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Shopping Space
Part 2: Consumer Space

This section looks at particular services that come directly form space to consumers.

Digital Satellite Radio

This new space communication business will provide CD quality digital radio to subscribers beginning in autumn of 2001. In summer of 2008 XM and Sirius got approval to merge. Eventually, there will be products taking advantage of this such as radios that can receive signals from both satellite systems.

In the US the service is aimed primarily for mobile applications, especially drivers on long commutes and truck drivers going cross-country.

Worldspace aims at the developing world with digital radio. It relies on public radio and advertising based services rather than subscription.

See the Satellite Radio entry in the Investing section for recent news articles.

More articles in the archives...

XM Radio Receivers
XM Radio began offering satellite digital radio in the US in the fall of 2001. For $10 per month you receive up to 100 crystal clear stations from anywhere in the US. (Ground transmitters are used in narrow city streets, tunnels, etc. where satellite signals cannot reach.) As of June 2003 it had over 600k subscribers

Note that each radio requires its own subscription. Some units are movable, like detachable CD players, that can be moved from an indoor station to a holder mounted in the car.

In-door radios need to be used near a window or connected to an outside antenna with a clear view towards the southern sky.

Sirius Radio Receivers
Sirius is the second US based digital satellite radio company and got off to a slower start due to technical problems. But it is comming on fast. As of June 2003 had over 100k subscribers..

Service costs $13 a month. The 60 stations operated by Sirius service has have no commercials than XM. The other 40 or so stations are independent of Sirius and many of these have commercials.

Worldspace Digital Satellite Radio Receivers
Worldspace was the first to offer digital satellite radio. It's two satellites currently serve Africa, parts of Europe, and Asia. A third satellite will be launched to serve central and south America.

Currently all channels are free. A subscription premium channel service, however, is in the works.

Receivers are now available from several manufacturers and prices are starting to dip below $100. The expectation is that as the market grows, the prices will continue to drop.

Direct-to-Home Satellite TV

DTH TV is the biggest success for any satellite service directly sold to the consumer (as opposed, for example, to the distribution of TV programming by satellites to cable TV companies). In the US the number of subscribers now exceeds 17 million. There are tens of millions more in around the world.

Initally consumers used large C-band dishes to pick off analog transmissions intended for cable companies and other businesses (which people still do, see the TVRO section). Eventually C_band subscriber services was developed. However, higher frequency Ku band digital transmissions became available and were intended specifically for consumer subscribers. Offering a hundred or more of channels via much smaller dishes, the systems became very popular and have mostly supplanted the C-band business.

SkyB in Britain pioneered DTH. In the US, the Hughes DirecTV and Echostar became the leading providers.

DTH Providers

Direct-to-Home & Mobile Internet

While high-speed internet connections are usually expected to come over telephone lines (DSL) or via cable TV systems, satellite delivery is also an alternative. Rural areas will not have DSL or cable for many years if ever and even some urban areas will not see DSL soon.

DTH internet via geostationary satellites has become more broadly available in the past year . The long distance to GEO causes an additional delay but this is usually not significant except for interactive applications such as network games.

Initially, only 1-way downloading from the satellite was available. A telephone line was also needed for uploading and sending emails, web page requests, etc. Now, however, full 2-way systems are available.

Geostationary Limitations

Several low earth orbit internet systems have been proposed that would eliminate the long delays and provide higher rates. But most of these have been canceled or indefinitely delayed due to the recession in the telecommunications market and the aftereffects of the Iridium and Globalstar satellite phone company failures. So in the meantime, the geostationary systems will be the only option for broadband satellite connections. (Both Iridium and Globalstar offer low speed internet connections.)

The high altitude of the geostationary satellites results in an unavoidable delays (due to the speed of light) of about half a second. This means that gaming and other applications that need fast immediate response will not work well or at all with geo-broadband.

However, once a connection is made the "flow rate" of the data coming in or going out is as fast as most groundbased broadband systems. So for emailing, downloading files, web surfing, etc., the slight delay after "clicking" can be insignificant compared to the usual internet delays.

Note that the satellites currently in use for home internet were not designed for this sort of mass market. New satellites with more spot beams and using a higher frequency band will go into orbit in the coming years and should provide substantially better service. Also, ICO is in the process of building a 12 satellite system in medium earth orbit, which should greatly reduce the signal delay problem.

Satellite Broadband Service

The prices for satellite internet are currently higher than DSL or cable and there can be significant installation costs. Echostar and DirecTV offer combined TV/internet systems with a single antenna and subscription billing.

The geo-satellite broadband systems have had a slow and somewhat rough startup with many customers complaining of difficult setups, frequent down times, poor support, etc. The situation seems to be improving but there are still problems.

