Mobile satellite services poised for launch in Europe at last

Very few people these days have confidence in satellite delivery to mobile phones, with a few notable exceptions, and two of these are about to begin the process of invading Europe with Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) over the coming months and years.

Back in January 2009, after a protracted bidding process, two 18-year contracts were awarded to deliver these services across Europe, to a joint venture between Eutelsat and SES, and to Inmarsat. The two pieces of spectrum awarded were two 15 MHz blocks in 1.98-2.01 GHz on the uplink, and 2.17-2.2 GHz down.

The EutelSat/SES joint venture, called Solaris, decided to sell off its rights to EchoStar in January 2014, and last week EchoStar joined Inmarsat in putting up a satellite which is ready and able to reach an individual mobile phone – or millions of them at once – with software updates, broadcasts, satellite radio and so on, plus a separate voice band for emergency services.

It has been a long journey for MSS in Europe, and getting a satellite into orbit (Inmarsat has been testing one since July), is not the end of it. A layered ecosystem of service providers have to plan, fund and introduce services and contract with the satellite companies for bandwidth.

The satellites can be tuned to speak in any modulation scheme and have antennas that are so large that the signal is amplified and can reach an individual handset from space.
Some of the capacity on both satellites is likely to be uses for DTH (direct to home) video, to fixed satellite receivers, like those used by Sky and CanalSat, since capacity for these types of services in Europe is constrained, raising the cost per channel.

There is also interest in satellite radio, despite the long time-to-profit of Sirius XM in the US – investors rarely have the stamina for 10-year adventures with bouts of uncertainty. But satellite radio is still largely admired in Europe, especially in France, where multiple entrepreneurs have attempted to bring services to market. Expect cellular operators and service players alike to experiment in the coming years for direct delivery to portable devices.

There are other potential services such as mapping updates to handsets, first responder voice networks or Spotify-class music services. MNOs might use these channels like yet another carrier aggregation or even for a mobile broadcast network which is far simpler than eMBMS.

In the S-Band satellite spectrum, most regulatory regimes have agreed a separate use of the spectrum on the ground, called Complementary Ground Component (CGC). Usually CGC handles the listening to individual handsets, while the satellite handles delivery to the service, but satellite delivered services cannot penetrate in-building, so the CGC can be used for that also.

EchoStar began talking to potential customers in 2015, so it may have gone some way to service launches. Inmarsat says it will serve aviation passenger connectivity – the ability to makes phones calls in the air even when passengers are over water – and safety services for disaster relief all over Europe and DTH.

Inmarsat kicked off the launches when the powerful Hellas-Sat went into operation in July, put there by Thales Alenia Space using its Spacebus vehicle, delivering 45 transponders and positioned at 39° East, with CGC.

Last week saw the addition of the EchoStar XX1 satellite, built by Space Systems Loral and based at 10.25 degrees East, also with a CGC. It will be pressed into service in Q4. It’s been a long wait.