Hybrid Networks: A Winning Partnership For Satellite

By | January 1, 2004 | Broadcasting, Feature, Telecom

There is a quiet revolution taking place in the global satellite services industry. This revolution has winners all around, and virtually no losers.

This revolution is a move toward hybrid networks. Simply put, a hybrid network combines both space and terrestrial connections to deliver customer signals efficiently and economically. Broadcasting and content service providers are now cashing in by using both terrestrial and satellite links to more completely serve their customers who are seeking a diversified, streamlined service solution for content delivery.

With hybrid networks, the emphasis is on service, not the technology through which the service is carried. In contrast, conventional satellite-only (or terrestrial-only) network operators put the delivery technology first, then try to fit the service into their technology’s specific parameters and limits.

Today, customers are more savvy regarding the type of platform they need for delivering their content. If a satellite point-to-point solution costs more than the terrestrial alternative, they will buy terrestrial–and vice versa. Today’s signal carriage customers understand that satellites are best for point-to-multipoint transmissions, while terrestrial networks (especially fiber optic) are superior for point-to-point transmissions.

Fortunately the global satellite industry is adapting to this truth by offering the best of both worlds, namely signal carriage through hybrid satellite/terrestrial networks. This advanced turnkey offering has increased revenues for those satellite executives providing hybrid solutions and has also opened up new markets.

Embracing Hybrid Networks

For many companies within the satellite industry, completely embracing hybrid networks has not easily come to fruition. But times and business attitudes are changing. As a company with historic roots in voice telephony, BT Broadcast Services (BTBS), for example, has long understood the value of terrestrial networks. So it comes as no surprise that BTBS is one of the pioneers not just in hybrid satellite/terrestrial networks, but also in making these services profitable.

"These days, it is relatively straightforward for anyone to buy time on either satellite or terrestrial networks," says Mark Wardle, director of technology and operations for BTBS. "Where we add value is by creating the best mix of both technologies for our clients and engineering it into an end-to-end solution that’s easy for our customers to access."

Denver-based Crown Media International (CMI), for example, planned to extend its Hallmark TV Channel into the Asian market, using satellite uplink facilities in Hong Kong. Crown Media International, however, did not want the expense of building and manning a network operations center in the Far East. BTBS fulfilled CMI’s requirements using hybrid network technology.

Specifically, BTBS carries the Hallmark Channel’s Asian feed by fiber optic cable from Denver, CO, to Hong Kong. It then uplinks this feed through BTBS’ Hong Kong teleport which then relays the Hallmark Channel to millions of viewers across Asia. CMI’s Hallmark Channel is already delivered to Europe via BTBS’ London Teleport, after being carried to the site from Denver via fiber. Company executives, recognizing the success this formula brought to its European business, made the decision to apply the same solution to its Asian counterpart.

"We expanded our relationship with BTBS, as it has the right combination of state-of-the-art broadcasting solutions and [the] industry experience necessary for servicing our needs in the dynamic and growing Asian market," says CMI Vice President of Operations Chuck Zabilski.

Making Many Networks Work As One

There are those fortunate companies, however, whose products just happen to fit within industry trends. When it comes to hybrid networks, ILC is one such company. ILC’s Maxview network control software is specifically designed to integrate disparate networks–terrestrial or satellite, it makes no difference–and make them work as one.

"Maxview lets people monitor and control their networks regardless of the technology, software and transmissions systems being used," says Mark Krikorian, ILC’s COO. "We work with satellite systems, telecom voice and data networks, broadcast DTV services, two-way data–whatever."

Nebraska Educational Telecommunications (NET) is an example of Maxview’s ability to create and manage hybrid networks. Headquartered in Lincoln, NE, NET operates a statewide public television and radio network, numerous distance learning systems for the state’s K-12 schools and the University of Nebraska, plus the State of Nebraska’s videoconferencing network. NET also operates an uplink facility used by broadcasters PBS, CNN and ESPN.

With all these responsibilities, NET’s network operations center has its hands full. This is why NET integrated all of NET’s disparate monitoring and control (M&C) functions into one system. Maxview has automated NET’s network operations so that one operator can now perform tasks that once required several operators’ time. Meanwhile, Maxview’s network control software–with its ability to route all fault reports to the operator, whatever their source–has reduced network downtime.

"NET is just one end user that is realizing the advantages of a hybrid network approach," Krikorian says. "Many others are as well. In fact, given the mounting trend to communications convergence, we can expect a parallel move toward centralized M&C of hybrid networks."

Pushing Ahead With Hybrid Networks

With the revenue-generating result hybrid networks creates for satellite service providers, many more companies, such as Intelsat Ltd., are incorporating this solution into their mix of offerings. Not only has this former international state-run organization made a transformation to the private sector, but it also has grasped the advantages of embracing terrestrial transmission, rather than fearing it.

"We launched our own hybrid network in May 2002," says Barbara Clarke, Intelsat’s director of market development and product management. "It integrates our teleports and 25 satellites with numerous terrestrial Points of Presence (PoPs). In turn, these PoPs link to local high-speed telephone loops. For our customers, the result is efficient, cost- effective global access."

So what inspired Intelsat to adopt a hybrid approach? "We saw that our existing customer base was consolidating, and that they wanted to offload their own teleport/terrestrial facilities," Clarke says. "We saw this as an opportunity to take over these responsibilities for them.

