Monday, July 19, 2004

Will Internet satellite fly?

Launching a satellite must be one of the most stressful events in the communications industry.

Hundreds of people spend years of their lives designing and building these high-tech, solar-powered "birds." They cost millions of dollars, including the launch fees and just-in-case insurance policies. The business plans of a handful of companies are also on the line.

At launch time, you basically cross your fingers and spend the next few hours silently praying that all goes as planned.
"Think of it as a four-year pregnancy and we're now getting ready for the first phase of its birth, which is launch," said Paul Bush, vice-president of corporate development at Telesat Canada, the BCE Inc.-owned company that has brought us six generations of Anik satellites over its 35-year history.

Speaking last week over his mobile phone from the Arianespace launch zone in Kourou, French Guiana, preparing for the launch of Telesat's 15th satellite, Bush was calm. He said there was no nail-biting going on but anticipation was making people anxious.

The launch was supposed to take place a week ago today but an "anomaly" in the launcher discovered hours before lift-off postponed it until Thursday. Bad weather bumped the launch again until Friday, 8:43 p.m.; another launch-pad problem pushed lift-off back a third time to Saturday. They've got one shot to get this Boeing-built satellite into orbit, and nobody wants to take chances. Insurance and launch costs alone account for nearly half of Anik F2's $400-million-plus (U.S.) price tag.

"Boeing and Arianespace literally hold the future of Telesat in their hands," chief executive Larry Boisvert told a satellite conference in March.

Anik F2 was launched at 8:44 p.m. aboard an Ariane 5G rocket. When finally ignited, the rockets slowly lifted off, then sped up rapidly after a few minutes. Within 28 minutes the satellite left the atmosphere and was ejected from the rocket. A large onboard thruster took over and jetted the satellite to its orbital slot about 35,000 kilometres above the Earth's equator.

Once in place, a panel of solar arrays nearly 50 metres across unfolded in the darkness of space. They use the sun's energy to supply power to Anik F2 until it is retired in 2020. Smaller thrusters will spend the next 15 years or so keeping the spacecraft from straying out of its orbital position.

Canadians should care about this moment — about this particular satellite. Anik F2 is more than just the largest and heaviest of commercial satellites in the world, it's also the first to combine cutting edge Ka-band technology with older and less powerful Ku- and C-band transponders.

The latter two will continue to carry Canada's television and telecommunications signals, but the powerful Ka-band "spot beams" will, for the first time, let an Anik satellite deliver two-way, broadband Internet service to any location in North America at a price that's competitive with residential cable or DSL high-speed services.

Previously, you'd have to spend at least a couple hundred dollars a month to get high-speed access to your cottage or rural business. Bush estimates Telesat's consumer high-speed Internet service, which will be sold through a distribution network yet to be announced (but likely to include Bell Canada), will cost only 5 to 10 per cent more than what Torontonians pay for high-speed services from Sympatico and Rogers.

This single bird, fixed in space, will let Ottawa attain its goal of bringing broadband Internet access to every community in Canada. But let's not kid ourselves. When the service is officially switched on this fall, the biggest group to benefit from Anik F2's ubiquitous broadband coverage will be baby boomers who are fleeing our cities en masse and cocooning themselves in rural homes and upscale cottages.

By 2026 half the population will be over 43 and one in every five people will be a senior, according to Statistics Canada. Roughly 7 million Canadians will be in retirement, and they'll be healthier and wealthier than previous generations their age.

Mortgages will be paid off and pensions will kick in. As more move away from the city, either to year-round country homes or summer cottages, they'll want the same amenities they've come to enjoy from urban living. And for those still working toward retirement, having the ability to telecommute — particularly during the summer months — means more time at the cottage.

A recent Royal LePage poll found that a quarter of cottage owners and a third looking to buy a cottage consider Internet access important. But dial-up service no longer cuts it. This reporter gets complaints every week from cottagers who lament the lack of affordable high-speed Internet service outside the city. The frustration is growing.

"What you're seeing in the north of Toronto is not unlike what you're seeing north of Ottawa or Winnipeg. It's this whole phenomenon of recreational properties, where more people are choosing to work and play outside the cities," said Bush. "We think there's pent up demand for those areas of the country using dial up to get online, or who have nothing. If you choose to live outside of an urban area, it doesn't mean you should be offline."

Still, critics of Telesat's broadband satellite plan say the market won't be large enough to sustain the service, and that competing against well-established cable and DSL services will be a challenge, even though those products aren't available outside the city. Indeed, certain areas of the GTA are still not served by Rogers or Bell when it comes to high-speed access.

Bush said all one has to do is look at the direct-to-home satellite market to see the potential for broadband satellite service. There are 25 million direct-to-home subscribers in North America, a market Anik F2 can easily cover.

In Canada, we have about 2.2 million subscribers spread between Bell ExpressVu and Star Choice. Of those, roughly 60 per cent — or 1.3 million — live in rural areas. Over-all, Telesat estimates that about 25 per cent of the population can't get cable or DSL broadband services.

"I think we're where we were with direct-to-home 10 years ago," said Bush. "There were a lot of naysayers then that said this isn't going to take off. But what you actually see is 25 million subscribers. It's a huge business."

It should be pointed out that the modem to be used with Telesat's broadband satellite service is based on the same technology standard as cable and DSL modems.

Once service is connected at the cottage,users can easily hook up Wi-Fi wireless networking gear.

Imagine, sitting with your coffee on the dock. The lake is calm and the sun is shining. Your laptop, rigged with a wireless card, is on your lap and you're . . . well . . . working.

Where do we sign up?

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