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Satellite Might Not be the Best Fix for UK and EU Superfast Broadband

Friday, May 29th, 2015 (10:13 am) - Score 3,140
space satellite broadband spacecraft

As Europe’s 2020 Digital Agenda deadline looms, when every home across the EU is supposed to be put within reach of a 30Mbps+ capable “superfast” broadband connection (plus 50% subscribed to a 100Mbps+ service), there’s a growing recognition that the target will not be met. Some hope that Satellite might be the solution, but it’s not so simple.

Admittedly some countries will do better than others and indeed the United Kingdom, which currently looks to be roughly on course to deliver 25-30Mbps+ capable Next Generation Access (NGA) via fixed line connections to around 95% by 2017/18 (98% if you include wireless/mobile etc.), sits among a modest sized group of countries that will come close to achieving Europe’s goal on time.

The situation is neatly predicted in this 2020 map forecast from Point Topic.

europe 2020 broadband goals prediction

The problem for Europe is that connecting up the final 2-5%, which is often reflective of people who reside in some very remote rural areas or sometimes even those who exist in urban locations where complicated Exchange Only Lines (EOL) still exist, can be disproportionately expensive.

Funnily enough the European Commission recognised this same issue with their first Digital Agenda goal, which sought to ensure that basic broadband (0.5 – 4Mbps) connectivity could be delivered to 100% of the EU by the end of 2013. The EC ultimately decided that the only way to achieve the last little bit was to use Satellite.

Satellite technology relies on an autonomous communications spacecraft, which orbits the earth from space and thus delivers some exceptionally wide coverage (one Satellite can cover almost the whole of Europe). As such it makes perfect sense for meeting the lowest common denominator of basic Internet connectivity requirements.

But the growing talk within Europe and the United Kingdom is now of using Satellite to perform the same neat trick for the 30Mbps+ target. Indeed the UK is already trialling Satellite, such as in Exmoor, for exactly that purpose as part of the £10m Innovation Fund. Similarly the recent Budget 2015 announcement touted a new subsidy scheme to help make Satellite cheaper (here).

If only it were that simple..

The trouble is that Satellite is far from a perfect solution for NGA style connectivity, where consumers typically have significantly higher expectations of service quality, flexibility and performance. If you sell something as “superfast” or NGA then you better make sure that it’s a) affordable and, b) capable of doing everything that modern Internet users expect.

On top of that Europe and the UK appear increasingly keen to push Satellite as a quick fix and yet at the same time there’s a paradox because they’re both neglecting to give the industry enough support to meet those expectations.

Problem 1 – Cost

The first and most obvious problem of all is that of cost. A consumer will typically spend between £250 and £600 on Satellite hardware (varies depending on the offer, satellite type and your location), then there’s the £100+ installation and finally monthly rental.

A government subsidy could tackle the initial setup costs, but the monthly costs can also become a problem when you consider modern usage requirements. Ofcom’s most recent Infrastructure Report revealed that fixed line broadband customers in the UK gobbled 58GB (GigaBytes) of data per connection per month, which falls slightly to 44GB for Mobile Broadband users.

By comparison if you want a Satellite package that can deliver around 50GB per month, while not forgetting that this is CURRENT usage and people will use double that in the near future (especially with HD and 4K video streaming becoming common), then today you’ll be paying around £60 per month. Ouch.

Problem 2 – Capacity

Easily one of the biggest issues to face the Satellite industry is that of capacity. Eutelsat’s latest KA-SAT spacecraft is designed to share its 70Gbps of capacity and serve around 1 million customers, which is similar to other modern Satellite’s (although Avanti’s HYLAS 1 targets 350,000). But only a handful of these are best placed for NGA style broadband use in Europe.

Now the above is fine if you’re focusing on un-served rural areas in a couple of countries, but across Europe it’s estimated that there could be anything from 10 to 50 million premises that will not be covered by earth-based NGA broadband solutions come 2020.

At this point you might be thinking, well why not just launch more Satellites? Sadly it takes hundreds of millions of pounds in investment and years of development before they can be built and launched. Adding new capacity into space is not as simple as flicking a switch or laying a new cable like it is on land, if you run out of capacity then that will impact performance for a long time.

