Satellite viewing options improve

By Peter Griffin

New Zealand may still be largely reliant on Telecom for high-speed internet services, but when it comes to satellite TV and broadband, consumers and businesses could soon be spoiled for choice.

US-based satellite operator PanAmSat has repositioned its satellite to cover the whole of the country, setting the scene for a nimble challenger to join Sky Television in the pay TV market and the debut of more high-capacity broadband services.

PanAmSat operates direct to home services throughout Asia and in Australia where Globecast Australia, a subsidiary of France Telecom and rival SelecTV, already offer English-language and ethnic programming to tens of thousands of subscribers using its satellite.

PanAmSat will seek to extend the PanGlobal TV platform, which it operates in partnership with Globecast, to the New Zealand market, but it will also join Thai satellite operator Shin Satellite in offering satellite-based high-speed internet services.

PanAmSat's Asia-Pacific vice-president, David Ball, said a reflector on the PAS-8 Pacific Ocean Region satellite had been moved to cast a strong Ku-band beam across the country, including the Chatham Islands.

"We had the opportunity to reposition the beam and did so after looking at the market potential.

"New Zealand hasn't been well served by the satellite industry to date," Ball told the Herald from Las Vegas, where he is attending the National Association of Broadcasters expo, the broadcasting industry's biggest showcase of new technologies.

PanAmSat joins Optus and Shin Satellite as the main satellite operators serving this country.

Ethnic communities are likely to be the first to benefit from the new satellite services because of the joint venture between PanAmSat and Sydney-based Globecast.

They currently provide Australian families set up with the required satellite dish and set-top box with a collection of 24 channels offering Arab, Russian, Japanese, Serbian and Indian TV programming.

Ball said PanAmSat's partnerships with Asian broadcasters might in the future bring Chinese channels through the satellite service.

Both Globecast and SelecTV have been careful not to directly challenge dominant Australian pay TV operator Foxtel, but SelecTV offers a set of 20 English-language channels, including BBC World, Euronews, Bloomberg, Eurosport and MTV for a monthly fee of A$30 ($35).

The SelecTV ethnic programming costs range from A$20 a month for a handful of German channels to A$45 a month for several Spanish channels.

Representatives from Globecast were unavailable for comment.

"It's certainly something we're considering. We're delighted [PanAmSat's] flipped those channels," said Jim Blomfield, the former chief executive of pay TV operator Foxtel and current CEO of SelecTV.

Blomfield said SelecTV was considering adding 12 channels of Chinese TV programming to its satellite line-up, which may also appeal to New Zealand's fast-growing Chinese-speaking population.

SelecTV was more likely to offer ethnic pay TV channels to the New Zealand market than the 20-channel English package it has just launched across the Tasman.

"We couldn't do the whole 20 channels. We're not considering those at the moment. But if there's an opportunity for other content we'll look at it."

SelecTV has 2000 customers.

Any new satellite entrant will be unlikely to be able to compete with Sky on price but would seek to offer niche, multi-ethnic programming and specialised English-language channels.

SelecTV charges A$400 for the required 65-centimetre satellite dish, a set-top box and a pay TV smart card.

Sky TV's entry-level packages, by comparison, start at $46 a month, with Sky Digital costing $99 to install.

"New Zealand's a good market for Sky but there's always been the potential for someone else to come in," Ball said.

Ethnic satellite channels are available from a number of satellites to those with large dishes, but Peter Escher, founder of satellite installer Satlink NZ, said the market for ethnic programming was small and challenging to serve. It was a matter of trying to patch together services for the small minority who were prepared to pay for the equipment to receive programming in their native tongue.

"It's not worth the trouble. Channels start out as free-to-air then are encrypted. Channels disappear.

"The services are hard to support," he said.

SelecTV's English-speaking channels were much more marketable, he said, and could make a compelling alternative to Sky if the cost of installation was reasonable. PanAmSat would enter the market with a service available via much smaller satellite dishes than those now delivering ethnic programming, a standard set-top box and a dedicated operator offering customer service.

On the broadband front, Ball said, PanAmSat could offer broadband services with download speeds ranging from 128 kilobits per second for residential users through to 20 megabits for businesses requiring high-capacity "on-demand" links.

It would seek partnerships with internet providers, but was unlikely to go head to head with Shin's IPStar satellite broadband service, which was launched last year and is offered by internet providers Bay City and Iconz.

"IPStar is very much a retail service," Ball said.

We're looking more at introducing the type of services we have in the US."

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