What Broadcasters Want from Satellites… And What Service Providers Are Doing To Deliver It

By | September 10, 2000 | Via Satellite


By James Careless

Satellites continue to represent a critical component of any TV broadcasters’ business.

For instance, it’s satellites that truly make ABC-TV a network. That’s because “we distribute all of our network TV programming via satellite to approximately 225 ABC affiliates,” says Richard Wolf, ABC’s vice president of telecommunications and distribution services. “We also rely heavily on satellites to collect news, sports, and entertainment feeds from remote locations, and bring them back to ABC New York.”

Barbara Jaffe, HBO’s vice president of technology operations, echoes Wolf’s words. “Satellites are extremely important to us,” she says. “They’re the way we distribute all of our signals to our affiliates, and our C-band customers as well.”

Meanwhile, satellites are so important to CNN that they’ve got a number of senior executives dedicated to them. For instance, CNN Vice President of Satellites and Circuits Dick Tauber’s major responsibilities include news acquisition from around the globe. He fulfills his duties using satellites, supplemented by terrestrial fiber optic networks.

Clearly, satellites are a broadcaster’s lifeblood, and vice versa. So what are broadcasters demanding from their satellite providers today, and what are those providers doing about it? Well first, broadcasters want reliability. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible with satellites: even with the best of design and management, failures do occur.

Certainly ABC’s Richard Wolf knows this all too well: over the past four years the industry has lived with two major satellite failures, one of which affected ABC directly. That’s why ABC now covers itself by using a “dual satellite strategy.” In plain English, it puts up its network feeds over both Telstar 4 and Telstar 5. With this combination, “we’re assured of nearly 100 percent reliability,” says Wolf.

So who’s ultimately responsible for satellite reliability? Manufacturers, says HBO’s Barbara Jaffe. That’s why “it’s extremely important that satellite manufacturing processes are as thorough and careful as possible,” she says. “They’ve got to stop shortening build cycles, and be willing to risk missing deadlines and cost overruns to ensure that they’re producing quality satellites. After all, we can’t go up there and fix them once they break.”

The second thing broadcasters demand is availability. They want satellites where they want them, when they want them. In this regard, today’s satellite service providers are doing pretty well, says CNN’s Dick Tauber; at least with respect to regularly scheduled feeds. However, “when it comes to breaking news, it gets a little tough finding what you want quickly,” he notes.

The third item broadcasters want from satellite service providers is what the name implies: service. “It’s more and more important for satellite operators to be much more than just space segment providers,” says ABC’s Wolf. “We need help with everything from scheduling feeds to setting up satellite news gathering (SNG) flyaways in remote locations at a moment’s notice. “

As well, broadcasters need satellite operators’ help in dealing with the new Internet age. This can mean caching multimedia data linked to broadcasters’ Web-enabled programming, so that viewers can access information directly from satellite operators’ servers. (Such storage could speed up transmission–especially for direct-to-home viewers– because it would effectively put the data many steps closer to the end user.) It can also mean enabling streaming video over satellites: a strategy that would cut transmission and equipment costs by reducing bandwidth. With this in mind, CNN is already “looking at MPEG-over-IP as a way of moving video that we need,” says Tauber.

Finally, broadcasters would like satellite operators to “lower their rates,” says Tauber. He quips that whenever he’s asked what he wants most from his satellite carriers, “that’s always a good answer.”

HBO’s Jaffe agrees that lower fees would be good, but adds that what her company is looking for is “fair price value.” “We have a feel for what it costs to build and launch satellites, but first and foremost we want high-quality service,” she says. “Hence we want the prices we pay to reflect this.”

Giving Them What They Want

These then, are what broadcasters want from their satellite service providers. So what are providers doing to meet these demands?

Well, reliability is certainly foremost in the satellite industry’s mind. For example, Loral Skynet–a major service supplier to ABC, CBS, and Fox via the Telstar satellite family–“has entered an agreement with Assuresat to build a couple of satellites that will be used as on-orbit spares,” says company president Terry Hart. “We’ll use those to protect our fleet, and extend our reliability protection as far as possible.” He adds, “We work very closely with our internal supplier, Space Systems/Loral, to ensure that our satellites are designed and built with the highest level of reliability possible.”

Beyond this, “We provide ABC, CBS, and Fox with a ‘continuous service guarantee,'” says Joan Byrnes, Loral’s vice president of marketing and sales. This means that because of their access to Telstars 4, 5, and 6, these three TV networks always have a wide range of routing choices for their feeds. As well, since the three Loral Skynet birds are spaced four degrees apart in their orbital slots, only one of them tends to be vulnerable to propagation-disrupting solar eclipse incidents at a time. That’s why ABC’s “dual satellite strategy” can provide close to 100 percent reliability for this network: even if Telstar 4 suffers propagation problems, Telstar 5 is unlikely to be affected.

Of course, reliability isn’t just about being there. It’s also about consistent quality. In fact, when asked what customers want most from Hong Kong-based Asiasat–which serves over 50 TV and radio broadcasters in the Asia-Pacific region–Asiasat corporate affairs manager Winnie Pang replies, “all customers want quality.” This isn’t just a matter of signal strength, she adds. Broadcasters also want satellites “which offer good neighborhood and ground penetration.”

Availability

The next big issue is availability: one that’s close to the hearts of satellite service providers as well as broadcasters. In fact, even though Netherlands-based satellite provider New Skies Satellites has inherited five satellites from Intelsat–the first stage in privatizing this pioneering satellite service provider–availability is its most pressing issue, says New Skies vice president of marketing Paul McGhee.