The only way to tackle this is for the politicians, if they’re serious about using Satellite, to recognise that they’ll need to assist the industry with much more than consumer subsidies. You can help millions of homes get a dish installed, but what’s the point if there’s no capacity left to deliver a good service?

Problem 3 – Performance

Capacity of course feeds into performance and indeed we already see quite a few existing Satellite customers complaining of poor speeds and heavy throttling. In the fixed line market we’ve become accustomed to “truly unlimited” usage allowances, where aggressive Traffic Management is almost a thing of the past, but for Satellite this can still be a problem.

Connect at peak times or go over that restrictive usage allowance and, if too many others are all trying to sip from the same limited supply, then your speeds could drop to a snail’s pace. You see this on fixed lines too; it’s just more aggressive and difficult for Satellite to solve. But if issues like this already exist then how bad will it be if Satellite is left as the only NGA solution for tens of millions.

Raw service speed isn’t the only issue, there’s also that age old bugbear of high latency. In a fixed line or local fixed wireless network the time that it takes for data to hop between key servers is measured in the low milliseconds (e.g. 10-50ms), but relay that data up to space and suddenly you jump to 600-1000ms. Short of breaking the laws of physics, this will always be a problem.

Granted milliseconds sound small, but high latency makes running time critical financial transactions or fast paced multiplayer games a practical impossibility. Similarly it won’t help the performance of your VoIP / Video calls and some VPNs can also suffer.

Problem 4 – The Other Issues

So far cost, capacity and performance are clearly the main issues, but some other problems can also exist with Satellite services, although these may vary between different ISPs, platforms and locations. For example, some areas may require planning permission for a dish, although this is less of an issue since the rules were relaxed.

Similarly if you already have a Sky TV dish installed then it’s worth noting that not all Satellite ISPs are setup to work via the same dish, thus you’d need the ugly solution of having to install two of them on your home (the size of dish you need can also vary depending on your location and choice of satellite platform). Lots of dishes in a small area can look very ugly (you can hide TV aerials inside the roof space, but not satellite).

Some Satellite ISPs also have tricky NAT based IP networks, which may not work with all Internet services (e.g. VPN). Meanwhile others won’t give you a UK based IP address unless you specifically request one, often at extra cost (Satellites don’t follow borders like countries do), which can cause problems while trying to use UK focused Internet TV (iPlayer) or other services. Always make sure to check this before you sign-up.

Finally, not everybody will have a clear view of the right patch of sky, such as if there’s a tall building in the way or if you’re surrounded by high trees or positioned poorly in a valley. Obviously if you can’t align the dish clearly to the Satellite then you won’t be receiving the service. Bad weather can cause problems too, but this is less of an issue for modern services.

Conclusion

At present most consumers in disadvantaged areas are still holding out hope that a good terrestrial broadband service will reach them at some point over the next few years and indeed that will happen for most (95%+), but probably not all people.

Meanwhile many others probably don’t even know Satellite is an option and that might actually be a good thing because the current crop of spacecraft would soon hit serious capacity issues if people rushed to join (some might already be in that position).

The Government might arguably do better to put some real support behind non-Satellite using alternative network and fixed wireless operators. But if they must go down the Satellite path then they’ll need to take it far more seriously and focus on the supply as well as demand side.

The UK Government must ensure, alongside their European counterparts, that enough Satellites and capacity exist to cater for the market. At the same time this must reflect the modern demands that consumers will be making, including in the future, and yet still be affordable.

On top of that they’ll need to be careful to prevent subsidy abuse, where certain providers may dramatically inflate their setup costs in order to extract a bigger hand-out. A few years ago we saw some examples of this in Wales, where a wireless service that normally cost around £200 to install suddenly shot up to almost £1000 when subsidies were introduced.

But for now our political leaders seem happy to plug Satellite as a solution for superfast broadband, albeit without doing much in the way of anything to ensure that new Satellites are built and launched to meet those expectations. Perhaps they’re more concerned with ticking the box for “job done” than ensuring the service is of a good enough quality to meet expectations.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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23 Responses
  1. TomD

    Our political leaders seem to be plugging satellite perhaps because they’re being told it’s feasible by technical experts in BT and BDUK
    ie politicians are being fed optimistic predictions on which to base their decisions – witness the assurances given during the recent parliamentary enquiry – such as concentrating on subsidising installation without considering the affordability of ongoing costs and total cost of ownership, which I’m glad you’ve highlighted here.

