Hellas Sat is disrupting the satellite communications industry with its newest satellite, which is undergoing in-orbit testing and will be fully operational for commercial use in June this year. The company shares its future plans and growth strategy with SatellitePro ME.
Satellite connectivity in the MENA region received a major boost, when satellite operator Hellas Sat launched Hellas Sat 4 in February this year. In-orbit testing is in process as we go to press, with the satellites scheduled to go into operation for commercial use starting June 2019.
Founded in 2001, Hellas Sat is a licensed entity from Greece and Cyprus and present at the orbital slot of 39 degrees East. Tucked away in idyllic Kakoratzia in Cyprus, near a village called Kofinou in Larnaca municipality, is the Hellas Sat headquarters. It also operates a subsidiary in Koropi, Greece, which is outside Athens near the main Greek airport of Eleftherios Venizelos.
“What makes these two locations truly special is that together, they allow Hellas Sat immense reach,” explains Dr Omar Olaian R Alaidda, Chairman of the Hellas Sat Board. “The location of its space centres in Cyprus and Greece lets Hellas Sat transmit to and receive from any satellite in the 105.5°E to 37.5°W and 93.5ºE to 47.5ºW arc respectively, covering satellites for Europe, the Middle East and South Africa.”
From its humble beginnings, Hellas Sat has come a long way. The company was acquired by Arabsat in 2013 and since then, Hellas Sat has expanded in the region, with new satellite launches and a fortified on-the-ground presence. The company also opened a new office in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2017.
Alaidda discusses the infrastructural prowess of Hellas Sat with SatellitePro ME: “In our Greece and Cyprus premises, we host the primary and secondary Satellite Control Centres (SCCs), High-speed Satellite Internet Hubs, our Network Operation Centre (NOC) and, in Cyprus, the DTH TV headends. Both facilities are fully owned by Hellas Sat and offer both teleport and a wide range of managed services to our customers. Being located in Greece and Cyprus means we can offer teleport services to the Indian Ocean, European and Atlantic Ocean satellites, so this has slowly evolved into one of the major satellite telecom hubs in the region. Between the two facilities, we have close to 50 employees.”
With a focus on expanding and improving its core business, Hellas Sat has been investing in its facilities in the last few years, explains Christodoulos Protopapas, CEO of Hellas Sat. “We have made significant investments in recent years to develop our facilities, our DTH headend, antennae and network infrastructure, to ensure state-of-the-art managed services for our customers from our teleports in Greece and Cyprus.”
The most recent milestone for Hellas Sat was the launch of Hellas Sat 4, which together with Hellas Sat 3, operating in the same orbital slot, will enable the company “to enter the DTH and TV markets in Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, offering very competitive and reliable satellite services”, according to Protopapas.
Hellas Sat 4 successfully launched into space through an Ariane 5 launch vehicle from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana early this year. It is reportedly the largest commercial satellite ever manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
Sharing the technical specifications and reach of the Hellas Sat network, Thomas Kalamaris, Technical Director at Hellas Sat, says: “Hellas Sat 3 has been built on the Spacebus 4000 C4 platform by Thales Alenia Space and delivers a multi-beam mission with a powerful Ku-/Ka-band mission of 44 Ku and 1 Ka transponders. The satellite was launched in 2017.
“Hellas Sat 4 has electric propulsion with special high-performance electric propellers powered by Xenon, and features flexible 20kW sunburners and a mass of more than six tons when launched, achieving a lifetime of 23 years. Together, Hellas Sat 3 and Hellas Sat 4 will provide fixed satellite services (FSS) and broadcast satellite services (BSS).”
“The location of its space centres in Cyprus and Greece lets Hellas Sat transmit to and receive from any satellite in the 105.5°E to 37.5°W and 93.5ºE to 47.5ºW arc respectively, covering satellites for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and most of Asia,” says Dr Omar Olaian R Alaidda, Chairman of the Hellas Sat Board.
The Hellas Sat fleet will deliver in-orbit, backed-up DTH and telecom services in its designated coverage area, maintaining and expanding the satellite operator’s business reach with additional capacities, such as HD and UHD video content, to the regions covered. The FSS/BSS coverage zones are Europe, the Middle East and SADC (Southern African Development Community) countries, including a cross-trap service between Europe and southern Africa beams.
Chairman Alaidda comments that Hellas Sat is expecting a fill rate of more than 80% in the next two years on the newly launched satellites, which also ensure “full in-orbit satellite redundancy”.
“Our constellation of two satellites in the same orbital slot offers us a significant advantage in the market. With the special technical configuration of the two satellites, either of the satellites can undertake the services of the other within a very short time from the same orbital slot, should there be a partial or complete failure.”
At present, Hellas Sat transmits more than 100 Arabic channels from its facilities in Cyprus, including MBC and Rotana DTH platforms. The Hellas Sat fleet reportedly caters to an audience of almost three million DTH subscribers in Central and Eastern Europe, who watch premium satellite TV services from three DTH platforms, namely Dolce in Romania, Bulsatcom and others, comments Alaidda.
“We also have clients in the government sector in the Middle East, Europe and southern Africa,” he reveals.
