HTS and Broadcasting: What is the Future Equation?

Conversations about the market opportunities for High Throughput Satellites (HTS) tend to focus on data and broadband services. However, it could also present satellite operators with opportunities in the broadcasting arena. The question is how much of an opportunity is it?

HTS was one of the key themes of SATELLITE 2013, and there is a great deal of excitement about the capabilities that these new spacecraft might bring to the industry. While mainstream broadcasting is likely to stick to conventional wide beam satellites, specific situations will require the use of HTS.

As Intelsat’s HTS strategy starts to take shape over the next two years, Stephen Spengler, the company’s President and Chief Commercial Officer says Intelsat is seeing interest from different types of broadcasters in using EpicNG. “The localization and regionalization of content is most interesting. Because of the architecture of high throughput satellites, with multi-spot beams, it gives the international cable operators opportunity to deliver very specific content to specific viewers that advertisers would be very attracted to,” he says. “Regionalization of content is certainly an element of this, but I also think the economics of delivering that regional content through Intelsat EpicNG will be the other aspect. The economics could be used for re-distribution, and could be leveraged for DTH applications and very specific regional coverage.”

Spengler believes the time when broadcasters start to use HTS is not far away. “Broadcasting will become an important part of the equation here for Intelsat. HTS will be part of the overall equation for broadcasters and cable programmers. It is one part of how non-linear media will be delivered and complemented by broad beam and terrestrial solutions such as IntelsatOne,” he says.

EpicNG will enable Intelsat to offer a more “flexible” approach to its broadcast customer base. “When we architected our high throughput approach, we wanted to serve all customer segments. We think it will be very attractive to serve broadcast and media customers who want to deliver content to more fragmented audiences. Wide beams on satellites will still be very important as well, but these will be complementary offerings to allow for more flexibility. You will be able to use high throughput satellites for more targeted distribution,” Spengler adds.

Spengler also believes these satellites can offer broadcasting opportunities in different ways. He points out that as part of the service that Panasonic will offer to commercial aircraft on Intelsat 29E, delivery of live television to aircraft will be included. “[The Panasonic TV service] is done over a wide beam that overlays the spot beams, but nevertheless, that shows how you can integrate different architectures into this one platform. You can really deliver what customers need in a very unique way,” he says.

News Broadcasters

HTS may be more suited to certain types of broadcasters rather than others. They are particularly attractive to news broadcasters, as they will enable better quality reports from the field. Ben Ramos, Senior Director, Field Operations and Emerging Technology, Fox News predicts that HTS will be “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary” to the company’s business.

“These satellites will just make our operations more efficient, better quality and simultaneously cut our costs,” he says. “Obviously our specialty is news, but low cost/high throughput Ka-band IP transmissions can be used for email, Internet access, downloading movies and music, Skype chats with family and friends, low cost VOIP services – there are a lot of businesses that I could see benefiting from these launches.”

Ramos is excited about these developments and how these satellites will enable Fox News to improve the quality of live reports from the field. “When we deploy to many remote locations, we are limited by 384 Kbps satellite links from Inmarsat’s BGAN satellite phones. The new, one-case, Ka band flyaways won’t weigh down our field teams too much more and will potentially improve our throughput by as much as 20 times (at a lower cost per minute),” he says. “This new throughput will allow us to transmit true HD quality picture and video, giving Fox News Channel viewers an even better view of the world’s events.”

CNN is another broadcaster that will likely benefit from these new satellites. Arnie Christianson, Senior Manager, Technical Systems, CNN differs from Ramos’ opinion and says he sees HTS as a revolution in satellite in general, and not just for broadcasting. Christianson says the satellite industry has been trying to become more relevant in the data business for a long time, but satellite has, up until now, been a fallback position when it comes to data transmission. Christianson says this is due to many things, from cost, to latency, to complex architecture, but that it is all about to change. “HTS finally makes satellite IP relevant in the area of really good throughput and really doable cost structures,” he says.

Christianson is bullish that broadcasters will really start to embrace HTS and use these satellites in creative ways. “I think you’re going to see more and more of these systems being deployed by broadcasters, but not just the ‘high end’ systems. I think broadcasters are going to really embrace the consumer-level Ka-band systems, for example. These are incredibly cheap and offer broadcasters an almost disposable communications link from very, very remote areas if deployed properly, which of course is great for a company like CNN,” he says. “As bandwidth augmentation for conventional news deployments, they are obvious solutions and a definite alternative to roaming data plans or all-in-one comm links.

“All this being said, social media and mobile apps have a more immediate effect on the broadcast model. Devices and the app space, particularly the advent of wearables, drones and remotes are the technologies that have the potential to disrupt the current models, and I think they’re going to come into play a lot faster than people realize. HTS and its bandwidth/cost implications will make the environment even more favorable for these types of developments,” Christianson adds.

