SATMODE On Track Despite Challenging Year

By | October 13, 2003 | Feature

SES Global’s [Luxembourg: SESG] ambitious project called SATMODE to develop a low-cost satellite return channel to support interactive TV applications for set-top boxes is on track and a commercial trial is likely to take place in October 2004.

The work on SATMODE, announced in January, so far has been based around designing, testing and integrating a test system before the end of this year. Christoph Duplay, service development vice president for SES Global, said, “By the end of January, we want to report on the successful completion of phase one, which is the design of the system. Phase two will start in January. We will deploy progressively up to 750 terminals with actual subscribers. We go into a commercial field trial in October 2004, to test the appetite of the subscribers for SATMODE.”

The SATMODE project is one of the most ambitious taking place in the European satellite industry. SES has teamed up with the European Space Agency (ESA), French pay-TV operator Canal Satellite as well as other industry players such as Newtec, STMMicroelectronics and Thomson. The project is worth 49 million euros ($52.6 million). When Interspace spoke to Duplay in January, he admitted that the SATMODE project was “unchartered territory” for the operator as it seeks to play a key role in a mass consumer environment.

While the project is on track, Duplay admitted it had been an interesting few months working with a multitude of partners. “There have been a series of mini-crisis, to bring and maintain a team of partners and keep people on track. We need to keep everybody focused. We are very intent on keeping to schedule. Some of these partners have not been used to working in an R&D program. There was a bit of a communication process. About half of the people we talked to two years ago are no longer there; for example, Pierre Lescure, [former] CEO of Canal Plus. The fact the project survived means it is robust.”

France First, Spain Next?

While Canal Satellite is likely to be the first pay-TV operators to deploy SATMODE, Duplay revealed that it is likely that other territories such as Germany and Spain will be the next in line to see SATMODE deployment. Spain is likely to be next. “We are looking at two additional markets, Spain and Germany. Spain has a very similar satellite platform to France. What you do for France, you can do in Spain. In Germany, there is still an issue around middleware. Premiere is not supporting the MHP open standard or any other proprietary solution for the time being, and there is no consensus around the industry. Possibly, [SES Global’s] Astra can assume a leadership role in helping the market. Note that Germany is also by far the leader in terms of delivering free-to-air TV. If we want things to change, we must take some initiatives there as well. We are looking very closely at how the market evolves,” Duplay said.

SATMODE will provide an always-on satellite return path in the Ka-band via Astra 1H. It aims to enhance interactive applications such as video-on-demand, messaging, gaming and audience interaction. In terms of the benefits of SATMODE, Duplay commented: “SATMODE brings a very efficient tool to enable other applications which may exist already like voting or messaging. If you bundle the PVR [personal video recorder] and SATMODE, it makes the PVR a lot more useful for the consumer and broadcaster. We see SATMODE as a trigger, an impulsive mechanism to initiate Ku-downloads and traffic on the PVR. I expect that to be a lot more than the Ka-band traffic.

He continues: “If you introduce HDTV [high-definition television] on top of that, enabling high-quality VOD movies and sports events, you start building an experience which is very different from traditional TV, where even FTA viewers will make the effort to switch. From the advertisers’ perspective, this is also an instant response and audience measurement tool. SATMODE is only a path to this end.”

–Mark Holmes

(Yves Feltes, SES Global, e-mail: yves.feltes@ses-global.com)

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