The time of sleeping satellites is over

23 Jun 2008

Having built a local authority firm into a FTSE 250 comms giant, can Steve Maine’s next gamble – a €130m mobile satellite venture – turn the mobile industry upside down?

Earth orbiting satellites may be mankind’s current monument to our state of evolution, but they haven’t always had good press. They’ve been cited as expensive failures, hacked by militants, shot out of the sky by ballistic missiles for creating clutter or are simply viewed as an expensive way to communicate.

All this may be about to change if Steve Maine, former CEO of Kingston Communications and current CEO of Solaris Mobile, has his way. He envisages a near future where TV and broadband services could be deployed swiftly, and affordably, to mobile phones, vehicles and laptop computers from next year on.

Maine has the pedigree to make this happen. He built up BT’s lucrative direct-to-home satellite business in the UK before taking on a company 100pc owned by a local authority, Kingston Communications, and turning it into a FTSE 250 major player.

Last week, Maine’s Solaris Mobile announced 50 high-value jobs for Dublin to form the headquarters of the company’s €130m thrust into a two-way communications market.

The aim is to create the infrastructure to enable deployment of a fully-fledged TV experience on mobile devices on an ‘anytime, anywhere’ basis. The key difference with this venture is to allow satellite infrastructure to complement or even compete with existing terrestrial networks for the provision of broadcasting services to mobile devices.

The new corporate headquarters in Dublin will employ people with regulatory, sales, marketing, finance, legal and billing expertise for the European market.

The €130m endeavour is a joint venture between SES Astra and Eutelsat Communications SA. Solaris aims to launch a satellite to orbit by early next year, with the intention of having a service launch by next spring.

Maine is aware that previous satellite phone services such as GlobalStar, which could only offer limited services, and Iridium, which went into bankruptcy in the late Nineties, ended ignominiously.

“The reason this is different is because those earlier devices were like small briefcases and the antennas were capable of limited transmissions. This will be a mass-market proposition. Our own satellite – the Thales 1 – which is being built in Cannes will have a larger antenna and more power, and power will be concentrated into specific areas. People will be able to receive their TV signals on small mobile phones. I liken it to using a convex lens to concentrate the power of the sun onto a piece of paper.

“It will represent a quantum leap in technology and will open up a mass market for TV and people on the move.”

Maine explains that two satellites have been ordered, in case there’s a problem with the first one.

He adds that the Dublin operation will be pivotal in building partnerships with mobile handset manufacturers, terrestrial network providers and content providers.

“We will need to move fast in these areas because the commercial launch is planned for next spring.”

Asked does he see the service as a competitor to existing mobile operators, Maine says it could either be a competitor or complementary to 3G operators.

“They’ve been talking about providing TV services for some time but can only do so on a limited basis. Their networks crash because they can’t handle the large number of simultaneous TV users on the networks. If they think the market for this will be small, then they will be content to serve it with 3G.

“Alternatively, if they buy into our view of the world where we envisage a very significant mass-market opportunity, then they will very well see the value of what we’re doing and will be happy to learn how we can interact with their networks.”

Until now, satellite services have been considered unwieldy and too expensive for ordinary consumers. A satellite broadband connection in the under-served Irish market may very well set a consumer back €100 a month.

Maine is confident he won’t fall into that trap. “We will be at an affordable price point and certainly will be looking at an increment which is not that high.”

He says if the first satellite is a success, he will push to launch two or three more to make Solaris a global player.

But what will the service be capable of? “Well, it will be able to handle mobile broadband services up to several megabits per second and will use special coding algorithms to get 12 or 20 TV channels to a mobile phone in our service area.”

Asked why Solaris chose Ireland as a base for its corporate headquarters, Maine cites the Government’s favourable tax treatments, as well as the right talent pool and communications links.

“Our current view is to create 50 jobs within three years but that’s on a modest trajectory. If this really takes off in the same way that mobile telephony took off, we’ll need many times that number.”

Maine isn’t new to introducing new concepts and boasts of having launched an internet TV service over DSL copper broadband a decade ago. “We’re experienced at harnessing new technologies to build exciting businesses.

“When I worked at BT, managing its satellite and video-based services, I made it the largest carrier of TV in the world,” Maine concludes. “The job was made for me and I was made for this challenge.”

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years