Europe's Fastest Satellite Broadband Service Debuts

30 million Europeans can't get high speed Internet connections via existing infrastructure. Could a revamped satellite-based option tempt them to try the space-based alternative?
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For all the Victorian copper wire and 1990s fiber cable snaking under Europe's streets, there are still large parts of the Continent that have no access to conventional forms of broadband content delivery. In the U.K. alone, says communications regulator Ofcom -- the country's version of the FCC -- that's as many as 3.3 million households.

Across the 27 main European Union countries that could be as many as 10 million, and if you include Central and Eastern Europe you could be looking at 30 million, usually rural, potential subscribers to on-demand services who can't even play, let alone pay. When consumers do get coverage, it's often inferior: According to Ofcom's U.K. data, 10% of those who do get broadband can't get service over 2 Mbps.

The obvious answer: satellite. At least, that's the business plan for a number of European communications companies who have put iron in the sky with the expectation of bouncing high bandwidth signals off it as the basis for digital services.

One such company is Paris-headquartered Eutelsat, which claims to own the largest chain of extra-terrestrial broadcast capacity. The firm is in the list of top three satellite operators in the world along with SES and Intelsat, but offers more European coverage than its competitors: 29 satellites out of its fleet of 30 have either total or partial coverage of the region, and as of the end of last September it was transmitting over 4,400 TV channels, of which nearly 10% are HD, and 1,100 radio stations.

[ What is the U.S. doing to boost broadband? Read Obama Seeks To Speed Broadband Infrastructure Deployment. ]

The firm's business model is to wholesale capacity to retailers, who package up and sell TV, Internet and voice services to Europeans it says would not have access otherwise. In the U.K. its partners include Bentley Walker, Tariam, Avonline and Broadband Wherever.

As of Friday, potential Eutelsat users have something else to like: a fast new unlimited top-line package that allows 20 Mbps downloads and 6 Mbps uploads. The service also has been simplified, according to U.K. commercial director Steve Petrie, from four options of 2, 8, 12 and 18 Mbps to just an entry-level 2 Mbps and the new 20 high-end option.

Dubbed "Tooway," the service allegedly offers the fastest satellite-based consumer broadband speeds in the U.K., including unlimited around-the-clock data downloads. The pricing, described as "competitive," is set by its partners, but said to range from $32/£20 per month to $80/£50 a month, with a monthly data allowance of 30GB. As an incentive, the first 20,000 customers subscribing to the higher-capacity option also will be entitled to uncapped data usage overnight, which means video and large files can be downloaded without affecting daytime data allowances.

The service is through the KA-SAT satellite, which Petrie claims is Europe's largest high-throughput satellite at 90 Gbps. Its capacity means that the cost per megabyte is eight times less than rivals, according to Eutelsat.

"These new packages are another huge step forward in making universal high speed broadband an immediate reality for Europe," said Jean-François Fenech, director of the firm's broadband business unit. "The fastest speeds and most generous data packages at the best competitive rates can be delivered in a matter of days, regardless of location. The outlook for consumers in Europe's most digitally deprived areas just got much brighter."

Petrie said the new offering would help the region overcome the "digital divide."

How correct he turns out to be depends on Europeans' willingness to embrace satellite as a delivery mechanism. While firms like Dish roar ahead in the U.S., where users seem fairly agnostic about the delivery platform of on-demand services, too many Europeans seem to perceive satellite as somehow inferior to terrestrial. If that attitude changes, the opportunity to watch cat videos over high-speed connections will no longer be the province only of the urban elite.

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