WEB EXCLUSIVE: ISPs: Satellites Pushing the Internet Performance Bar Higher
by Peter J. Brown
In the ISP world, a new paradigm–“Deliver Data, View Video”–has taken hold, and the broadcast or point-to-multipoint advantages of Internet Protocol (IP)-based transmissions via satellite are becoming even more widely recognized. As ISPs take a hard look at much reduced terminal prices, and as multimedia-intensive satellite transmission options multiply, the solutions in the sky look better and better.
The demand for IP-based services continues to grow, and more than one market is taking shape for ISPs worldwide. For example, while the best-known market involves providing basic Internet connectivity to underserved or unserved markets, another involves higher performance, and value-added products and services for consumers who are becoming more IP savvy with each passing day. A third entails the B2B (business-to-business) segment where customers tend to spend more, but are much more demanding at the same time.
The direct-to-home (DTH) Internet via satellite services market cannot go unnoticed. It is poised and ready for the introduction of a series of second-generation platforms, after the ground was broken several years ago by Germantown, MD-based Hughes Network Systems’ (HNS) DirecPC. These advanced Ku-band systems, which include two-way solutions from HNS and McLean, VA-based Gilat-to-Home, take DirecPC’s original simplex-based IP delivery model to the next level with a relatively low-cost duplex platform. Look for the further integration of the use of IP multicasting with in-home caching, and perhaps eventually a voice over IP (VoIP) via satellite capability.
These systems also extend the reach of both companies as far as the so-called small office/home office (SOHO) and small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) markets are concerned.
Despite the highly competitive environment and the massive influx of fiber, satellite platforms are not gathering dust, or being discarded altogether. Quite the contrary is true. There is no suggestion here that satellite is somehow poised to activate its afterburners and propel the wireless Internet sector ahead of the terrestrial service providers, but rather the importance of the role for satellites here is immediately apparent.
In California, for example, a fleet of six so-called eBuses is going on the road –part of an ambitious “Community Connect” program — developed for the Community College Foundation with financial support from Wells Fargo. On board, Los Angeles-based Friendly User LLC has tapped Tachyon.Net to convert these vehicles into mobile, two-way Internet via satellite links which can provide 2 Mpbs downlinks and 256 kbps uplinks to otherwise unserved rural and inner city residents in California.
Flexibility And New Hardware Driving New Services
Jon Mansey, chief science officer at Interpacket Networks Inc. (IPN) of Santa Monica, CA, emphasizes that ISPs are facing a number of challenges both in the early stages of their IP services rollout, and later down the road as customers multiply, and bandwidth demand swells.
How can ISPs adequately gauge the range of services they should consider? How can they properly plan for customer traffic growth without needlessly purchasing any capacity way too far ahead of actual demand? These are important questions for ISPs.
“One advantage of satellite-provisioned IP bandwidth for an ISP is that the constant information rate (CIR) can be changed instantly at any time, allowing immediate bandwidth upgrades, a facility just not possible with any kind of fiber- or copper-provisioned service,” Mansey says.
At the same time, new satellite hardware options for ISPs have appeared in the past year which are having an impact both on ISP service offerings, and on the ability of ISPs to perform upgrades without adding expensive floor space to their existing physical plant.
“We are seeing 1U [one rack unit] DVB receivers, 1U web servers, 1U routers, 1U cache appliances which were not available until quite recently. All of this hardware is designed to help ISPs conserve both rack space and power requirements,” says Mansey. He adds that the mere possibility of being able to move ahead with these higher-density equipment rooms is suddenly allowing small- to mid-sized ISPs in particular to create new business opportunities that were thought to be entirely off limits previously.
As of early August, IPN indicates that it is using 34 beams on 23 transponders aboard 12 satellites worldwide with a total of 106 carriers.
It is not just the new hardware inside the ISPs that is making a big difference. The new hardware available to companies trying to reach out to smaller ISPs in particular is exerting tremendous influence on the Internet landscape as well. Alan Marsden, national marketing director for New Skies Networks Ltd. in Sydney, Australia–formerly AAPT Sat-Tel- -points out that by implementing a San Diego-based Logic Innovations IPEDG, or IP encapsulator/data gateway, new doors started opening. The unit in question is the IPE 2000, which operates at data rates up to 100 Mbps.
“We had initially commissioned another vendor’s IP encapsulator here, but it could not provide true DVB, so we could not use third party CPEs (customer premises equipment) which was just too restrictive for our market strategy. With the Logic Innovations IPE 2000, we now have full DVB at our disposal which allows us vastly improved flexibility over straight SCPC, and it enables us to implement services much more easily and efficiently for smaller ISPs and corporate customers,” Marsden says.
