Two years from now there should be a new satellite orbiting that specifically targets the UK, and it doesn’t come from Astra or Eutelsat. Not that either of those two majors will be terribly worried by the competition. The satellite comes from Avanti Screen Media, a company that supplies innovative in-store advertising. You might have seen their ‘MVN Salon’ channel that’s fed to hair salons, or ‘Magnetic’ a music channel that goes into bars and clubs. They have other retail channels, include a service that goes into shopping malls.

Avanti has been given about €34m by the European Space Agency, and has additionally raised about £25m from the London stock market, enabling Avanti to order a small craft from EADS-Astrium which will launch towards the end of 2008. The satellite is a creative design that Astrium describe as being a Highly Adaptable Spacecraft (hence the HYLAS name) and will carry “the equivalent” of 40 transponders (of 33 MHz) “which will be used for broadband telecoms and HDTV”. In reality this translates to just 2 transponders in the popular Ku-band, and 6 Ka-band transponders with 8 spot beams targeting specific European markets.

Satellite operators like Astra and Eutelsat use Ku-band, and all of our everyday set-top boxes can pick up these signals without complication. However, the Ka-band transponders are something of a challenge just at the moment and there are no low-cost Ka-band boxes in the High Street.

There’s another problem. Avanti will operate at 33.5 deg West, well away from the usual European orbital arc, generally accepted to be from about 7 deg West, to 35 deg East. Astra and Eutelsat occupy the hot zone that spreads from 13 deg East (Eutelsat’s Hot Bird fleet), via Astra’s primary position at 19.2 deg E, and its new UK-focussed slot at 28.2 deg East. Avanti’s lonely position is well out over the Atlantic Ocean (in fact just North of Brazil) and while such a position is excellent for satellite links and exchanges between North (or South) America and Europe, the craft will be low in the sky for UK viewers.

With a design life of 15 years the craft is based on Astrium’s latest payload technology (‘Generic Flexible Payload and Next Generation Antenna’). It will have a designed launch mass of just 2300 kg, and payload power of 2kW.

A London conference on May 15 was told that Hylas would bridge the UK’s “digital divide”. Lord Sainsbury, UK science minister, told delegates: “It will enable Avanti to provide broadband and HDTV services using new business models and technologies in markets which are highly under-supplied; in the process correcting some significant market failure in relation to the digital divide and analogue television switch-off. It should also provide a good return for our investors, the typical European market price for a transponder is currently in excess of €1m per annum."

Lord Sainsbury is right about the lease prices paid each year for satellite capacity, and $1 (more or less) is the rate levied on a standard transponder. However, Eutelsat and Astra receive significantly more than this, because they are in popular orbital positions. The market for Avanti’s services is currently unknown, and thus difficult to predict in terms of price. Avanti’s creative team is excellent, and there is little doubt that they’ll need some of this excellence to come up with innovative applications.

The Avanti frequencies cover the BSS band (11.7 – 12.5 GHz) as well as some Ka-Band frequencies, and cover two potential satellites (DigiSat 1 and DigiSat 2). Avanti acquired the frequencies from the UK’s OFCOM regulator for a nominal fee of just £1, and the first craft is targeting 180,000 broadband customers.

One use is intended to be Broadband, supplied via satellite (and in Ka-band) to rural households and businesses – and hence Lord Sainsbury’s ‘digital divide’ comment. There’s no doubt that people living, or working, in isolated and farming communities are every bit as entitled to receive broadband as the rest of us. A report from Edison Investment Research talks about the strong appeal of satellite-broadband, “buoyed by the many areas of the UK and Ireland not covered by DSL.”

It is fair to say that plenty of would-be satellite providers of broadband have had a troubled time staying in business, not least the collapse earlier this year of Aramiska. CEO at Avanti is David Williams. “The first satellite we are launching will be a small craft,” said Williams. “I am fairly convinced there’s demand from HDTV for my capacity, and I am fairly convinced that the market dynamics will want to exploit it. Besides, at the end of the day I can use my capacity at Ku or Ka, with blanket coverage of Ku over Europe, or Ka in targeted, regional broadcasting.”