  2. Phil Coates

    Mark, you are correct on all counts. I am 2 years in on my Avonline Sat BB. £75 per month. 50Gb download limit (although overnight D/L don’t count – but I don’t watch IPTV at 3 am).

    We have 2 dishes (Sky and BB). At the times of the day when you would normally want a good service, so does everyone else on the service.

    The XXL (or whatever) service promises 20Mbps down and 6Mbps up. I expect on ADSL+ or Fibre this is acheivable most of the time but very rarely on Sat BB (unless you stay up all night).

    The ‘unlimited’ package I signed up for was changed without any contact from Avonline to 50Gb per month about 18 months ago.

    It IS better than nothing, but for families with children or even middle-aged farts like me a source of frustration rather than liberation.

  3. Pete Woods

    I’ve had satellite broadband from Tooway. There are about 3 things very wrong with it.
    1) Latency of over 1 second. Due to the way that webpages work (i.e. more than a single HTTP request – one for the main HTML, one for each .js, one for each image, then maybe some AJAX) this has an absolutely massive effect. Some pages take well over 30 seconds to load. Some never work (e.g. my pension website) because of internal timeouts in their code. VOIP is a joke. Online gaming is a joke. General internet usage is just incredibly frustration.
    2) Reliability. The dish needs to be aligned (in three dimensions) to a precision of less than a degree. A bit of strong wind and your connection is going to go down, and your dish may need re-aligning. Despite what is claimed, rain actually does degrade your network performance.
    3) Download caps. Even if you don’t hit your (giant ~20GB) official cap, but are a reasonably heavy user, there is hidden shaping going on that will kill your downstream to less than 500 kbps. No idea who manages this (probably someone low down wholesale stack) but it’s a killer.

    I couldn’t have been more delighted to replace it with fixed WiFi broadband (from Boundless Comms).

    Having moved house, I now have (somewhat crappy) 6 mbps ADSL from BT, and it’s significantly worse than what I used to have in the countryside with fixed WiFi.

  4. Steve Jones

    Isn’t a statement of the blindingly obvious that satellite might not be the best fix? Indeed, I’ll go further. The “might not be” should read “is not”, at least from a technical point of view. Even if all the capacity and cost issues could be resolved, the one thing that can’t be fixed is latency (at least with geostationary satellites), which will always mean that some times of Internet usage will always be unsatisfactory.

    That the potential technical solutions to this are effectively down to fixed wireless or fibre (low orbit satellite isn’t really an option) is well known. The problem is simply one of cost (and speed of roll-out of course due to the logistics involved).

    This is then a matter of political priorities. Do we just say if you are unlucky enough (or choose to live) in an expensive area you just have to put up with an inferior solution. We don’t, for instance, provide main sewerage services everywhere (or even water in some cases), not to mention gas. Even the supply of electricity is subject to excess construction costs.

    There are lots of options for funding. Including straight public subsidy, cross-subsidies within regulatory regimes, abandoning single national pricing systems and, not doubt, many others.

    • Phil Coates

      Steve, one of the frustrating things about this debate is the assumption that if you live in a rural area it is by choice or somehow linked to income or a desire to escape urban living.

      Whilst this is no doubt true in some cases, in many it is not.

      For example, I gave up a house in town (with at the time 10Mbps Virgin Cable) to move to a semi-rural environment because my Mother in Law needed to be looked after in her home where she was born and had lived for 80+ years. I regarded this as the humane thing to do rather than let the tender mercies of the state pay for her care in a Nursing Home.

      I don’t regret doing it but my ability to stay in contact with my kids abroad has suffered significantly because trying to Skype with Sat BB is painful and we have no mobile signal.

      We also have no gas and use septic tanks as there is no mains drainage – not the end of the world but not ideal.

      Internet access seems to be becoming a de facto necessity these days. My fear is that without an appropriate solution, there will be drift away from rural areas (as there seems to be in Wales) and they will become ghettos for the wealthy.