“We wish we had a lot of more of it,” he says. “We’re very tight for capacity over the Indian Ocean region; we could do with a lot more capacity there. We have excellent connectivity from the Middle East into North America, and we could do with twice as much of that. So really that’s our problem. We have a lot of broadcast customers, and we’d like to be able to provide them with even more connectivity than we have.” McGhee adds that New Skies plans to increase availability in the near future, by replacing its older satellites with higher capacity spacecraft.

Meanwhile, Telesat Canada is working aggressively to increase its own capacity: not just for Canadian broadcasters, but–thanks to relaxations in Canada-U.S transmission rules- -for all of the United States as well.

“Over the past four years we have developed a strategy to expand and grow our fleet,” says Paul Bush, Telesat Canada’s vice president of corporate development. The first step in making it happen came last year, when Telesat Canada launched the country’s first direct broadcast satellite, Nimiq.

“This year we will launch Anik F1, which will provide coverage to broadcasters in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and South America,” says Bush. Next year will see the launch of Anik F2, which will provide both broadcast and high-speed Internet services to North America.

To say that broadcasters are eagerly anticipating Anik F1’s launch is an understatement. That’s because “Over 90 percent of Canadian broadcasters have signed 10-year contracts for space on F1,” Bush says. This means the satellite is “completely presold.”

Of course, sending up new satellites is only one way to increase availability. Another is by moving from analog to digital transmission, in order to squeeze more signals onto each transponder. Most of the world has already learned this lesson; in fact, Europe is basically a digital market as far as satellite transmissions are concerned. But the United States has been dragging its heels on digital for years, says Panamsat Senior Vice President of Sales Michael Antonovich. Only recently have things begun to change, Antonovich observes. Gradually, U.S. broadcasters are finally going digital.

A case in point: Globecast America has just “finished the conversion to digital for Paramount syndication,” says Globecast America President and CEO Robert Behar. The project, which has just been completed, involved installing nearly 2,000 digital satellite receivers in over 375 TV stations. As a result “all the Paramount and UPN stations are being fed digitally in the United States,” he says.

So why is North America’s digital transition only happening now? Blame it on the size of the U.S. TV market, says Antonovich. “The cost of outfitting all the stations with digital receivers was a big problem here that really didn’t exist internationally,” he says. “A large international network might be 20 sites, but in the United States of course, the network groups are 200, and the market itself for syndication and everything else is a thousand.”

Service

Now the third issue mentioned by ABC and CNN is service: they want their satellite service providers to do more than just book transmission times.

Evidently this message has not been lost on Globecast Satellite Broadcasting. Initially a teleport operator, Globecast has vastly expanded its offering to deliver “every service that broadcasters need,” says Behar.

For instance, “out of our Miami facilities we’re actually now running three studios, and building two additional very, very large ones,” he notes. “Out of our facilities in Los Angeles, we have put in program origination capabilities, and the New York facility’s getting revamped.” Asked specifically what broadcasters are demanding from Globecast, Behar replies, “they want production and post-production. They’re asking now about Internet streaming, and Internet Protocol services. We’ve moved along, and we are able to provide all those services now,” he adds.

Telesat Canada has also jumped on the full service bandwagon. In fact, “We’ve formed a new division called Telesat Communications to better serve broadcasters,” says Bush. Working jointly with a U.S. firm called Insight, Telesat Canada will be offering full broadcast and Internet satellite services through offices in Boston, New York, and Atlanta. According to Bush, IP will be playing a pivotal role in Telesat Canada’s new services, including video streaming.

Finally, there’s price. Given the current demand for space segment and the cost of launching new satellites, it’s unlikely that transponder costs will drop any time soon, if ever.

However, there may be some hope for broadcasters who move to video streaming, says Panamsat’s Antonovich. If Internet-based satellite news gathering–“ISNG,” as Antonovich calls it–becomes a feasible alternative for broadcasters, then they could see themselves needing only 400 kilobit channels, he says. Compared to 9 MHz for digital SNG and 36 MHz for analog, this is peanuts. Hence the best chance for broadcasters such as CNN’s Tauber to cut satellite fees is to get their own data rates down.

Lessons Learned

Is there a moral to this story? Yes and no.

Yes, in that satellite service providers seem to be doing what their broadcast clients are asking of them. They’re working to improve reliability through redundancy and on- orbit spares. They’re improving spectrum availability through additional satellites and an increased emphasis on digital compression. And they’re offering more than just time bookings; instead, satellite service providers are becoming “one stop shops” for a range of broadcaster needs.

No, in that the broadcast industry’s needs are always likely to surge ahead of what’s available in space segment. As well, trying to solve this problem by building more satellites is akin to building a super highway to reduce traffic congestion. At first things ease off, but then the fact the superhighway even exists just encourages more people to use it. Eventually, it too gets clogged up, until more lanes are added.

The advent of digital compression prevents this analogy from being a perfect description of the broadcaster/satellite service provider relationship. Still, there’s no doubt that less expensive access will attract a host of Webcasters who’ve never used satellites before, just as previous price cuts brought local TV stations into what had been the networks’ high-priced preserve.

Small wonder CNN’s Dick Tauber views this trend with some concern. On the one hand, he likes the idea of cheaper channels being available. On the other, he wonders if the appearance of new satellite users will mean “that there’s less capacity when we need it.”

Time will tell. In the meantime, broadcasters will keep asking their satellite providers for more, and their providers will scramble to find ways to deliver it. That’s the essence of a competitive free market economy, and the broadcast satellite communications market is a prime example of it.

James Careless s a contributing writer to Via Satellite.


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