Satellite has played the key role over the past five years or so in bringing connectivity to users who are either in a remote location, or not so remote but too far from the cable infrastructure. Apart from access to the Internet, a satellite connection does, of course, enable the end user to receive broadcast media in just about any location. However, many providers of satellite broadcast content restrict their offerings by geographical regionwhat do viewers do if they want to watch a Scandinavian channel in Alexandria, Greece, or content broadcast from Australia for viewing in Hawaii?
The promise, and increasingly the reality, is that OTT (Over-The-Top) services will enable any viewer with access to a broadband connection to view content in any locationwithout restriction. OTT services, providing broadcast-style content as an IP stream, are potentially available to anyone, wherever they are located.
This makes increasing good sense to a generation of digital media consumers who are coming to believe in the anything anywhere mantra. It makes sense to expatriate communities far from their home country; and it also makes sense on a more mundane level to the family at home wanting to watch content on demand in the garden or the kitchen. Broadcasters are keen to cater to these changes in viewing habits and to keep those far-flung nationals at work abroad connected with their own culture.
While OTT will definitely open up a new vista for the viewer in Alexandria and Honolulu, viewers in most centers of population will be able to view OTT services via a cable-based connection. Lets look at a really extreme example of a remote locationone that will help illustrate some of the issues involved in delivering and receiving OTT content by satellite.
The sector Im talking about happens to be one of the fastest growing markets for satellite services: the maritime user. We can include in this sector crews of ocean-going cargo ships, oil rig crews, and cruise ships. Cruise passengers spend a lot of money on their holidays, especially at the high end of the market, and cruise companies want to provide them with all the toys. Just because they are on vacation on the high seas doesnt stop them wanting to check the news, track stock prices in real time, and stay in touch with the office, in addition to accessing a broad range of media content. They will also want WiFi in their cabins and outside their cabins, too, if they have mobile devices such smartphones and iPads. In addition to the equipment needed onboard for receiving the satellite signal and uploading to the transponder, the ship must be fitted with all the cabling necessary to supply each cabin, and the set top box (STB) and WiFi router for each cabin. Depending on the way the media services are packaged as part of the cruise ships marketing mix, there may also be some kind of conditional access system that allows high-rolling premium passengers to have access to services that are not available to those cruising in economy class. In other words, the complexity of a floating digital media community is not dissimilar to a typical land-based set up.
However, all this has to be provided to several thousand users aboard a ship hundreds of miles from the nearest cable, and possibly thousands of miles from specialist technicians who would normally be providing maintenance to land-based customers.
As the quality of OTT services are going to be judged by all of us with the yardstick we apply as broadcast consumers when on land, no high-end cruise operator can afford to provide OTT or Internet access that fails to measure up. And theres the rub: how does a cruise ships crew cope with keeping this new world of IP based services up and running smoothly?
The answer, quite simply, is that they dont. They simply cant be expected to: the skills involved are too specialized, and no cruise operator could afford to hire those skills for every ship in the fleeteven if there were enough skilled personnel available for hire.
However there is a solution to this conundrum. Its the same solution that is available to any land-based supplier of cable-based digital media servicesthe only difference being that for these suppliers its still an option (although a very expensive and inefficient one) to do without it. The solution is that the whole floating network can be monitored and maintained remotely from any location on the globe by a suitably skilled person or by a small team in place to provide true round-the-clock support.
The same two-way connection via satellite that allows passengers to browse the web, send emails, view the gameshow final, and tweet their shore-bound friends about it afterwardsthis same connection can also be relaying a continuous stream of data about the performance of the on-board network to a remote monitoring centre. At this centre, a technician with digital media network skills can peer into every last corner of the shipboard network to diagnose and correct any malfunctions.
A cruise operator can monitor and maintain the services for a whole fleet in this manner, from the identical remote centre: alternatively, the monitoring and maintenance service may be operated by a third-party provider.
The point is that all of the information required to diagnose any problem with a network that could be on the other side of the globe, is available to the skilled personnel at the remote center. In many cases, any service interruption or quality issue reported by a passenger can be tracked down, diagnosed, and fixed remotely, without crew involvement. All thats left for the crew technicians on board to do is swap out a component if the fault is caused by hardware failuretheres no need for them to get into the murky waters of dropped packets, jitter, and PIDs.
As land-based providers have found out, it makes very compelling economic sense to install this capability for remote diagnosis and remedy, even if they are using cable, and have maintenance staff on the road 24/7. Its far more cost-effective, easier, and quicker to sort problems out this way than to roll the trucks out to the customer premises. However, for the cruise operator, its not only more cost-effective, its completely essential: the whole edifice of onboard interactive digital services and connectivity could not function without it.
About the author
Simen K. Frostad is Chairman and co-founder of Bridge Technologies. With 22 years of industry experience, Simen founded Bridge Technologies in 2004, after creating the worlds first IP/MPLS contribution network for Scandinavian sports coverage. Simen had previously built the first multi-camera hard disk recording system for episodic drama production in 1998, and the first nonlinear sports editing facility during the 1994 Winter Olympics.
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On-board infrastructure: how to maintain digital media services thousands of miles from home.
As with any digital media delivery chain, the key to a watertight service on board ship is a true-end-to-end monitoring capability. This means monitoring analysis technology needs to be installed at every point where the signal undergoes change or processing.
On a ship, the entry point of the network is the satellite dish and receiver, and the first task for any monitoring system is to check at this point that the signals are being received as expected. The VB270 probe provides the RF functionality here, validating the measurements, and verifying the presence and integrity of the content.
For the ships headend, a VB330 will provide the capacity to monitor the heavy traffic volumes likely. The 10 gigabit architecture is a necessity with up to a possible 2,500 concurrent users in a typical cruise ship today.
Even if only 250 cabins are accessing HD VOD at the same time, with each stream requiring between six and 12 mbits/s, thats a lot of packets to monitor. Then for the true end-to-end capability that will allow a remote monitoring centre to identify and resolve any problem at any point in the network, each cabins home network can be fitted with the microAnalytics system, which comprises a miniature hardware probe at the STB, reporting data on the viewers quality of experience, together with software clients that provide the same stream of information from any mobile devices used by the passengers. This software client can be made available by the cruise operator and downloaded to each device the cabins occupants will be using during the cruise, as part of the app used to view digital content.
Back at the remote shore-based monitoring center, the technicians will see continuous live data and analysis of the networks performance, from ingest from the satellite, right through to the viewers screens.