Echostar buys Solaris Mobile: the death knell for satellite-delivered video to EU handhelds?

There have been so many nails driven into mobile broadcast TV’s coffin that by now it’s probably more steel than wood, but here’s the latest: Ireland’s Solaris Mobile has been sold to US-based Echostar.

Solaris was a JV launched by Astra and Eutelsat in 2008, which planned to launch the first DVB-SH mobile broadcast TV services to Europe in early 2009 – timed to coincide with the launch of Eutelsat’s W2A satellite.

On the face of it, the idea was ingenious: mobile broadcast TV services using DVB-H had failed, largely because of the expense associated with building dedicated national networks (see Mediaset’s recent decision to convert its DVB-H network to DVB-T).

Solaris Mobile planned to side-step that issue through the creation of a unitary satellite network that could potentially address the whole of Europe via the S-Band (2GHz), using the new hybrid DVB-SH standard (the ‘SH’ stands for ‘Satellite services to Handheld’).

The S-band sits alongside UMTS frequencies that were already used across Europe for 3G terrestrial services, so the idea was that you could beam TV direct to handhelds from the satellite, supplemented by terrestrial re-transmission using existing 3G infrastructures.

But the project encountered difficulties from the outset.

First, as soon as W2A (now renamed 10A) was launched in April 2009, it was discovered that the bird’s S-Band capability was crippled.

Currently, it is configured for just two S-Band beams, each with 5MHz of S-Band capacity. Yet the Solaris Mobile licence (jointly held with Inmarsat) is for “15MHz + 15MHz of paired spectrum in all 27 EU states.”

Second, the award of that licence just a few weeks after W2A’s launch was fiercely contested by rival US satellite operator ICO, which claimed it had prior rights.

In the event, despite a well-publicised pilot in France, the technology platform has yet to be adopted for mobile broadcast TV by any service-provider.

In an age where one-to-one video streams of TV programmes offered over the Internet are widely available via tablets and smartphones, perhaps there is just not enough demand for an alternative broadcast delivery platform to handheld devices – no matter how theoretically efficient it might be.

Which raises the question of what’s in it for Echostar. Certainly, there is the pan-European S-Band licence itself, which could complement Echostar Satellite Services’ existing managed S-Band capacity over continental USA on the T-1 and D-1 birds.

ICO has now recreated itself as an Intellectual Property company, Pendrell Corporation, which has no interest in the MSS business, while Inmarsat has failed to invest in the joint licence – so Echostar probably regards itself as having a free hand.

The press release from Echostar states that the deal “would most immediately [bring to Solaris Mobile] access to a next generation MSS satellite which will support a wide range of innovative services across the European Union.”

This presumably means Echostar has plans either to supplement W2A/10A with 10MHz + 10MHz of capacity on an extra satellite to be launched over Europe – or perhaps abandon the W2A/10A lease altogether. As it happens, Echostar has two satellites under construction with potential S-Band capacity, TerreStar-2 and CMBStar – either of which could be a candidate.

Whether Echostar has any interest in adopting the DVB-SH platform itself is a separate issue. As a US-based company, the odds of it investing in a currently unused European hybrid mobile broadcast standard would appear slim.

In this context it is significant that its press release makes no mention of future video-, TV-, or even broadcast-based services at all, only using anodyne phrases such as ‘mobile satellite services’, ‘advanced mobile services’, ‘enhanced mobile communications’, or just ‘innovative services.’

My guess is that whatever Solaris Mobile does end up trying to launch to Europe under its new ownership, it will have very little to do with TV broadcasting.

(Acknowledgements to DVB for use of DVB-SH diagram).

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