See the section below on customer experience with these systems.

DTH Internet Services & Dealers
  • Hughes Net - Satelite Internet Access
    High speed Internet service plans and pricing options available. Formerly called DirecWay.

  • StarBand Communications -this VSAT company received investments from EchoStar and Microsoft for this 2-way broadband internet system that began in 2000. It has about 40k subscribers as of Spring 2002. EchoStar pulled out of the company to focus on its merger with DirecTV. This caused major disruption in its ooperations and it had to go into bankruptcy to re-organize. However, it appears to be a temporary condition and service continues.

  • Tachyon now offers 2-way service but prices are aimed more towards small businesses than home use.

  • WildBlue (formerly iSky) now has satellites for direct to home (or small business) 2-way services with download speeds up to 1.5Mbps - "30x faster than dial-up".

  • Satellite Internet Service | High Speed Satellite Internet | Calera

  • World Services
    • Inmarsat - in addition to their mobile phones, Inmarsat also offers some attache case sized Internet systems. Too expensive for home use but good for your sailing boat or summer house in the mountains.

Satellite Phones & Message Pagers

Despite what you may have heard, the personal satellite phone business is still very much alive.

See the GEO Satellite Phone and LEO Satellite Phone areas in the Space Business section for more background information on these businesses.

The original Iridium company went bankrupt but was resurrected as a new company that concentrates primarily on users at remote locations, e.g. oil refineries, ships at sea, etc. The company currently has about 130,000 subscribers.

GlobalStar also reorganized as a much smaller, private company. It has about 150,000 users.

Two other systems called Inmarsat also Thuraya Satellite provide phone service via satellites in geostationary orbit. (So their coverage is somewhat less than Iridium and Globalstar.)

If you are boater, spend time in the mountains or in other areas with poor cellular coverage, or just want to roam the US and the world without dealing with multiple phone systems, then a satellite phone could be for you.

These systems also offer emergency communications during, for example, natural disasters such as tornados and hurricances when cellular systems will be unavailable.

These systems can also bring 2-way voice and data communications for small planes.

Here is a list of the major systems currently available and a sample of retailers.

This 48 LEO satellite system does not provide 100% world coverage but does serve most land areas within the mid-latitudes. Dual and tri-mode phones automatically use local, cheaper cellular service when available. Their satellites have been upgraded and they now offer reliable phone service after a period when some of their first-gen satellites were disabled.

Dual mode - digital GMS and Globalstar (CDMA) modes

Tri-mode - analog cellular (AMPS), digital cellular (CDMA) and Globalstar (CDMA) modes.  

Inmarsat satellite portable phones have been used for many years by sailors, correspondents and others who needed communications in remote areas. The phones come in a briefcase sized package to hold the antenna needed to reach one of 4 geostationary satellites. Newer versions are smaller but there is still no handheld version. Suitable for a boat or remote cabin.

Iridium Satellite
The original Iridium went bankrupt and was sold at a bargain basement price to a private investment group. Their business plan is anchored on a contract with the US defense department. However, the company now also has a considerable commercial and public customer base for its phones. They also offer aviation communication services.

A next-generation of satellites will be launched in the 2015-2016 time frame

Iridium is still the only system that gives true 100% world coverage including the oceans and polar regions.

Thuraya Satellite
Thuraya uses a GEO satellite to provide coverage that "spans Europe, North and Central Africa, the Middle East, the CIS countries and South Asia".

The dual-mode phones offer satellite and GSM connectivity so roaming will use GSM when available and switch to satellite otherwise. The phones also offer services: GPS, data, fax up to 9.6 Kbps and short messaging.

The company works through local mobile service providers who sell the phones, do the billing, etc.

The Orbcomm system of 35 LEO satellites does not provide audio connections but instead provides low data rate messaging. The system is intended for many industrial applications, such as electrical meter reading and gas pipe monitoring, but also for personal email communicators.

GPS - Global Positioning System

As described in the HobbySpace GPS section, the GPS system provides high resolution location finding via a constellation of 24 satellites that send out signals indicating their position. If 4 or more of these satellites are in range of a GPS device, it can triangulate its location. That section provides many applications, tutorials, etc.

There are many GPS devices now available to the consumer. Depending on the design, the devices can obtain location accuracy anywhere in the world to within as small a range as 15m (~50ft) .

GPS devices are now available at prices as low as $100. The low end devices provide basic features such as current position, distance and direction to a set point, current speed, trip distances, track logs, etc.

More expensive devices provide map features such as showing your current location on a map display. Also, they can guide you to a given address. They also have bigger, more sensitive antennas for faster, more reliable response.

Use your GPS for obtaining location as well as distances travelled while hiking, canoeing, etc.


The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey













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