Broadband goes into orbit

Mar 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

With their promise of “always on” broadband service beamed down from the sky, one could easily mistake the new breed of interactive satellite networks for a vision of a perpetual motion machine dreamed up in a science-fiction novel.
But with multiple system operators’ delays in implementing digital interactive services, interactive satellite platforms now appear to be just as much of a reality as cable- and telephone-based interactive networks.
Brand-new always-on satellite broadband products, such as WildBlue, StarBand and Hughes Network Systems’ DirecPC platform, are revolutionizing the interactive content marketplace by providing viewers with an uninterrupted path between their computers or set-tops and the Internet. The standard dial-up telephone connections that have slowed down e-mail and e-commerce transactions are expected to soon become a relic of the distant past.
WildBlue, which filed for its initial public offering late last year, offers ka-band service, allowing it to broadcast with more powerful bandwidth than its ku-band predecessors, such as the recently launched StarBand broadband service and Hughes’ DirecPC high-speed satellite Internet offering, which is expected to become available to consumers later this month through Pegasus Communications’ Pegasus Express Internet service. StarBand and DirecPC, which share WildBlue’s always-on presence, are limited by weaker bandwidth capabilities.
While WildBlue is currently a computer-based broadband service, some market participants believe the service may migrate to television set-tops, following the current trend in the interactive content industry.
“That’s really the hurdle for satellite television [to overcome] today: the always-on connection,” said Jim Stroud, an analyst at the Carmel Group. “I think always-on is clearly important. … Once it’s on satellite, you can broadcast it nationwide.”
WildBlue, which is constrained by quiet-period restrictions in anticipation of its forthcoming IPO, hinted that a television set-top-based broadband satellite service could be in the works. To date, the company has announced that its core product will be offered on personal computers.
“We do have plans [for a television-based service], and I can’t really talk about it at this point,” said Brad Greenwald, vice president of marketing and business development for WildBlue.
But to deploy interactive television services, always-on satellite companies would need to adopt the same middleware that cable companies have been testing for the purpose of integrating interactive features into a television broadcast. Naturally, middleware companies, such as OpenTV, are excited by that prospect.
Sally Ann Reiss, an OpenTV spokeswoman who was one of the founding principals of digital video recording company TiVo, said OpenTV’s DeviceMosaic Web browser could provide a point of entry for satellite television company EchoStar into the interactive television
EchoStar, which is affiliated with both the StarBand and WildBlue broadband services for personal computers, has yet to offer an Internet browser or a full menu of interactive offerings on its satellite television platform. Although the StarBand service for PCs is separate from EchoStar’s satellite telvision service, the television and Internet services are often sold in tandem.
“We can publicly declare nothing,” Ms. Reiss said, when questioned about any potential partnership between OpenTV and EchoStar. “I certainly think [EchoStar] would use [OpenTV’s platform].”
However, EchoStar spokesman Marc Lumpkin said: “Eventually we plan to offer t-commerce applications on your television set using both Wink and OpenTV. It’s a little premature for us to be talking about it. That’s not to say we wouldn’t rule out the possibility in the future of putting high-speed Internet access on your television set.”
For interactive content developers, always-on satellite offers a welcome alternative to waiting for cable operators to complete their digital upgrades.
“As a content provider, I’m excited to see as many platforms as I can,” said Marlin Davis, CEO of Screamingly Different Entertainment. “Up until now, cable has had an advantage because they had that return path to the set-top box. Now, the satellite companies have that same return path.”
Although WildBlue cites the 25 million to 30 million rural American households that the company believes will never gain access to high-speed cable or DSL Internet service as the demographic most amenable to its service, Mr. Greenwald also points out the parallels between WildBlue’s offering and high-speed networks being built by media outlets targeting a broader audience.
“We’ll be offering up to a half a megabit per second of bandwidth in the return path,” he said. “What it means is the satellite-delivered broadband can have the same operating characteristics as a terrestrial broadband service like cable modem or DSL.”
WildBlue plans to launch its first satellite by early next year and will initiate its broadcast service shortly afterward.
Spaceway, another high-bandwidth, always-on satellite broadband offering, will be launched by Hughes Network Systems within the next couple of years, according to Steven Salamoff, assistant vice president for DirecPC services at Hughes. Spaceway will mark Hughes’ entrance into the ka-band satellite arena.