Martin Ornass-Kubacki is vice president and chief regional officer, Astra Central Eastern Europe. He spoke to Chris Dziadul about the regional hub created by SES in the CEE region.
Q: Can you explain the recent changes that have taken place at SES Astra in Central and Eastern Europe?
A: As you might remember, we used to operate in the region via two different entities. One was Astra CEE, initially based in Vienna but then relocated to Warsaw, and the other Astra Poland, which was responsible just for Poland.
Now, we are employing the SES Global brand and in Warsaw come under Astra Central Eastern Europe (CEE), which is also responsible for the Polish market. Astra CEE has become a kind of regional hub in Warsaw, which includes Czech, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Slovak and Polish individuals, responsible for 15 countries.
In the CEE region we also have a second office in Bucharest and a group of people responsible for both sales and market development there.
It’s important to note that the brand ASTRA is very strong and will be kept in the region. So, all business related to DTH and all B2C activities will be branded as ASTRA. The SES brand we will use in B2B communication. It’s a kind of umbrella we have which gives us a strength and the possibility to serve local customers with our activities, which are global.
A very good example of this is the Polish station TV Trwam, which wanted to be distributed in Europe but also in the US. So instead of talking to different satellite operators, there is just one interface.
Q: What role is Astra CEE playing in the digitisation process?
A: Very often in a number of countries in our region digitisation is perceived as a one-way process conducted only on terrestrial infrastructure. Our position on it is that it should be media or distribution neutral, where different infrastructures can be complementary rather than competing with each other.
The best examples are countries like the Czech and Slovak Republics, or even the UK, where you have Freesat, or in France TNT Sat.
We think that terrestrial digitisation conducted via terrestrial means only has certain limitations and is not as fast as satellite distribution, which can play a very important role in the process. It has no geographical limitations and you can add channels very quickly to certain bouquets.
Again, a very good example are the Czech and Slovak markets, where via satellite the CS Link/Skylink platform’s digital signal already reaches more then 2 million households.
We also think that in other countries such as Poland, where we have TVP among our customers, in the context of digitalisation via satellite, there are opportunities that need to be further explored.
Q: What is your current contractual position with TVP?
A: We signed the first capacity agreement back in 2005 for our flagship, which is the 19.2 degrees East position. It was then prolonged in 2009.
The idea that the TVP board had at the time, which from our perspective was the right one, was to create a kind of free to view platform in order to strengthen the digitisation process. The project was launched but after a few weeks was unfortunately put on hold.
TVP remains our customer. It has capacity for all its channels including HD, but unfortunately the majority of them are encrypted for copyright reasons – just a few of them are free to air.
So we hope very much that TVP will rethink the usage of that capacity and perhaps use it more actively in the digitisation process, particularly now that there are the first signs of difficulties in the digitisation process in Poland using only DTT, as I have heard recently during one of main media conferences.
Q: Aside from TVP, what other stations in Poland do you work with?
A: Another important customer of ours is the religious channel TV Trwam. Although it has limited interest, it also has a very specific audience that, despite certain discussion concerning terrestrial distribution, is very keen to have the service in their homes.
Inter alia thanks to this channel our penetration in Poland is growing. So on 19.2 degrees East, for instance, according to Satellite Monitor 2011 Research, we have over 2.6 million households receiving the signal from Astra satellites.
As there is no pay-TV package on Astra at 19.2 degrees East serving the Polish market, I think this a very large number.
But again, we hope very much that we will be able to support the digitisation process in Poland and we still hope very much that there’ll be another player that might have an interest in one of our positions dedicated to this market.
Q: Can you tell us something about your recent activities in other markets to the east and south of Poland?
A: There have been some east of Poland that our colleagues from different regions are leading and which have been particularly well supported by 31.5 degrees East. In Georgia, for example, we very much hope that DTH project will develop and grow dynamically. It is important to mention here also the fact that in Ukraine our satellites support the digitalisation process.
At the same time, in the southern part of Europe we signed an agreement with CME providing capacity on Astra at 31.5 degrees East for the group’s channels dedicated to Romania and Bulgaria.
This is the beginning of a process and it’s important to have CME on board because that’s the way we create a neighbourhood. It’s like a chicken and egg situation: once there are attractive channels on 31.5 degrees East it’s immediately easier for a pay-TV operator to create their own package next to it and to use those channels.
Also at the end of 2010/beginning of 2011 we signed an agreement with Satellite BG in Bulgaria. This is a very progressive and unique project because the majority of channels are in HD.
There was also a first step of sorts in the Balkan region June last year, when we signed an agreement with Serbian public TV, Radio Belgrade via Telekom Srbija. That, too, was the beginning of a process.
We also looked into and were very interested in some other initiatives, particularly in Balkan countries. One of those projects didn’t materialise as the people behind it concluded after an analysis that the market was too small to carry a “one country” investment. They decided to put the project on hold.
There was also a second project in a different region that is still ongoing, but we signed a NDA and I can’t say too much about it. However, I should definitely be able to provide some details in the nearest future – hopefully positive news.
Q: What are your views on recent developments in the Czech Republic and Slovakia?
A: As you know, we were from the beginning part of the success of Skylink and CS Link.
A few years ago, when they started, their offer was very limited. We are happy that we had chance to play an active role in development of these platforms which also thanks to the professional way of local management grew up very quickly.
Once the M7 Group stepped in we welcomed the initiative with a big interest and also saw it very positively. M7 is our customer in the Benelux market and for M7 DTH is their core business. So, the people who are behind it are real experts. Someone wishing to have a new investor in any of those two platforms could not have found anyone better than M7.
As much as we know and understand the process, Skylink was initially supposed to be dedicated to premium customers and CS Link will hold all basic packages.
Having such a customer on the 23.5 degrees East orbital position I am confident about its further development and customers satisfaction.
Q: How do you see the DTH market in CEE in 2-3 years?
A: Just a few months ago, I was pretty sure that there’d only be consolidation. We’ve recently seen some takeovers/consolidation in such markets as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland (Canal+, n) and Romania (Romtelecom/AKTA).
However, alongside the consolidation process I still think that within the next few years there will be opportunities in some countries for completely new projects. I see this particularly in the southern part of Europe, where countries have room for further growth and where the digitisation process is taking place.
Terrestrial infrastructure has its limits in these countries and satellite seems to be perfect distribution means for TV and radio signals, as well as for broadband.
I think we will see completely new platforms, perhaps not huge ones but perfectly tailored for some markets. So I hope there are couple of launches ahead of us.