    • Steve Jones

      I did say “unlucky enough”, so I wasn’t assuming that people always have a choice over their circumstances. However, that’s just emphasising that it’s a question of political priorities and decisions, not a technical one. That’s why I mentioned a few options for the way it might be financed. There is one fortunate thing with broadband infrastructure. It’s largely a matter of capital expenditure, and less one of operating costs (rural networks do cost more to run, but it’s not massively so). This is in direct contrast with rural public transport systems (which are in a much worse state than telecommunications) as, with those, it’s the recurring costs which dominate. At least with broadband most of the problems can be fixed with a one-off cost and, maybe, a tweak to the regulatory or national pricing regime. So there is some hope. I don’t hold out much for rural bus services.

      nb. I’m not wholly unaffected by this as I’m planning to retire to a more rural areas, but I’m acutely aware of the importance of local services like transport, access to shops, medical and, of course, broadband. I’m lucky that I can choose my location, but it, too, is dictated by having to deal with elderly relatives.

    • gerarda

      Broadband is not a utility but a communication service and so like post and telephone should be subject to a USO.

    • Steve Jones

      @gerarda

      The telephone service does, indeed, have a USO. That’s applied was applied to BT as it had a national network at the time of privatisation. However, there are a couple of important issues to note. First is that the USO is not unlimited (nor is that for electricity or water; despite your point, they are treated as utilities). Beyond a “reasonable” cost level, provision of these utilities are subject to excess construction charges. There is no automatic right to a phone (or electric or any other) service at a fixed price. It just depends on how much cost is involved in the extension.

      The second issue is that there has to be a market which allows for cross-subsidisation. With broadband there is no such market as, in the cheap-to-service areas there is intense cost competition from LLU operators, Virgin and a few others. There is thus no excess profit to be used for cross-subsidisation.

      So if a USO is to be imposed, there would have to be some regulatory model in the market that allows it to be funded. It could be via a levy on all providers (the US has just such a fund for rural provision, albeit rather inadequate).

      Be absolutely clear, unless the principle of national pricing is dropped (so different areas pay something closer to the actual costs of provision), then a USO is a cross-subsidy model, and regulators can only apply this where there is an appropriate market model. There simply isn’t one at the moment, and given competition from VM and, maybe, city fibre networks it won’t emerge naturally. Indeed, the regulator’s intention is that this doesn’t appear as Ofcom favour infrastructure based competition in as much of the country as possible. Whilst communication companies can “cherry pick”, this will remain so.

      Note that the Royal Mail is struggling with its USO for not unrelated reasons. Other operators can cherry-pick (even Amazon now run their own delivery networks for parcels in much of the country). The reduction of post and the bleeding of parcel/package delivery to alternative operators threaten that USO is the Royal Mail are obliged to service all parts of the country at the same price. This is despite recent, eye-watering, increases in postal costs.

    • Al

      Didn’t a previous UK government propose something like a 50p/month levy on broadband charges to be used for investment in the network? But it never come around perhaps due to negative feedback with users on decent connections unwilling to pay it.

    • FibreFred

      The Tories scrapped that plan I believe , not sure how much it would have raised how fast but diverting it to rurals would have been best, I would have no issue paying this, saying that would people be happy to have a increase on energy bills to bring gas to remote areas?

  5. DTMark

    Surely this comes back to the design of the BDUK solution. BT seem keen to convey the impression that VDSL is some sort of stepping-stone. The BDUK projects will see BT deploy a minimum of 2Mbps to every premise in the country. It is required in the contracts, which BT accepted.

    So in the design of that 2Mbps+ solution, and unless we’d planned for project failure it is inconceivable that the budget and technology have already been planned and signed off to achieve that, then whatever solution that is, can then be the stepping stone to 30Mbps+ for every premise in the country. This has been thought of, hasn’t it?

    Satellite need not even receive a mention, it is simply unnecessary.

    • PeterM

      Yes, I totally agree.
      Satellite is a complete distraction. They need to just get on with the BDUK project as planned.

    • Some of us in Surrey saw the inadequacy of the BT solution for rural broadband when the contract was placed with BT and asked Surrey County Council how the FTTC technology provided a future-proof solution. The answer was FTTP on demand. At the time (2012) we saw this as a knee-jerk response from BT’s marketing department rather than a well informed reply based on what was likely to be a real possibility.

      What has happened to FTTP on demand since 2012? First, it was recast as a business product and now it is apparently on hold.

