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Integrated Solutions
Improving Operations and Quality of Service
by Mark Schmitt

In today’s increasingly competitive SATCOM (Satellite Communications) marketplace, satellite service providers are continually looking for new ways to distinguish themselves from their competition. They need to operate more efficiently, while also offering a better QoS (Quality of Service) across a wider range of services.

Use of commercial SATCOM worldwide has increased tremendously over the last 15 years and is a critical part of today’s industry and government infrastructure. As a result, QoS is a significant and growing issue for commercial, civil, and military users. High reliability, high QoS, and the ability to prevent or resolve any issue quickly, efficiently, and with as little impact to service as possible, are paramount.

As a result of this increased commercial SATCOM use, and the growing number of service providers, many customers are requiring better customer service and a higher level of QoS than they required in the past. This demand has resulted in more stringent SLAs (Service Level Agreements) and related financial impacts based on the QoS provided.

The demands on operations of the service provider to cost effectively meet these SLAs are becoming more challenging every day. The difficulties are further compounded by the need to support an ever-increasing number of geographically diverse networks for varying applications. These include voice, data, video, and hybrid SATCOM terrestrial services, each of which use equipment and systems of varying design and manufacture.

The classic approach employed by many operations is a stovepipe implementation. That is, a unique system is put in place to support each specific operational function (e.g., each network has its own management system). Typically, these stovepipe systems are one or more standalone systems. Each is characterized by limited focus and functionality and contain data that cannot be shared with other applications or each other.

For many organizations, it is easiest to procure a stovepipe system to meet their immediate needs. Regrettably, the stovepipe approach often engenders long-term negative impacts. For example, a company may initially develop or procure an earth station that includes a proprietary equipment monitoring and control system developed by the antenna manufacturer. A few years later, when their operation has grown, the company may find themselves with several earth stations from different vendors, each with a unique monitoring and control system.

Similarly, a service provider who plans to own and operate their first satellite may initially procure a proprietary satellite control system from the satellite manufacturer to operate the satellite. As their satellite fleet grows, they may end up purchasing multiple, unique control systems—one for each satellite. Additional parallels can be drawn with VSATs (Very Small Aperture Terminals), terrestrial networks, and so on.

The end result is increased procurement costs, as the same functionality cannot be reused and must be repurchased as the operation grows. Recurring maintenance, operation, and training costs also increase to support each unique system. Furthermore, when the data cannot be shared easily between systems, the operator cannot use the information in each system to provide the most effective and timely support possible across the entire operation. Figure-1 illustrates a representative stovepipe approach to operations for a commercial satellite operator/service provider.

An equally important consequence of the stovepipe approach is that it often results in stovepipe organizations within each operation. That is, each organization is focused on one specific operational aspect, such as customer support, network management, communications spectrum monitoring, earth station operations, or satellite control. Typically, real-time communication between these organizations or the systems they use is limited and increases the difficulty in identifying and resolving problems or changes. This is because events in one area of operation often manifest in other ways in other systems and areas of operation.

This problem has become even more apparent as routine operations become automated. For example, in August 2003, Futron Corp. reported that, “operations staff spend 20 to 40% of their time on anomaly related activities.” In the January 2004 issue of SatMagazine, Harold McDonnell stated that, “The analysis and resolution of these (operator) errors as well as hardware anomalies drive up the staffing demands and consequently, operating costs.”

One company, Integral Systems, Inc., of Lanham, MD, leads the way in addressing these issues for satellite operators and service providers. Integral Systems and its subsidiaries, Newpoint Technologies, Inc., and SAT Corporation, are market leaders in the areas of network and equipment management, CSM (Communications Spectrum Monitoring), interference detection and characterization, and satellite command and control systems. The systems they provide are some of the most technically advanced in the industry and are designed from the outset to be flexible, scalable, and open systems that can readily and cost effectively grow with a customer’s business.

