Space to grow

©Thalys/Zimmermann Media

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

Economic data


Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive paper editions delivered to you directly

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • When someone asks me to describe an ideal girl, in my head, she is a person who is physically and mentally independent, brave to speak her mind, treated with respect just like she treats others, and inspiring to herself and others. But I know that the reality is still so much different. By Alda, 18, on International Day of the Girl. Read more.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Read some of the insightful remarks made at OECD Forum 2017, held on 6-7 June. OECD Forum kick-started events with a focus on inclusive growth, digitalisation, and trust, under the overall theme of Bridging Divides.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • How do the largest community of British expats living in Spain feel about Brexit? Britons living in Orihuela Costa, Alicante give their views.
  • Brexit is taking up Europe's energy and focus, according to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. Watch video.
  • OECD Chief Economist Catherine Mann and former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King discuss the economic merits of a US border adjustment tax and the outlook for US economic growth.
  • Africa's cities at the forefront of progress: Africa is urbanising at a historically rapid pace coupled with an unprecedented demographic boom. By 2050, about 56% of Africans are expected to live in cities. This poses major policy challenges, but make no mistake: Africa’s cities and towns are engines of progress that, if harnessed correctly, can fuel the entire continent’s sustainable development.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2017