      Given all of this does anyone believe BT and the local authorities had a long-term plan from the start?

    • PeterM

      @David Cooper
      That may be the wrong conclusion. The biggest problem at the moment at Openreach seems to be a lack of recourses. They are at full stretch with BDUK and still cannot cope. Apparently the cash is available and they cannot spend it fast enough.
      Fibre on demand has been suspended for the same reason – lack of recourses.
      I think the long term plan remains in place but it will need a lot of momentum to keep it moving!

  6. PeterM

    I think most people in the know would agree that satellite should only be used as a last resort however it seems that BDUK may have other ideas for using it as a quick fix.
    I am 2km from my cabinet but have another cabinet only 500m away. It seems that one option being considered for my postcode as a quick fix is satellite.
    Clearly this is a particularly stupid option and if it was replicated around the country anyone on satellite would end up pathetically slow broadband.
    I don’t usually think much of EU regulations but I think in this case the EU should bring in guidelines that limit the use of state funded satellite broadband to remote areas only.

  7. MikeW

    Clearly satellite is no more than a last-chance solution, for those left out of real solutions … at whatever speed level. The latency rules it out of proper consideration. It still has a place, and will for at least 5 years, but we should aim that its place is a constantly diminishing one.

    However, the other issue of capacity (seen as poor speed performance at peak hours) is an interesting phenomenon – it has to be thought of more dynamically than presented here, both by Mark and in various comments.

    Right now, the performance of satellite suffers at peak hours because too many people are trying to use each transponder/beam. The solution is simple … have fewer users.

    How do you reduce the number of users relying on satellite? Simple … keep building out the other land-based technologies. As coverage of fixed, fixed wireless and mobile extends deeper into the final 10%, reliance on satellite reduces, and customers reduce.

    As the pool of properties that needs satellite reduces, performance will improve. But to keep it viable as usage grows, the fixed, wireless & mobile solutions have to keep extending, relentlessly.

  8. GNewton

    @MikeW: “the fixed, wireless & mobile solutions have to keep extending”

    Doesn’t mobile (3G, 4G etc) suffer from the same issues when it comes to serving too many users during peak hours? Isn’t that’s why you often find these ridiculous usage caps on mobile networks?

    • MikeW

      Absolutely. All shared technologies suffer the same problem of uncontrollable congestion.

      It just happens to be cheaper to add capacity & coverage to 4G and fixed wireless than for satellite.

      Australia has seen the need for use of satellite as a long term solution, and have chosen to launch 2 satellites for themselves – that monopoly means they control the demand, so know it is worth doing.

      Meanwhile, the EU governments have nixed any similar decision here. Who will choose to invest in satellite here when governments will only countenance fixed networks as “proper”?

      The mobile companies are at least incentivised to invest further in 4G, through mobile users and their own licence conditions. What they need for coverage is more masts, large, high power cells in new locations. What they need for capacity is more masts – small, low power cells serving hotspots – and more spectrum.

      In the end, 4G has a long term future, but satellite doesn’t. Not here, anyway.

  9. KStone

    Geostationary Sat is not really an option long term, everyone knows that. Plenty of people are looking for a solution between 4G (too many obstacles) and High orbit Stationary Sat. It really is a last resort.

    Low Orbit Sat could do it, fill the sky with thousands of Drone Sats 🙂

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530062.200-multibilliondollar-race-to-put-internet-into-orbit.html

    Really though, it is not difficult to lay fibre cables.

    • GNewton

      “Really though, it is not difficult to lay fibre cables.”

      You are right, except for the UK. You may want to know that BT plans ‘trial’ fibre rollout, e.g. FoD. Besides, the laws of physics are different in the UK, fibre here comes through copper wires to the homes 🙂

    • MikeW

      Not difficult at all.

      But not cheap, either. There’s an awful lot to do.

      The problems aren’t with the technology, or even with civil engineering. Just with the finances. But the advances in technology and civil engineering all help to reduce the financial problems.

  10. TheFacts

    Avonline advertising satellite broadband with no connection cost on radio currently.

    Ts & Cs apply.

  11. The main problem is the finance, It will be a big project and I don’t think so that it will pay off. Politicians are just thinking about advancing in technology however they cannot predict that if this would help at all. 4G’s Future is very bright.

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