ESA Scalable Multimedia System [SMM]

Status date

SMM proposes the launch of one or more small-class geostationary satellites, featuring Ka-band spot beam payloads, in order to reduce satellite broadband service costs by an order of magnitude and bring them into line with terrestrial offerings. The system is intended to serve markets that do not have access to existing terrestrial infrastructure, providing considerably more capacity at lower cost than current systems.

By launching a low cost, lower capacity satellite to stimulate the market, initial capital expenditure costs can be kept to a minimum while capability is matched to demand. As the speed of market growth increases, further spacecraft can be added to the constellation, culminating in the launch of one or more large spacecraft later in the mission. This gives operators time to grow their business, test market predictions with low risk, not have expensive satellite capacity sitting idle in early years and to develop more complex and technically capable large satellites over a longer period of time. By taking this approach, the operator can quickly reach profitability, even during the initial low growth period expected when starting such a service.

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Broadband internet access in Europe today is a case of "haves" and "have-nots" the so-called "digital divide". In the west, many rural areas or fringe coverage areas can get no broadband or only limited speeds. In the east and south of Europe, large areas of both rural and urban populations cannot get any broadband access.

Satellite offers the means to deliver such services, however current offerings are far too expensive for the majority of consumers and are not popular. All current services are delivered via continent-wide beams, through limited transponders and do not offer economies of scale.

Operators need a different approach, in order to test the market and minimise the amount of capital that has to be tied up in on-orbit hardware. The typical growth pattern for this type of service is the "S curve", starting slowly the growing rapidly during the middle phase of the project and finally tailing off again as the market becomes saturated. Large satellites are ideal for the middle high-growth phase, but are vastly over specified for the expected first two or three years when growth is slow.

Small satellites, such as SMM, provide a means to exploit cheap launches and lower costs, in order to provide a more affordable solution that will reduce costs to the operator and consumer. This will finally reduce service costs to a point where we get mass market take-up, breaking the stalemate of high prices and low economies of scale present in today's two-way satellite broadband market.


SMM offers potential operators the ability to tailor the size and therefore cost of their service to the size of the market. A small initial investment allows low risk and rapid return, a model that should prove more attractive to the service provider and allow savings to be passed on to the consumer.

By deploying multiple spot beams across Europe, an order of magnitude more capacity can be expected from the SMM system, rising again later in the mission when larger spacecraft are deployed. The spacecraft will be designed from the ground up for broadband - using Ka-band to enable large bandwidths to be employed, spot beams to reuse that capacity efficiently and enable compact user terminals, multiple transponders on a small platform to enable low cost of entry and highly automated management systems to enable low operating costs.

None of SMMs existing or planned competitors that we are aware of can offer all of this. Rather than up to ¬300 per month, target residential costs will be less than ¬30 - finally bringing services comparable to terrestrial broadband at comparable prices. All European residents and businesses will have similar services available to them, no matter where they live.

Additionally, such a project will enable ESA and industry to invest in ground segment equipment, driving costs down further and making European terminals, hubs and associated Ka-band equipment competitive with other suppliers on the world market. Large systems in North America and the Far East have enabled competitors in this arena to gain a head start. SMM will redress the balance for Europe.

Finally, SMM will enable the development of a new European GEO satellite platform in the small (<2 tonne) sector. While the trend in the late 1990s and early years of this decade was towards the large end of the satellite scale, current indications show a return to lighter, more nimble missions as witnessed by the success of Orbital Sc

The baseline is to launch two spacecraft covering 80% of Europe. The first spacecraft, proposed to be launched in mid-2007, will cover the priority markets (high need, high willingness to pay) of the UK, Ireland, France, Italy and possibly Turkey, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Twelve months later, a second satellite will be launched to fill in gaps in the coverage and bring the service to the vast majority of the European population. Both use 8 beams with 16 forward link DVB-S2 carriers to produce a total throughput per satellite of almost 1Gbps (Gigabit per second). Pending a successful first period of operations, further small or medium-class platforms may be launched to boost coverage in high-demand areas.

The ground segment will consist of residential and enterprise-type user terminals with comparable service levels to UK terrestrial services (512kbps and 1024kbps with 50:1 and 20:1 contention ratios respectively), with residential users clustered via WiFi access where possible. Each spacecraft will be served by two hubs, each of which will be connected to local backbone internet services.

The project also relies on the acquisition of two or more low-cost launches, possibly from Russia but also of interest is SpaceX's Falcon V vehicle which will be operating prior to the launch of SMM.

The SMM study is investigating many key issues relating to today's high cost of satellite broadband internet access. The study has addressed service types, key markets, reduction in the cost of the space segment, reductions in the cost of launch, requirements for the ground segment and commercial viability of the project.

Current status

The SMM partners have to date investigated all areas concerning market research, commercial viability, ground segment design, space segment design, launch vehicle availability and mission operations.

Draft reports have been written for all work packages and delivered to ESA. Most recently, a development strategy, case for commercial viability and recommendations have been delivered by all the partners. Final reports are to be delivered by June and a final presentation at ESTEC will take place later this year.

Preliminary results have been promising in showing that the system can provide the social benefits described with minimal additional funding. Technically, the group is confident of the solution and hope to get the opportunity to refine the design at the next stage.