Satellite operator SES is 25 this year. E&T looks at the company's roots and the role of technology in its success.
Some people have had satellite TV for so long that, like mobile telephony, they take it for granted. Services such as Sky and Freesat are an established part of the telecommunications landscape. It means that those outside the satellite industry, the ground-huggers of terrestrial broadcasting and cable, tend to overlook the role of satellites in expanding broadcasting.
March 2010 marks the 25th anniversary of what began as a little-known start-up in Luxembourg dedicated to bringing multiple channels of satellite broadcast TV to homes across Europe. Société Européenne des Satellites (SES) was established by the Luxembourg government in 1985 as Europe's first private satellite operator, setting up shop in a chateau that was formerly home to a Grand Duke.
Luxembourg spawns CLT and RTL
Luxembourg is a landlocked nation of just 2,500 sq km, home to fewer than half a million people, which has often punched above its weight in the broadcasting business. Back in 1933, in stark contrast to the policies of its European neighbours, the Luxembourg government decided against establishing a public radio system and granted the rights to exploit its allocated radio spectrum to a business instead.
With the advent of television in 1955, that radio company became Compagnie Luxembourgeoise de Telediffusion (CLT) and, under the brand name RTL (Radio TV Luxembourg), developed into Europe's largest commercial TV and radio broadcaster. Those who listened to Radio Luxembourg in the 1950s and 1960s, possibly on their first transistor radio, will remember the engagingly anti-establishment style of its pop output ' a direct attack on the stolid, authoritarian fare of the BBC.
That was just the beginning. According to European space business chronicler Théo Pirard, Luxembourg was keen to 'stimulate the continuation of audiovisual developments from radio to TV broadcasting on a pan-European scale'. This ambition opened the door to satellites.
When the European plan for direct broadcasting by satellite (DBS) was developed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 1977, Luxembourg, along with every other European nation, was allocated just five channel frequencies in the Ku-band (12 to 18GHz) part of the spectrum. Given the limitations of satellite technology at the time, and the absence of digital compression, each 27MHz-wide channel could carry just one high-quality TV signal. However, each channel could be broadcast across an entire nation with the same high quality and received at home with a 90cm parabolic antenna. Luxembourg's nascent satellite project was imaginatively dubbed Luxsat.
With millions of satellite dishes across Europe today, it is difficult to recognise the innovative nature of the plan for 'high-power DBS'. The only satellite antennas in Europe at the time were the 5m-and-larger earth stations used by the national telecommunications operators such as the UK's Post Office (later BT). The US already had a form of satellite TV, but it was limited to serving cable distribution systems in condominiums and motels. By the late 1970s, their huge white dishes were a common sight in parking lots across America.
Luxembourg rebelled once more against the conservative ambitions of regulators and state broadcasters by developing a pioneering solution. It rejected the European high-power DBS scheme, opting instead for a medium-power system already proven in the US. Reducing the satellite transponder power (from a typical 230W to just 45W per channel) allowed an increase to 16 channels, thus offering greater scope for variety - and for vital advertising revenue.
Meanwhile, shifting the channel frequencies from the closely regulated broadcasting band to the fixed satellite service (FSS) band avoided the coverage restrictions that confined a satellite's beam to its country of origin. In doing so, the cross-border broadcasting model of Radio Luxembourg was replicated for its satellites, and, thanks to steadily improving technology, a TV signal broadcast using just 45W of RF power could reach across Europe.
Unfortunately, Luxsat's reliance on an American satellite system and imported commercial programming gave the old guard of European broadcasting a stick with which to beat the Luxembourgeois upstarts. The reaction of French post and telecommunications minister Louis Mexandeau was typical: 'We are certainly not willing to allow Coca-Cola satellites to undermine our linguistic and cultural identity.'
Early satellite developments in Luxembourg had benefited from the backing of Prime Minister Pierre Werner, but it was Jacques Santer, his successor, who, in 1984, would fight to establish SES. While political opponents were denouncing the satellite project as a 'danger for Luxembourg, and a danger for Europe', Santer was bringing together financial institutions and industrial investors to bankroll the company. As a result, on 1 March 1985, SES was incorporated, although there wasn't much to the company at that point.
'In 1985 SES had no money, no frequencies, no regulatory approval, no satellite, no rocket, no TV channels, no clients, no reception equipment and no viewers,' said Marcus Bicknell, who was SES commercial director from 1986 to 1990 and an SES board member. 'We did have a small office next to the Luxembourg railway station in which the company's first engineer kept his soldering iron plugged in and smoking on his desk. Our critics said the company was fragile and the foundations hollow. Indeed the governments of Germany, France and the UK were intent on sinking us.'
SES was meant to be an entirely European undertaking, 'essential', according to spokesman Yves Feltes, 'to alleviate the anxieties of those who continued to fear that Luxembourg's satellite ambitions were a Trojan horse for US cultural imperialism.'
However, the political and financial problems were far from over and it took until May 1987 for Astra, the proposed satellite system, to be registered with the International Frequency Registration Board and, later that year, accepted as a legitimate player by the government-run monopolies Intelsat and Eutelsat.
Following delays in launching its first satellite resulting from a failure of the Ariane launch vehicle, Astra 1A was finally deployed in December 1988. Supplied by American prime contractor GE Astro (formerly part of RCA and later subsumed into Lockheed Martin), the satellite was capable of beaming sixteen 26MHz-wide channels across western Europe.