By using an IPEDG and a DVB data stream, Marsden says that New Skies Networks can add users by a simple reconfiguration of the one data stream.
“We do not have to implement a complete SCPC up/downlink for each and every customer change,” says Marsden. “There is a plethora of CPE available from manufacturers, all with their own levels of features and benefits. We are using, amongst others, the USB (Universal Serial Bus) connected receiver from Broadlogic.”
A relatively small percentage of Australia’s 800 or so ISPs are currently using satellite-based solutions, according to Marsden.
“We achieve better transponder utilization this way. We can go as low as 64 kbps, while on the opposite end of the scale, we can still offer full DS-3 (45 Mbps) maintained on an SCPC [single channel per carrier] basis to any customer that needs it,” says Marsden. He adds that New Skies Network also uses legacy capacity on Intelsat 702 at 177 degreesE along with Panamsat Corp.’s PAS 2 and PAS 8 satellites.
The Hague-based New Skies Satellite NV will deploy a new Ku/Ka-band satellite–NSS 6–at 95 degreesE at the end of 2002. NSS 6 will carry 60 36-MHz Ku-band transponders, and 12 super-high-gain Ka-band uplink spotbeams to accommodate uplink data rates in the range of 1 Mbps from dishes under 1 meter. In early August, New Skies announced that Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems would build this satellite.
“New Skies Networks serves a broad cross-section of major ISPs in Australia with IP broadband delivery at data rates between 1 Mbps and 45 Mbps, while also offering domestic and international voice and data networks via its own managed hub services,” says Marsden. “Current IP multicasting pilots employ Kencast’s Fazzt Digital Delivery System software. We are very bullish on edgecasting for Australia and New Zealand, especially for regional areas. The terrestrial network in Australia for example, is largely concentrated along this country’s eastern seaboard.”
Happauge, NY-based Netsat Express Inc., a majority-owned subsidiary of Globecomm Systems Inc. and an Internet connectivity services provider, is generating a lot of excitement as well with its Impact ISP turnkey satellite infrastructure and service package. This offering features a full suite of key support functions ranging from full network monitoring to authentication and customer billing. Microtec, an ISP based in Nigeria, is one of the latest Netsat Express customers to select Impact ISP.
Satellites Provide A Simple Solution
Montevideo-based Web2mil is one of the largest ISPs in Uruguay, and it started using IPN via an IP feed off Satmex 5. Web2mils’ founder and president Daniel Armand Ugon indicates that IPN is providing both collocation services for the large media companies which are clients of Web2mil’s content development business, as well as a link from the U.S. backbone for Web2mil’s dial-up ISP customers.
“Our relationship with Interpacket started with their basic ISP-oriented service. Now, we are looking at IP multicasting and caching. We signed a contract with Interpacket’s Espresso Broadcast Network–IPN’s advanced content delivery service with partners Real Networks and IBeam Broadcasting–which will provide us with a streaming media cache server for streaming media, but the equipment has not arrived yet,” Armand Ugon says. “Orblynx has also contacted us about their satellite-based caching service as well.
“We had no prior experience whatsoever with satellite, and we got it running in one day,” Armand Ugon says. “They replaced the old receiver with a new one from Harmonic Data Systems. Otherwise, besides the satellite dish, all we needed to do was install a Cisco router.
“The real advantages of satellite should come into play in countries like Argentina and Brazil, which are much larger than Uruguay, and which have vast underpopulated or unpopulated areas where a backbone is unlikely to reach,” adds Armand Ugon, who points out that Uruguay has an extensive nationwide backbone already.
While the vast majority of the inhabitants of Haiti fall into the general category of an unserved and impoverished population, there are still ISPs there that are pushing ahead. One of the oldest ISPs in this island nation, Alpha Communications Network (ACN), is located on the outskirts of Port au Prince in Petionville. Since 1996, ACN has been offering satellite communcations and Internet access services using a central downlink tied to a spread spectrum distribution system.
“Wireless connectivity is really our only option here. We can extend out approximately 64 kilometers with a half-watt amp and transmitter. We do not have any choice, really. The phone infrastructure is almost non-existent,” says ACN general manager Francois Benoit. “Altogether, I estimate there are eight or nine ISPs here using spread spectrum.”
According to Benoit, FL-based SCSI provides ACN with a 1.45 Mbps satellite feed to ACN’s nine meter dish, and a Codan receiver.
