-up connection – remember those? Despite his provider turning up his connection speed he is still at less than 1Mbps download! His problem is obviously BT and its archaic copper network. So would satellite solve his problem?
Well with the first two satellites about a million rural people will be able to get broadband. Also satellite, which has traditionally been a lot more expensive than other broadband technologies, will become far more competitive (estimates are £20 – £25 per month).
So, Yes and No!
In the short-term it would improve his connection, but satellites are uncompetitive on speed, latency, data limits and price compared with wired broadband alternatives like DSL, cable and fibre. With good wired broadband availability now being complemented by fast and affordable mobile broadband, satellite broadband is becoming less relevant for consumers every day, even in rural areas.
Satellite’s one major disadvantage over other broadband technologies is the issue of latency, the time it takes for the signal to get up to the satellite and back. It means that voice services aren’t very good and video can also be difficult.
Capacity is another of the biggest issues for Hylas 1. It can serve only 350,000 homes, a fraction of the estimated three million homes struggling to achieve speeds beyond 2Mbps.
Also this year we have seen BT and Virgin Media turn up the speed dial to 100Mbps (my basic Virgin connection never falls below 9Mpbs), satellite broadband’s maximum of 10Mbps therefore seems rather modest.
There is no question that there is a gap in the market for rural broadband suppliers but the landscape has changed since Hylas was first conceived. Firms such as BT and Virgin Media are beginning to realise they need to extend their footprint into rural areas and may make use of this service. Virgin Media is also considering new ways to extend its cable network, including using overhead cables.
The bigger issue – while 84% of urban areas will benefit from next-generation broadband access by the end of 2015, less than half (48%) of rural areas will.
In the cable market the differences are even more marked, with nearly 60% of urban areas within reach of cable compared to around 5.7% of rural areas.
Satellite broadband may not offer the speeds of next-generation access but it is likely to be welcomed in areas that are struggling with ultra-slow broadband – but it is only a short-term fix. In the long-term cable is the way forward – and we are lagging behind the rest of Europe.