WildBlue Communications, the Greenwood Village, Colo.-based satellite broadband provider, today demonstrated how it can deliver download speeds that are up to 12 times faster than its current speeds if it gets a new high-capacity satellite. Satellites are pricey (it can cost around $500 million to build, launch and insure them), and the privately held company, which provides rural broadband, is hoping that the U.S. government, which is aiming to bridge the “digital divide,” will allocate some of the broadband stimulus money to help it buy its fancy new bird.
I chatted yesterday with Lisa Scalpone, WildBlue’s vice president and associate general counsel, to get the lowdown on what a new satellite could mean for customers — other than the 18 Mbps speeds the demonstration is showing off. First of all, the speeds are likely to be lower than that, with the high-end package topping out at 10 Mbps and the low end offering speeds of about 3 Mbps. And such speeds are up to three years away, although Scalpone says WildBlue is ready to sign a contract to get the bird built once it has the government funds. She even called it “shovel-ready.”
The new satellite would be able to offer broadband (depending on the speeds) to between 1.5 million and 2 million rural Americans. The current satellite can handle about 750,000 users and serves about 400,000 WildBlue subscribers. Scalpone didn’t tell me how much WildBlue would ask for when it comes to government funds, but said grants would offset the costs of the satellite and possibly help subsidize customer equipment such as the satellite dish or modem.
However, there are time frames that need to be met with the stimulus grants; a project that receives stimulus funds must be substantially deployed within two years. Because building and launching a satellite can take two to three years, WildBlue may not make a good candidate. Scalpone argues that having a satellite built within the time frame should count for substantial deployment, and that if the government assumes otherwise, it would be discriminating against a specific technology, something current legislation is supposed to prevent.
Also up for debate will be whether the satellite, which is a high-latency and expensive technology, is the best way to use stimulus money. But that will become more discernible as more information on WildBlue’s proposal comes to light. For now, it’s clear that as the scrounging for broadband stimulus dollars gets under way, WildBlue is shooting for the stars.