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Roaming on HTS: Can You Get There from Here?

09 May 2011

With the recent and imminent arrival of a number of second generation High Throughput Satellites (HTS) such as KA-SAT, ViaSat-1, Jupiter and even YahSat-1B, many in the industry are asking the question “can roaming be done on HTS?” The idea of roaming usually takes a number of forms and can include services like aeronautical, maritime, satellite newsgathering, disaster response, UAVs, and other non-fixed applications that are either constantly on the move or move from location-to-location around the world depending on circumstance. Implicit in the question of “can I roam?” is: can these applications benefit from the lower cost per bit that is being touted as the key advantage of HTS?


From NSR’s point of view, the short answer to this question is “it depends” as there are a number of key factors that need to be addressed in deciding if roaming is possible. The first factor to assess is geographic coverage. Can a specific application be addressed under the footprint of a single HTS, or is the geographic region larger? In the case the geographic coverage needed falls under a single HTS, then the answer to “is roaming possible?” is much more likely to be a “yes”. Take (for example) the September 2010 deal that ViaSat signed with JetBlue for an in-flight broadband service over North America. This is clearly one key roaming application that can greatly benefit from lower cost capacity.


Other deals similar to this one are expected by NSR; however, it is likely that in most cases these services will be restricted to using the existing ground infrastructure of a specific HTS. This raises the second important question of the implication of being obliged to use a specific vendor ground network and equipment. While it can technically be possible to just sell space segment on an HTS, the drawback here is this usually means a less efficient overall system in terms of total throughput and, therefore, a higher cost per bit. Secondly, it may be cost prohibitive from a service provider point-of-view to invest in a duplicate set of gateways in order to allow their service to run anywhere within the coverage area of the HTS.


So, the next big question to assess in roaming is: does the lower cost capacity offset any capital investments that would need to be made to make use of a specific HTS? NSR believes that in some cases, especially Greenfield applications, the answer could be “yes”. Yet, CAPEX issues will be a major deciding factor in any future roaming services on HTS.


Turning to the issue of roaming between HTS covering different parts of the world, many of the advantages and disadvantages are the same as roaming within a single HTS. There will also be the added question of potentially dealing with different proprietary ground network systems on different HTS, and this makes the CAPEX question even more important. Further, there may also be competitive and business reasons that would work against HTS operators joining together. There are certain cost implications such as related to billing, customer service, etc. that may make roaming services, while not unattractive, potentially less attractive from a business point of view than other services that can be offered over the HTS capacity and give an HTS operator a better ROI on their investment.


Bottom Line
NSR does feel that more types of HTS roaming arrangements will develop over time. However, NSR expects that growth in roaming will be constrained in the interim given the limited number of HTS that will actually be in operation in the next 12 to 24 months. As more HTS are launched and more business models developed, roaming services will expand longer-term. Key issues to consider in driving the expansion for roaming will include:

   - Geographic coverage requirements
   - CAPEX implications
   - Proprietary ground equipment
   - Satellite operator business models for maximizing their internal ROI