European satellite operator Eutelsat is bracing itself for a data revolution that will change the role of its predominantly TV based network, to a high bandwidth multimedia broadcasting platform.
But many new satellite operators are starting up to challenge Eutelsat, which has operated since 1985. These include Iridium, launched last weekend, and the Bill Gates-backed Teledesic system, now under construction.
Eutelsat provides satellite links for telecomms operators, Internet service providers and TV broadcasters across Europe. It currently has four base stations for data, video, and audio broadcasting, in Paris, London, Rome and Budapest. The platforms are based on digital video broadcasting standards, but now allow data transmission using IP.
In the UK, ISP Easynet is trialling Eutelsat technology for providing high speed Internet access via satellite. The Convergence 1 trial is nearing its conclusion and BT must agree with Easynet on terms for receiving the satellite broadcasts.
Easynet's service, which provides downstream Internet at twice the speed of ISDN, is expected to retail at around #40 per month - the same price as BT's Highway ISDN service - a potential point of conflict between the two operators.
In Europe, most data broadcasting via satellite over the next five years will be business-to-business, according to Antonio Arcadiacono, head of multimedia services at Eutelsat's headquarters in Paris.
Arcadiacono expects Eutelsat to expand its number of base stations for business communications in Europe from the present level of four, to over 1,000 by 2005, capable of handling 40Gbps of data traffic.
Business applications suited to satellite broadcasting include video on demand, software download, image transmission and newspaper distribution.
Business-to-consumer data broadcasting via satellite will accelerate dramatically in around five years' time, Arcadiacono said. "If you add the broadband advantage, high speed transmission, low download time, high value content - it becomes a real entertainment medium and has the technical capability that spans from business to consumer," he said.
Eutelsat is prepared to operate in an increasingly competitive market, and rather than feeling threatened by the arrival of the likes of Bill Gates in their space, Eutelsat anticipates partnerships and co-operation.
"There will be competition, but the big difference is that our offer is their now, working and operational. I trust that of the 12 systems that are around, two or three will succeed. But we will have to compete," said Arcadiacono.
"Iridium will need two million customes in four to five years," said Arcadiacono. "If operators [like Iridium] don't make money, they must find ways to make the system less expensive. But Motorola and Microsoft are not SOHO [small office home office] companies, so they can absorb losses for quite some time," he said.
Future improvements for the satellite data broadcasting industry will need to be made on the user side, rather than the transmission side, said Arcadiacono. "Our goal is to have user terminals at the cost of a set-top box, with the power of a 400MHz Pentium II."
Eutelsat is working on such a device, dubbed the Multimedia Home Platform, which will be a set-top box, based on open standards, that behaves like a PC. "If you want to go large market, go for open standards," said Arcadiacono.
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