For a broadcaster such as CNN, a system that offers more bandwidth at a lower price-per-bit is highly attractive and Christianson expects HTS to make an “immediate difference” to its operations. “HTS shows promise in improving the quality in current low-bandwidth deployments, particularly remote locations where environmental, political, and a changing ground dynamic make it difficult to field larger, fixed-dish systems. In this regard, the potential ease of use and generally smaller terminal footprint of many HTS systems will have a direct impact on the quality of our newsgathering at CNN. And it would reach beyond simple video/audio. Workflow simplification of any kind will affect efficiencies and allow journalists to do more with less, and in less time,” he says.

Use of technologies such as satellite can be a key differentiator for broadcasters such as CNN and Fox News; it is a complex technological landscape, but mastering it is crucial for broadcasters. Ramos says that “without a doubt” technological advances have helped Fox News immensely over the past 16 years, and that the organization believes in staying on the cutting edge and pushing the envelope. He believes Fox News viewers have benefited from the company’s “aggressive, forward-thinking utilization of new technologies”. “We’re always looking for something that can make us better, more efficient, save us money or get us an exclusive. Yes, technological advances impact our business, daily,” he says.

Disruptive Implications

However, Christianson warns that even though this technology could bring down the cost of broadcasting, it could still have “disruptive” consequences for broadcasters. “You give somebody an ‘always on’ Internet connection, and whether it is satellite, hotel WiFi or a mobile phone, they’re going to use it – a lot. So we need to keep in mind that lower cost per bit could actually mean a higher overall cost. Users will need to find their threshold there. I believe that threshold is very high, especially when you consider the amount of money organizations spend currently on mobile roaming and high-cost L-band systems,” he says. “In this way, HTS has not only satellite implications, but possible disruptive implications for how broadcasters deploy with their land-based (mobile phone) resources.”

Geography

While there is little doubt that HTS will make an impact in the United States broadcast market, there is a question mark on what impact it can make internationally. Spengler believes the broadcasting opportunity will not be limited to U.S. broadcasters or news type broadcasters. “It is more than just the United States where you could have regionalization of content within a country,” he says. “Brazil is a country that could benefit from regionalized content. You look at Russia as DTH grows in that region, regionalized content could be very important there, too. There are multiple language packages in India. Some huge markets could benefit from the architecture, but this could also be a very targeted and economic way to serve smaller markets.”

Patrick French, a Senior Analyst at NSR says while HTS may be used extensively in a few specific markets such as the United States, in other markets it is likely to be used in a more “opportunistic” way. “Broadcasting will not be the core justification to build HTS. The only place where there is core financial justification to do it is the United States, because of the unique dynamics of the market and the local-to-local issues, which are not really present elsewhere,” he says. “Over the next five years, I don’t see a high throughput satellite launched primarily with video services in mind. Broadcasting will remain solely an opportunistic play for satellite operators when using HTS.”

French does think that for DTH operators in small territories or regions, HTS could make sense. “I think there are some interesting roles that HTS could play. For example, if you have a DTH player in a small country, such as the size of Albania, and a country like this falls under one beam of the satellite, a high throughput satellite could prove an attractive option for such a player,” he says.

Hoyt Davidson, President, Near Earth, adds, “To the extent geographic targeting of video content increases, so would the importance of HTS to broadcasting. An example might be a pan-Asian or pan-African footprint where different language video programming is distributed direct to home to dozens of countries using different spot beams. In the absence of such business models, we would expect HTS to make most of its contributions in the broadband space.”

Davidson, however admits these satellites will have some appeal. “In the United States especially, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, the ability to direct video content geographically does have appeal. In the United States, this is largely due to the regulatory environment, where local station content is provided to specific areas. Globally speaking, contractual terms in sports and other programming sometimes reflect geographic targeting and limitations,” he adds.

Status Quo

Davidson says that HTS are more suited to unicast and multicast, rather than broadcast, meaning they may not be big revenue generators for satellite operators going forward. “We believe that broadcast applications will represent a small minority of HTS revenue generation over the lives of the satellites, other than for cases where material capacity is being dedicated to direct-to-home distribution of local or geographically restricted content. However, in early years, before broadband penetration levels ramp up to require a majority of available capacity, broadcast applications could play a more meaningful role, but not under long term contracts,” he says.

Take-up on these satellites is likely to be gradual, especially given the rain fade concern. With broadcasters demanding high levels of reliability, this is not an issue that can be ignored. “On the video contribution side, HTS are very well suited for SNG (which is inherently unicast), and offer much lower cost per bit than traditional satellites,” Davidson adds. “On the other hand Viasat-1 and Jupiter are Ka satellites that are more susceptible to rain fade, which, given the cost of programming, may give customers some pause. So we expect that there will be some tug of war between HTS and conventional satellites in this area. Furthermore, this does require some capex on the part of SNG operators, so we would expect overall take-up to be gradual.”

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