With Hellas Sat’s core business being the provision of reliable satellite TV to markets in Central and Eastern Europe, CEO Protopapas adds that the company is gearing up to “help existing and future customers to introduce more advanced DTH services, establishing our orbital slot of 39 degrees East as a TV hotspot”.
He clarifies: “Both satellites have been tested and qualified for the launch environments with acoustic and vibration testing, simulating the harsh space environment with vacuum and extreme temperature testing, and radio frequency compatibility and performance testing to validate that the payload meets critical performance expectations.”
Technical Director Kalamaris adds that Hellas Sat’s strategy and satellite design have kept in mind future demand for video applications, “which is partly linked to the expected development of DTH (direct-to-home) broadcasting in emerging countries”.
“We believe that with HDTV and UHDTV consuming more satellite capacity, the demand for payload will increase. The adoption of new technical broadcasting standards has resulted in and could continue to result in a higher signal compression rate, which reduces the overall capacity demand. However, factors like larger television screens and demand for better image quality will offset that reduction. Moreover, we believe that linear TV will continue to be the primary means for premium content, thereby keeping our services in much demand.”
It is not the broadcast and telecom industries alone that are shaping the demand curve for the satcom industry. Policy discourses on satcom in Europe are offering a conducive environment for companies like Hellas Sat to grow and help governments reach their communication agenda. Governmental satellite communications, for instance, was defined as one of the four capability development programmes by the European Council in December 2013. A case in point is the GovSatcom initiative, where the mandate is to prepare the next generation of satellite communications within the 2025 timeframe.
“We are also seeing an increased demand for connectivity in various areas from the end user. The increased demand is coming from markets where there is enough terrestrial infrastructure. Recent European policies addressing the digital divide and initiatives like GovSatcom will boost the demand for satellite connectivity, especially in underserved areas. In emerging markets, we see that satellite continues to remain a key player in supporting connectivity needs, as it is the only means to deploy a broadband network with minimum investment,” adds Kalamaris.
“Hellas Sat launched the two new satellites as condominium satellites, with cost sharing of the launch and the satellite bus with partners. This gives our company the ability to survive in a very competitive market, because the investment per transponder is lower than our competitors,” Christodoulos Protopapas, CEO, Hellas Sat.
“In the meantime, with 5G promising to drive demand in the future, Protopapas says Hellas Sat has “the satellite capacity for the provision of connectivity to IoT and 5G providers and is geared to contribute to the development of these services,” says Christodoulos Protopapas, CEO, Hellas Sat.
In fact, the company has already started work on Hellas Sat 5, with the aim of offering more premium satellite telecom services for IoT and 5G providers in a wide geographical area. With Hellas Sat 5 especially, the satellite operator will be ready to support fast internet connections for 5G backhaul and IoT.
“The engineering team has begun work on the design of the new Hellas Sat 5 satellite. We are in contact with potential strategic customers and investors to work on the new satellite,” reveals Alaidda.
“We are working closely with our R&D team to build a satellite that will address these future needs,” clarifies Kalamaris. “The focus points we are trying to address are primarily the very high throughput to the end user and the flexibility of the payload. We are working to introduce a payload to the bus that will use higher spectrum bus like Q/V, and of course it will have the capability to reshape itself according to business needs. We strongly believe that a spacecraft with the technology of flexible payload working in multiple bands will be the next generation of Hellas Sat satellites.”
Although broadcasting remains one of Hellas Sat’s core verticals, the company’s location immediately makes it attractive to the maritime sector.
“Greece is one of the most important maritime players in the world, especially after the Prime Minister of Greece announced during the Posidonia 2018 event that it will facilitate ‘Space in Maritime’ and fund a Maritime Cluster for new and emerging technologies,” explains Protopapas.
“We are in close contact with the newly founded Maritime Cluster in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean Maritime Institute in Cyprus, to develop IoT maritime applications. With the new AI techniques and the new technologies for IoT for maritime, satellites can offer a suitable communication infrastructure for fleet connectivity, telemetry, data processing and remote ship management.”
Hellas Sat’s future seems on track, although spectrum availability and new claims for spectrum for the wireless market pose a grave challenge to the company’s growth trajectory, as both the CEO and the CTO point out.
“Retention of spectrum for satellite services is becoming an increasing challenge. There is a big tussle today between satellite and mobile operators for spectrum rights. It is very important that satellite operators have dedicated satellite spectrum, to continue their operations without any interruptions or interference,” says Protopapas.
“The current trend is to allocate spectrum to IMTs. We are of the view that any discussion that involves the sharing of spectrum currently used by the satellite industry impacts our business and technology in general. Spectrum sharing will endanger the performance of end user services,” adds Kalamaris.
Another challenge is the drop in prices for satellite capacity, says Protopapas, though Hellas Sat has successfully addressed this.
“Hellas Sat launched the two new satellites as condominium satellites, with cost sharing of the launch and the satellite bus with partners. This gives our company the ability to survive in a very competitive market, because the investment per transponder is lower than our competitors,” he says.
With discerning investments in futuristic technologies and an expanding footprint in space and on the ground, Hellas Sat is inching closer to tasting success in its business operations. While it may find itself mired in the spectrum conundrum, it helps that global policies favour the need to enhance satellite communications. A sharp business sense and a favourable policy climate could propel Hellas Sat as it – literally – reaches for the sky.