Terrestrial Networks, Not Reaching Everyone
Paul Muller is marketing director for Knoware, one of the oldest ISPs in Europe, based in Bunnik, the Netherlands, which was recently acquired by ISION.net. He indicates that Knoware started its Internet via satellite service by using a Eutelsat satellite feed. Knoware has one-way, receive-only and two-way satellite customers.
Receive-only sites are equipped with a dish, and ISM600 PC-cards made by Holon, Israel-based Tadiran Scopus Ltd., which also supplied the IP Gateway 600 and customer control unit (CCU) at Knoware’s uplink. Knoware also uses Stamford, CT-based Kencast Inc.’s Fazzt Digital Delivery System to enhance the performance of its network. Among other things, Knoware has deployed this combination to distribute multicast music video downloads from Miami-based “The Box” to 45 headends throughout the Netherlands.
Last year, Knoware decided to expand its use of satellite-based delivery services. It turned to Amsterdam-based Tachyon Europe BV for a two-way satellite-based solution including on-site routers, again with Eutelsat as the space segment provider.
“We have installed these systems all over Europe in the United Kingdom, Italy, France and here in the Netherlands. This is an indicator that Europe is still experiencing a situation where there is simply not enough cable in the ground,” Muller says.
Large network providers and distribution players in Europe like KPNQwest are aware of this situation as well as the need for more Web hosting facilities in general. Bear Stearns, in its July 20 issue of e-week, discussed at length KPNQwest’s creation of a network of numerous so-called Cybercenters and Mega-Cybercenters stretching across Europe from Lisbon, Portugal, to Budapest and Helsinki. Bear Stearns pointed out that in Europe, “over 80 percent of cross-border circuits are at the 2 Mbps level or less.”
“We are not delivering high-speed Internet services to consumers. We are providing B2B customers with four levels of IP access services ranging from 256 kbps to 2 Mbps,” Muller says. “Tachyon has devised a very clever two-way satellite product. They provide the hardware as well as the satellite bandwidth, while Knoware provides the customer with Internet services.
“Satellite in Europe is still very expensive. You have to overbook the bandwidth and make sure to maintain the high levels of service that customers demand,” adds Muller, who emphasizes that despite the appearance of lots of new satellite hardware, “this market is really new, and the hardware is not really there now.”
Wim Vink, Tachyon Europe BV’s managing director, says the situation on the ground in Europe is a bit deceiving. “A lot of rings are being built around Europe, but that does not bring the network to the end point. There is a lot of hype in Europe about DSL, but not a lot really happening, and there is a 90-day wait for leased lines which come with prices that are quite distant dependent,” says Vink.
In the United States, Vink notes that while both the East and West coasts are awash in fiber, the middle of the country is not well wired, with DSL making noticeable gains in California, for example. Tachyon will use Satmex 5 capacity in North America.
“Tachyon provides a two-way solution that works reasonably well, and with latency that is quite acceptable,” says Michael C. Stoner, president of LA-based Friendly User LLC, a Tachyon reseller which is focused on the delivery of B2B Internet access services primarily to medium and large sized businesses in southern California under the banner of Friendly Net Satellite Internet System.
“We view IP access as an ideal gateway into businesses. By making satellite available, it allows us to have a broader range of services,” Stoner says.
Stoner says that while Tachyon may seem like an expensive platform and service, with a price tag for the hardware in the $5,000 range, plus a monthly fee which can go as high as almost $2,000 depending upon bandwidth requirements, money is seldom the issue for Friendly User’s corporate clientele.
“They just want a reliable connection. Besides, companies today can spend anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 to get a 56 kbps leased line with a monthly fee or per minute charges on top of that, whereas Tachyon charges roughly $800 per month for 256 kbps on the upload side with no per minute charges,” Stoner says.
For rural businesses, which often select sites for tax reasons, where no affordable high speed access is available, Tachyon is worth considering.
“We are positioning ourselves as a value-added ISP which intends to go well beyond the provision of standard services, doing things like supporting internal networking requirements with NT servers, or giving full support services to customers who might find themselves in unique situations,” Stoner says.
Barbara Dijker, president of Boulder, CO-based Netrack Inc., which serves about 200 customers in the SME market in Colorado, indicates that Tachyon.Net is a lot cheaper than T1 service in most places. She also found Tachyon’s well-developed Web site to be an advantage. Her company has been using a Tachyon demo unit since February.
