Since May 2008 passengers travelling on the Thalys high-speed train between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne can now access broadband thanks to technology combining the Internet and satellite communications. Launched on 14 May as part of the European Space Agency’s “Broadband to Trains” initiative, this latest commercial application was developed by UK company.
The principle is simple: a satellite-tracking antenna on the roof of the train ensures a permanent link with a telecommunications satellite. The link is then relayed inside the train through wireless access points installed in the ceilings of the carriages. It uses a Ku-band satellite system to provide connectivity between the Internet backbone and a master server on the train, and assures a continuous, two-way link between a train travelling at 300 km/h and a satellite 36,000 km up in the sky. When the satellite connection is obstructed when the train enters a tunnel, terrestrial wireless access takes over.The space communications industry has been looking out for good news stories like the ESA/Thalys one for some time. Before the boom in broadband and wireless Internet, experts believed global communications would most likely take off via space. Companies rose, and many fell, on the promise of instant satellite communications wherever people roamed. But space-led broadband and Internet services, though capable of providing access anywhere, anytime, have emerged at anything but the speed of light.There are several reasons for this, such as expense, atmospheric issues, market operator problems and of course the emergence of terrestrial wireless communications. Sure enough, for some very isolated areas in the more remote parts of North America, Russia or Antarctica, not to mention out at sea, satellites are still the only way to get Internet access. In fact, about 10% of US households access Internet by satellite, and more in Australia. And in developing countries, satellite communications are also valuable for distance education and telehealth services. But generally, space communications could simply not compete with terrestrial Internet.Two policy issues stand out. First, there is the ongoing battle for signal allocations, which promises to heat up in view of future demand. Electromagnetic bands are limited natural resources and some frequency bands are already dedicated exclusively to satellite transmissions. However, demand is rising for spectrum licenses for all kinds of wireless communications, not just satellite, and some countries plan to issue more licenses to use the Ku band (this is the most established band) for their fixed and mobile communications links. The upshot could be interference with satellite television channels. Terrestrial and satellite operators will no doubt be at loggerheads over this through to the next World Radiocommunication Conference in 2011.The second major challenge is the “landing rights” required by governments to distribute foreign satellites services in their territories, particularly satellite television. Rights are issued on a case by case basis, and over the years, many countries, including in the OECD area and recently Indonesia, have added more red tape and fees.Such market hurdles were already identified in an OECD study in 2005 and the landscape has not improved that much since then. Also, while space may be limitless, in communications, the US, Japan, Europe, China and Russia stoutly defend and protect their space territories. This complicates efforts to improve the general framework for satellite operators.As for the market, it is in broadcasting that the most significant progress has been achieved, but competition with Internet has been trickier, partly because two-way internet via satellite is more costly and also because even the new Ka-band systems find it difficult to assure transmission of high-frequency signals through rain.
Research is ongoing to develop satellite broadband services, and new technology such as spot beams and onboard processing should improve competitiveness and spectrum-use efficiency. As the ESA initiative shows, there are niches that space can fill, so while satellite Internet may not progress at the speed of light as once hoped, it should at least keep pace with the world’s fastest trains. RJC
- OECD (2007), The Space Economy at A Glance, Paris
- OECD (2005), Space 2030: Tackling Society’s Challenges, Paris
©OECD Observer No 268 June 2008