Both in scale and scope, satellite services are expanding. The footprint is growing as operators extend coverage via new satellite launches and more effective use of existing fleets. More and more consumers and businesses are coming to rely on satellite as a way of linking to the world from locations where cable infrastructure is not available at sea, on the move, or in remote locations. And the use of satellite communications embraces an ever-growing variety of applications, right down to the consumer level.
Broadcasters and media operators are changing the ways they use satellite capacity, too. For broadcast distribution, satellite has always been an excellent solution, and contribution particularly for DSNG applications has also come to rely heavily on satellites.
More recently, the move to IP-based workflows is opening up the potential for more flexible and versatile use of satellite communication. Most operators still need the ability to support traditional DVB-S or S2 TS encapsulated video and will do for some time yet, but IP-based satellite operation offers considerable advantages. It enables broadcast satellite transmissions to integrate more readily with the widespread IP-based workflow elsewhere in the production chain, and also allows broadcasters to gain greater value from their infrastructure by adding to the various uses for satellite capacity. An example is the increasing trend for uprating DSNG vehicles to act as mobile production offices, with the capability for two-way connectivity and all the advantages that brings. DSNG crews equipped this way can now do much more than gather news and pipe it back to the studio on a pre-booked satellite slot: Instead, with two-way IP-based connectivity, they can research via the Internet, send and receive email, download file-based content, conduct VoIP conversations with studio staff and even interviews for broadcast. A mobile production center like this is a far more productive and versatile resource for the broadcaster than the old style of DSNG van.
However, broadcast and media operations are just one area using IP-based satellite technology. IP-based satellite services lend themselves to a much greater variety of services.
One of the current expansion trends is in the extension of connectivity to parts of the globe that have, until now, been unable to plug into the global village through lack of terrestrial infrastructure. Most obviously this affects the emerging regions where laying cable is not practical or financially feasible, or parts of the world where geographical conditions or low population densities mean communities are widespread and remote. Surprisingly, significant percentages of the populations in developed regions are still unconnected to broadband as they are too remote from cable infrastructure: Satellite connectivity is a potential solution for them, as well.
Of the less-developed regions, parts of Asia, the Pacific Rim, the Middle-East and Africa are the focus of much development in satellite provision. In the MENA region, there is a great deal of coverage expansion through the Astra2Connect service, and the O3b Networks initiative has been established to target mobile backhaul and broadband customers in remote areas both in MENA and around the globe, with a constellation of new, medium Earth orbit satellites.
The expansion of Ka-band satellite fleets is another indicator of the rapid growth in the demand and use of satellite for a variety of applications. This is a development that has major implications for the industry: Ka-band multi-spotbeam satellites and the vast increase in capacity they bring will transform the industry this will have a big impact on the satellite business. The huge explosion of capacity will lower the cost of transmission substantially, but the technical limitations of the new satellites will mean access will only be available through a limited number of gateways.
With Ka-band multi-spotbeam satellites, uplink from any point in the footprint for transmission to all terminals will no longer be possible, and this will have a major impact on many existing players as the Ka-band satellite fleet starts to come into the equation over the next three to five years. Consumer broadband is a primary focus for most of these launches. However, as the impact of the extra capacity ripples through the satellite sector, many regions could see it used for other applications such as DTH, IP trunking, or TV contribution and distribution to cable headends, as lower costs open up new approaches to these strands of business.
Another interesting feature in the development of satellite communications is the diversity of applications satellite customers are building. Apart from media and broadband provision, there are many specific applications in mining and exploration, science, shipping, environmental monitoring and alternative energy. SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) networks are another application that may become increasingly widespread as new forms of energy generation become more important. The expansion of coverage to sparsely-populated and developing regions opens up the potential for distance learning and virtual schools and universities.
All these developments are supported by technology advances that make the use of satellites more cost-effective and secure in adverse conditions. In some cases, such as the O3b service, some additional complexity will be introduced through the need for two antennas to track the satellites: Eight satellites at eight-kilometre altitude over the equator will substantially reduce latency, but new antennas will be needed to track the satellite as it rotates and catch the next as it comes over the horizon.
This proliferation of satellite capacity and diversification of use means not only that more data and more varied data will be carried over satellite in the coming years, but also that satellite operators and satellite customers will use capacity in a more fluid and dynamic way. Fluidity and constant change are increasingly a feature of the media and communications world anyway, but the tendency of satellite operators and users to stick with a configuration without making regular changes is a thing of the past.
Technological advances in the satellite sphere and in the application technology used by satellite customers means that continual re-configuration is a fact of life. Satellite users are much more likely now to be swapping transponders, changing the mix of services, and making other changes to the way they use their capacity. All of this makes it far more important that comprehensive monitoring systems are in place to trap and identify errors and failures.
It only takes a small change to have a big impact on services further down the line, and when change is constantly on the cards, small errors can creep in at any time. Another audio channel added on the same PID can mean viewers are suddenly hearing the incorrect language. Merely changing a file name can trip up an entire operation. Operators running their own chain from the satellite to the user usually maintain good control of any changes and they understand the implications right down to the set top box (STB). Problems are much more likely to arise when capacity is resold to other operators: A change that is insignificant for the satellite operator could cause a major failure for its customers. The value of a comprehensive monitoring system at all points of the signal chain increases in this situation.
With the varied types of data being carried over satellite in this two-way environment, where the signal may include everything from traditional ASI broadcast transmissions to a VoIP call, a comprehensive monitoring environment needs to be just that; capable of tracking everything that passes through it, and aware of all the activity that impinges on the quality of the service received by the customer.
That means that satellite users and operators should be able to monitor the signal at any location from the DSNG van, or the remote energy generating plant, right through the data aggregation points, through the headend and down to the end user or delivery point. A monitoring system can only deliver rapid fault resolution and prevention if it is truly end-to-end, so that operators can see the big picture across the entire signal chain, in order to track and resolve issues quickly, and restore service levels to the customer.
Quality of service and robust connectivity is important to providers and consumers of digital media over satellite. For more significant Internet-based communication such as decision-making based on real-time business data, telemedicine, and other scientific applications, or industrial control and planning, its perhaps even more vital that the service is reliable and meets the demands of its users.
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