“We have a B2B focus with an emphasis on providing high speed services, both Web server collocation, and point-to-point data delivery involving companies which cannot get wireline solutions,” Dijker says. “We are targeting customers with remote locations, people who have resorts, remote construction sites or high profile homes in the mountains, for example.”
Ip Via Satellite: Waning In Hungary, Soaring In India
With large network providers like KPNQwest extending their reach into Hungary, Janos Zsako is monitoring the changes in the Internet delivery market closely. Zsako, the principal technical engineer at Banknet Kft in Budapest, is considered one of the pioneers in Internet via satellite in central Europe. He introduced the region not only to Internet over SCPC, but also to Internet over satellite TDMA (time division multiple access) and satellite IP broadcasting. Today, Banknet serves as the ground operator in Budapest for Loral Cyberstar.
“The growth recently of the Internet in Hungary has been quite significant. In the last six months, terrestrial link prices have dropped dramatically, and satellite access is becoming less and less popular as a result,” says Zsako, who adds that with the exception of Poland and the Czech Republic, in the rest of eastern and central Europe the situation is quite different.
“I estimate that a year ago, the commercial Internet access market share enjoyed by satellite was perhaps 80 percent, and terrestrial accounted for 20 percent. By the end of this year, satellite will probably represent just 20 percent of the market,” Zsako says. “I firmly agree with those who speak of the unicast Internet via satellite as a temporary market. However, satellite may be very suitable for IP multicast applications.”
On the other hand, India is a market for ISPs that is ready to blossom. Ashutosh Garg, CEO of ACeS India in New Delhi, estimates that the total number of Internet users is over 1.4 million, according to data recently released by the government, with a growth rate of well over 100 percent per annum. He counts over 20 regional and national ISPs in the country.
“Internet prices have been dropping over the past three years from a high of $550 for 500 hours to be utilized in one year to $50 for 500 hours, to be utilized over 3 years” Garg says. “In addition, there are a number of Indian ISPs who are offering free lifetime connections with an initial payment of $5. Despite this drop in price, data speeds are very slow and it is difficult to access a data transfer rate in excess of 1.5 kbps even if the connection has been established at 56 kbps.”
While ACeS is looking initially at the voice market in India, Garg indicates that medium data rate products are on the ACeS agenda too.
“It is also our belief that it is a matter of time before a customer will ask a satellite provider to sell him a required amount of Megabytes as bandwidth. Thereafter, how the customer uses it is his prerogative–voice at 2.4 kbps or data at 144 kbps,” Garg says. “India, I believe, will be in the forefront of this movement on account of it adapting to technology very quickly.”
As Vsat Leaders Reach Down To Consumers, Watch Closely
HNS and Petah-Tikva, Israel-based Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd. have been competing head-on for the top slot in the global VSAT market for the last few years. Now, the companies are beginning to focus their attention on consumers with two-way broadband platforms under the banners of DirecPC and Gilat-To-Home.
Not only does Redmond, WA-based Microsoft Corp., for example, have an equity stake in Gilat-To-Home, but its WebTV platform is appearing in the so-called Dishplayer, a DBS/Internet access solution from CO-based Echostar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network. WebTV will also reside at the nucleus of Ultimate TV, which is the hard drive-equipped DBS unit due out later this year from DirecTV Inc. in El Segundo, CA.
Nobody is about to suggest that Microsoft’s MSN Internet service will somehow generate an instantaneous spike in subscribers via GTH, or that Microsoft’s Xbox–a device that brings together DVDs, a game player and Internet access in a single box–will suddenly sprout a satellite dish. However, AOL is climbing aboard the Ku-band bandwagon too. Both AOL via DirecPC, and AOLTV, offered jointly with DirecTV’s DBS service, are in the works.
Atlanta-based BellSouth Entertainment’s decision, for example, to enter the enhanced DBS sector, and to select Pace Micro Technology plc as its initial supplier for DVB set-top boxes capable of receiving e-mail and Internet traffic, as well as video, is further evidence that satellite technology is definitely high on everyone’s agenda.
Put it altogether, and what you have is a lot of surprisingly agile Internet via satellite plays in progress. In addition, with Colorado-based ISky, and Hughes’ Spaceway looming on the horizon, to name just two, the ripple effect will be enormous. Awareness of the fact that Internet via satellite is the optimal way to go is growing, and combined with much reduced data storage or caching costs, the possibilities are endless.
As Via Satellite’s senior multimedia editor, Peter J. Brown tracks the global industry’s multimedia and Internet applications. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.