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29 Nov 2010

The first satellite dedicated to delivering broadband services to Europe has launched on an Ariane 5 rocket.

The Hylas spacecraft is designed to fill so-called "notspots" - remote locations such as rural villages where it is currently not possible to get a fast internet connection.

Lift-off from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana occurred at 1539 local time (1839 GMT).

The satellite was successfully placed in orbit 34 minutes later.

A signal from Hylas was picked up almost immediately at an antenna sited in India.

Controllers will now take a number of weeks to position the spacecraft properly in the sky some 36,000km above the equator, and to check out onboard systems.

Hylas (Highly Adaptable Satellite) is a commercial venture operated by start-up Avanti Communications of London, but the spacecraft itself incorporates technology developed with public funding through the European Space Agency (Esa).

"It is a fairly small spacecraft but rather capable," Esa's Hylas project manager Andrea Cotellessa told BBC News.

"The payload has flexibility to reallocate bandwidth and power in each of the eight spot beams that cover key market areas selected by Avanti.

"Normally, satellites have this frequency plan fixed at the design stage and it can't be changed in orbit.

"On Hylas, this can be done at any moment in time from the control centre. This agility is important because it will allow Avanti to keep up with market evolution."

Hylas was prepared at the Portsmouth, UK, factory of EADS Astrium, Europe's largest space company, and in Bangalore by Antrix, a commercial arm of the Indian space agency (Isro).

The 2.6-tonne spacecraft will operate in the Ka radio band and deliver broadband services to some 350,000 subscribers.
Future plans

The UK government put £40m into the Hylas development programme.

It has a commitment that everyone in Britain should have access to a decent net connection by 2015. That means a minimum of two megabits per second (Mbps).

Some three million UK homes currently fall below this standard; and across Europe, there are many millions more who cannot currently get an adequate connection through terrestrial technology.

Hylas will be offering up to 10Mbps to its users.

"Now that we've got this satellite access, we'll be able to get fast broadband for the first time [in notspots]," the British Science Minister David Willetts said.

"There'll be farmers, hotels, houses in the Lake District, in Scotland and parts of Cornwall that haven't been able to get broadband before; but now this satellite will deliver it. That brings them all online and that's something the coalition government is really committed to," he told BBC News.

Avanti CEO David Williams said the company had big plans for the future.

"Hylas-1 is the first of what will be many satellites," he explained. "We've already got our second satellite under construction at the moment and that launches in about 15 months' time.

"That will put more capacity into the UK but also it puts new capacity into new areas in Africa and the Middle East. And then we are planning more satellites for Latin America, India and other parts of Asia."
Competition and price

In Europe, Avanti faces competition from the long-established Eutelsat space communications company, which is putting up its own net-dedicated Ka-band satellite, delivering 10Mbps through its Tooway service.

Eutelsat's KA-Sat is due for launch on a Russian Proton rocket on 20 December.

Astrium worked on both Hylas-1 and KA-Sat, and at one stage the two satellites were sitting inside the same Portsmouth cleanroom separated by a few metres.

SES, Europe's other major player in the fixed satellite services market, has so far resisted commissioning a KA-band net-dedicated spacecraft. Instead, it has chosen to offer some broadband capability through its fleet of TV-dedicated platforms.

The expectation is that all this activity will help drive down the cost of what has traditionally been an expensive way to surf the web.

Friday's Ariane flight also orbited a telecommunications spacecraft for Intelsat. The US platform will deliver a wide range of services across Europe, the Middle East, Russia and Asia.

Intelsat-17 was ejected by the Ariane upperstage just before Hylas, 27 minutes into the flight.

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