Although SES's initial client list featured some high-profile names, it was late 1989 before German broadcasters came on board, thus beginning to fulfil the pan-European intentions of the SES charter. Rupert Murdoch's UK-based Sky TV was another early adopter, but this was a double-edged sword for SES, according to Théo Pirard. 'Sky used SES-Astra to compete with the BBC,' he says, which won the Luxembourg company few friends in the British establishment.
Despite the protestations of the established terrestrial operators and the cynicism of experts, Europe's first venture in medium-power satellite broadcasting was a success. In contrast, the French and German five-channel high-power satellites designed under the ITU broadcasting plan were beginning to look outdated. As dish sales climbed and demand from broadcasters and programme makers grew, SES prepared to launch its second satellite, Astra 1B, and another technical innovation.
Under the ITU registration and frequency coordination system, satellite operators are allocated a band of frequency-space and a dedicated position in geostationary orbit, 36,000km above the equator, so that homes can point a fixed dish at the satellite. Standard telecommunications satellites are usually widely separated in space to reduce mutual interference, but for a DTH broadcasting system this would mean customers having to be able to move their dishes, use a number of static dishes - or just put up with weaker signals for some channels. Realising that customers would come to expect more than the 16 channels available from Astra 1A, SES decided to put a number of satellites in one orbital position and use adjacent frequency bands to increase the number of channels available to the customers' fixed dishes. The strategy had the additional benefit that the satellites could act as each other's back-ups.
The solution seems so obvious today that it is difficult to recognise it as an innovation, but as Astra vice president Markus Payer confirms, those involved were 'very aware that they were doing something unique, and saw themselves as pioneers'. Even today, SES Astra is the only satellite operator to fly seven co-located spacecraft at once in one geostationary orbital position.
When co-location was introduced, many considered it risky, because each satellite would have to be carefully controlled to maintain its separation from the others. SES proved that it could make the satellites fly in formation, by monitoring each satellite and adjusting its position relative to a reference position, using the small rocket thrusters with which all geostationary spacecraft are equipped.
Space is big, so the task was challenging but not impossible. A geostationary orbit has a circumference of about 265,000km, which is 73.6km per tenth of a degree, so seven satellites positioned nominally at 19.2 east have about 10km of orbital arc to rattle around in. Collisions do happen in space, but the distance between the satellites provides some margin for error - SES's diligence does the rest.
Another key innovation in SES's commercial plan was to use spot-beam antennas to enable broadcast frequencies to be reused. Early satellites transmitted all their channels in a beam formed by an onboard antenna that confined coverage to a given geographical area. The ability to cover the satellite's broadcast footprint with a number of smaller beams meant that the same frequencies could be used in non-adjacent beams without interference, as happens in mobile phone networks. For SES, this meant that different programming could be transmitted to different European regions by using (or re-using) the same frequencies.
The fact that SES's founders were pioneers in medium-power satellites, co-location, frequency reuse and, as Payer points out, 'in maintaining a satellite fleet' suggests that they were entirely technology-led, which is rarely a recipe for commercial success. But marketing was also vital. 'SES was driven by marketing and technology in combination,' explains Payer. 'These guys got it right in the beginning, and the basic business model of DTH is unrivalled and unsurpassed. It remains the main business of Astra.'
Today, SES-Astra has 15 satellites in geostationary orbit, four more on order, and is Europe's leading satellite TV provider, with more than 122 million customers. However, it is much more than that. 'With this infrastructure,' says Payer, 'we can reach other groups such as telcos, governments and institutions' and with Astra's extended coverage footprints 'they could be in eastern Europe, the Middle East or Africa.'
In recent years, SES has developed into a global conglomerate that incorporates SES-World Skies, with a fleet of 25 satellites covering the Americas, Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, and a host of part- and fully-owned subsidiaries offering broadband and mobile services as well as DTH. This makes SES the world's second largest satellite fleet operator, behind Intelsat and just ahead of Eutelsat.
One recent partner is 03b Networks, a Jersey-based company that is building a fibre-quality, satellite-based, global Internet backbone for telecommunications operators and Internet service providers [see 'Connecting the other three billion', E&T 28 Feb-13 Mar 2009]. Others include the Canadian satellite operator Ciel, the Mexican partnership Quetzsat, and Solaris Mobile, a proposed S-band mobile system for Europe.
SES will also carry a second L-band navigation payload on its forthcoming Astra 5B satellite. The two payloads will form the core of a European GPS signal verification system called EGNOS, currently hosted by satellites nearing retirement. This involves the European Commission, as customer, leasing a part of SES's capacity. 'It's an infrastructure business, like an apartment block. They don't have to become satellite operators themselves,' explains Payer. Though this makes SES seem little more than a commodity broker, the company retains its entrepreneurial drive.
Looking forward, Payer expects SES to retain its technical leadership, citing the fact that, in a world that seems generally slow to adopt high definition TV, 'SES has already reached two million HD subscribers.
'We introduced the HD Ready standard into the market, along with the relevant encryption technology, and we expect to remain the experts on the technical side.'
It's impossible to say how SES will look at its half century, but it's clear that the company will be around for a while yet.