"Meanwhile, our new customers don’t think in terms of satellite and terrestrial," she adds. "They’re concerned with end-to-end solutions to get their signals where they need them to be, and that’s it. They pay us to handle the details of making that happen. All they care about is that it does."

To make the move easier Intelsat has worked closely with vendors to integrate its teleports with local fiber optic networks. "We’ve been pretty pleased with how this has worked," Clarke says. "With our vendors’ help, we’ve been able to ramp up our hybrid services pretty quickly. In fact, we already have 100 clients using them."

Ironically, adding terrestrial connections has improved Intelsat’s satellite operations. Now the company is able to use its satellite bandwidth for the tasks it is best suited for, namely point-to-multipoint transmissions. Meanwhile, the hybrid approach allows Intelsat to keep its customers when terrestrial connections become available to them because they can offer a complete solution.

"Hybrid networks are working well for Intelsat," Clarke says. "I think they are the right choice for the entire satellite industry, in the years to come."

Panamsat Corp. also has expanded its offering of hybrid solutions. Recently, the satellite operator acquired Sonic Telecom Ltd., a provider of international high-definition multimedia transmission services and business applications. As a result of this transaction, Panamsat now provides clients with a satellite/fiber network delivering video content throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.

"To effectively compete and deliver the high volume of rich content in today’s marketplace, the Fixed Satellite Services sector needs to evolve from only selling satellite services to providing global communications services on the ground and in the air," says Joe Wright, president and CEO of Panamsat. Through this transaction, Panamsat gained access to an additional 20 PoPs around the globe.

Customers using Panamsat services now can transfer backhaul video traffic, connect to a global network as well as conduct videoconferencing, bridging and video content management. "This hybrid approach of uniting delivery systems is not only the future for our industry, it is the present," Wright adds.

This latest acquisition with Sonic buttresses Panamsat’s agreement with its Level 3 Communications Inc. partnership. Last April, Panamsat connected its uplink facilities to Level 3′s 20,000-mile broadband fiber optic network offering customers access to the Panamsat fleet from any Level 3 network location.

Supporting Hybrid Networks

Not only have some of the major satellite service providers come onboard with hybrid solutions, but equipment manufacturers have also recognized the revenue-generating potential of this delivery offering. As makers of the Fazzt Digital Delivery System–which offers distribution of digital data through satellite networks–Kencast, for example, has recognized the benefits of hybrid networks. In fact, "We released a version of Fazzt for hybrid network content delivery four years ago," says William Steele, Kencast’s president and CEO. This version of Fazzt allows users to make upstream data requests over the conventional terrestrial Internet. The file downloads, which are typically much larger, are then delivered over satellite.

"The key to this integration is TCP/IP [Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol]," Steele adds. "When TCP/IP is the standard used, it really doesn’t matter if the data is moving over satellite or terrestrial connections."

Beyond providing more opportunities for Kencast, the trend toward hybrid networks is good for the entire satellite services industry. "The truth is that satellites alone are best suited for one-way applications," Steele says. "This is why two-way products … have had such a tough time of it. By embracing hybrid networks, satellite service providers are changing this equation for the better. Thanks to terrestrial return, two-way applications with a satellite component are economically justifiable for business users."

Improving Satellite Service

Mobile Satellite Ventures’ (MSV) offers satellite-based mobile communications solutions through North America, Central America, the Caribbean, Hawaii and parts of South America. Among its customer base are trucking fleets, ships and emergency service units.

Unfortunately, MSV subscribers sometimes have trouble connecting in urban areas, thanks to signal blocking-buildings. This is why MSV’s next generation of services will use higher power satellite spotbeams with terrestrial-base stations. Combined, this Federal Communications Commission-approved hybrid network will give MSV users reliable nationwide coverage, and quite possibly makes MSV’s service attractive to police, fire and emergency services personnel.

"For mobile satellite communications to truly fulfill its promise, we need to add a terrestrial component to the system," says MSV President and COO Carson Agnew. "This is not a new concept. XM and Sirius Satellite Radio also use terrestrial repeaters to bolster their main satellite-based transmissions."

By adding terrestrial-base stations, MSV will be able to use handsets that are "virtually indistinguishable from conventional cell phones," Agnew says. "Moreover, creating such ‘hybrid handsets’ should only cost about $10 more per unit, while being able to tap into terrestrial coverage should help us keep our rates down."

In addition, Agnew adds that using a hybrid network approach "is more than just logical." "It should revitalize the MSS [Mobile Satellite System] market, because it will let us combine the advantages of satellite with terrestrial wireless. Meanwhile, users will win too, because they’ll get better, more reliable service in a more user-friendly package."

Hybrid Is The Way Of The Future

For many companies within the satellite arena, adopting hybrid networks has been a sound business decision. Going the hybrid network route results in more effective use of each company’s satellite resources. It also lets them choose terrestrial fiber or wireless when it makes economic sense.

By having the freedom to choose, satellite service providers are mirroring the choices available to their customers. This matters, because customers have no sympathy for service providers who do not offer choice, especially when the lack of choice ends up costing customers more.

This situation is why the adoption of hybrid networks is such an important advance for the satellite services industry. Satellite companies are realizing that when it comes to terrestrial transmission, it is better to join them–or take them over–than to try to beat them.

James Careless is Via Satellite’s Senior Contributing Editor.

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