In the last few years, Integral Systems has begun to provide integrated solutions spanning two or more of these market areas. As a result and in the presence of continued growth, their customers have been able to reduce operating costs, provide real-time situational awareness, and improve customer support and QoS across their operations.

For example, take the case of a simple equipment failure that impacts the performance of a customer’s carrier. In a stovepipe scenario, the operations teams responsible for carrier monitoring, equipment management, and technical support, each independently launches an investigation into the problem as they each separately become aware of it. The CSM operator sees abnormal signal characteristics. Earth station personnel receive an alarm from faulty equipment. Customer support staff receive calls from the customer whose service is being affected but cannot clearly tell them what the cause is or when it will be resolved. Each operations team is dedicating resources to determine the cause of the problem as they see it and take corrective actions with only one team knowing the true cause. In the end, not only is each operation impacted and expending resources while this is being investigated but so is the customer and potentially the service provider’s revenue as well.

In an integrated system approach, these teams can immediately correlate events like degraded carrier performance and faulty equipment related to that service, enabling them to quickly and efficiently diagnose and respond to the problem and keeping the customer informed. Similarly, should an interfering signal impact the QoS a customer is receiving, or transponder performance itself, the various operations teams would be able to access and correlate this information from the CSM, equipment management and payload control systems in real time to rapidly address the situation. In this case, potentially characterizing, identifying or locating the interfering signal and possibly even protecting the satellite payload from harm. An example of Integral Systems’ integrated approach for the satellite operator/service provider is shown in Figure-2.

This approach has other benefits as well, by mining the combined data from each of the systems, Integral Systems’ solutions offers managers direct, real-time access to KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) regarding their operations and business. They no longer must wait days or weeks for staff to compile and fuse this data in a meaningful way. This is common in many business enterprise systems (e.g., accounting and finance), as it allows management, sales, and support staff to make informed decisions based on the most current data available.

Integral Systems has not limited integration to their own products. Rather, they have included interfaces to a variety of other related systems, including element management systems from various VSAT manufacturers, specialized equipment management systems, and leading complimentary systems, like those used to support transponder frequency and network planning or geolocation. Integral Systems’ solutions also offer interfaces to billing, sales, marketing, and other business systems.

ProtoStar Ltd. of Bermuda recently procured from Integral Systems such an integrated system to operate its ProtoStar-1 satellite. This satellite will provide DTH (Direct to Home) television, broadband Internet access, and transponder leasing services across the Asia-Pacific region.

Steven Smith, Vice President of Technical Operations at ProtoStar, describes ProtoStar’s experience with Integral Systems and the solution which is being developed for the ProtoStar-1 satellite: “As a new satellite operator, ProtoStar has no pre-existing ground equipment, and is therefore able to implement a complete, new satellite control and QoS system without being constrained to integrating a mix of new systems with old legacy applications. ProtoStar is taking advantage of Integral Systems’ fully integrated solution because it: provides state of the art capabilities in both satellite control and customer QoS functions; is quick to implement; is fully integrated in the sense that data can be shared between all of the components, allowing operations and engineering staff to easily share information; and is an affordable solution for satellite operators.

The large range of data, reports, and general situational awareness, provided by this modern ground system will allow ProtoStar to run efficient operations teams for satellite control and customer operations support, each having access to relevant information from any system, such that they can rapidly focus on the event and determine the necessary action. The one-time entry of manual data to populate all systems, the sharing of all pertinent data with the responsible teams, and prompt and focused investigation, are essential to providing an overall high quality of service to the customer.”

Mark Schmitt is the Director of Business Development for Integral Systems, Inc. of Lanham, Maryland U.S.A. supporting the activities of the company and its’ subsidiaries (Integral Systems Europe, SAT Corp., Newpoint Technologies, Inc. , RT Logic and Lumistar) worldwide. Mr. Schmitt has worked in the satellite ground systems and operations field for over 20 years. He can be reached at schmitt@integ.com.