Global Hotspots:Where The Money Is

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

By James Careless

From the Americas to the Middle East, satellite services continue to increase profit margins for many doing business within certain regions of the world. Even during the challenging economic times of the past few years, some satellite-enabled applications have proven to be real moneymakers. Topping the list are emergency communications, IP data/broadband, digital signage, satellite telephony and entertainment, to name but a few. For the details on a region-by-region basis, read on.

The Americas

From the northern reaches of Canada to the southern tip of South America, this region of the world continues to grow and at times lead in satellite-enabled products and services. In Canada and the United States, voice communications, IP data transmissions, Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) television and satellite radio applications top the list of services for businesses and consumers.

In North America, the urgent demand for improved emergency response capabilities and increased homeland security also is boosting the satellite applications market. These increases are partially due to the war on terror; however, natural disasters such as California’s recent brush fires also fuel this growing appetite for reliable two-way communications via satellite. Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV), which sells and supports Inmarsat-based portable communications equipment, saw many of its satellite terminals deployed during last year’s hurricanes, brush fires and the blackout, which crippled the Eastern seaboard. "We got orders for more units in 2003 than we ever have in the past five years," says Carson Agnew, MSV’s president and COO. "Part of our business was driven by new satellite-based radio products for police and fire. These terminals provide reliable long-distance communications wherever first responders are."

Satellite industry watchers should keep an eye on "mobile communications centers" such as the InfraLynx, Bickford Linx and the Raytheon First Responder. All three are truck- based radio units that provide on-the-scene telephone, interoperable radio and even two-way video communications using top-mounted fold-down satellite antennas. Three First Responders are currently in Iraq, providing communications between aid workers and U.S. headquarters via satellite. Meanwhile, the InfraLynx provided on-site communications at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. And, the American Red Cross purchased the Linx for mobile communications during U.S.-based disasters.

South America, though currently undergoing economic recovery, is home to profitable satellite-enabled applications of satellite broadband Internet access, distance learning, telemedicine and rural telephony. Kingston inmedia for example, a provider of satellite broadband distribution solutions, is making its mark in Brazil. Rather than bringing signals into the country, the company is carrying Brazil’s Record TV network to Europe via satellite. Record TV’s signals are being downlinked from Hispasat 1C and then uplinked to Astra 2B by Kingston inmedia. From there, Record TV is made available to Sky Digital subscribers. "Hispanic and Latin American communities across Europe can now enjoy news, drama and documentaries in Portugese, live and direct from the heart of Brazil," says Aroldo Martins, Record TV’s managing director. "We’re particularly proud to be the only South American broadcaster making its programming available to the U.K. on the Sky Digital platform."

On both continents, DBS television has garnered millions of subscribers. This said, DBS reception has been generally restricted to homeowners and those apartment dwellers who could mount antennas on their balconies. "You do see buildings with one dish on the roof serving multiple subscribers via coax, but this is limited to smaller buildings/condos," says Allen Wald, director of sales and marketing for Foxcom, a maker of fiber optic transmission products. The reason is time and money. Conventional distribution systems are "more labor intensive to install, require more active amplifiers, plus costly and complex headends."

Recognizing an opportunity, Foxcom tackled the challenge of distributing DBS signals to larger garden-style apartments and condo towers. By integrating a few satellite antennas into a Foxcom distribution system, building managers can give their residents access to satellite TV without cluttering up their balconies. "We are seeing more opportunities coming up in MDU [multiple unit dwelling] distribution of DBS and CATV," says Wald. "We are active all over the world but the U.S. is still our hottest market."

Meanwhile, XM Satellite Radio recently topped the one million-subscriber mark in the United States, while Sirius Satellite Radio hit 200,000 subs, proving people will pay for commercial-free audio. Both companies are now applying to the Canadian government to expand north of the Canada-U.S. border.

Europe

Not surprisingly, most of the satellite applications that are booming in North America are succeeding in Europe as well. These include DBS, satellite broadband, business data and voice, digital signage and distance learning. In addition, satellite telephony is poised to make a big splash in Russia, with the recent launch of Thuraya’s mobile telephone service in this terrestrially underserved nation. Thuraya provides satellite telephony in Europe, the Near and Middle East, North and Central Africa, Russia and India. It is poised to expand its coverage into much of Asia and Indonesia.

But the developments do not stop there. Europe is breaking ground in other satellite applications. For example, David Bowie launched his new album "Reality" last September via satellite. To garner attention for his new release, Bowie performed live in London’s Riverside Studios and then broadcast the concert via satellite to 86 movie theaters in 26 European countries. Fifty thousand fans reportedly saw the concert in Amsterdam, London, Paris, Berlin and Stockholm, among other cities. They also took part in a live question- and-answer session with Bowie, also via satellite.

To deliver a big-screen experience in real time, Kingston inmedia used two SNG trucks at Riverside. The trucks took Bowie’s live feed and encoded it using Tandberg Television’s E5710 MPEG-2 equipment. Kingston then uplinked the MPEG-2 stream to Eutelsat’s W2′s satellite. At the receiving end, the theaters downlinked the feed using Tandberg Integrated Receiver decoders. These units fed the data stream to Digital Theater Systems’ (DTS) XD10 Digital Cinema Media Players, which reproduced the audio in 5.1 DTS Digital Surround Sound.

Mainstream Data has signed on with the European Pressphoto Agency (epa) to deliver epa’s news photos worldwide via satellite. epa already serves nearly 1,000 newspaper clients from Iberia to Siberia. Thanks to Mainstream Data, epa’s photos are now available to newspapers around the world.

In Russia, the Jackpot gaming company has hired the Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) to install a Gilat Skystar 360E hub and about 500 ground stations. The RSCC network will link Jackpot online players, who compete across Russia to win Jackpot prizes. "Until now, RSCC has maintained about 2,000 VSAT terminals in Russia of which about half were used by the Central Bank of Russia," said Alexander Duka, RSCC’s general manager. The contract with Jackpot is the second major VSAT project of this scale in the country."

Asia-Pacific

As with the Americas and Europe, the Asia-Pacific is a hotbed for satellite applications. Top sellers include satellite broadband, business communications, DBS, distance learning, telemedicine and rural telephony, for countries both large and small.

A case in point: Alcatel has signed a deal with Jiangsu’s Nanjing Toptry China-Spacenet to support this Chinese ISP’s "DSL in the sky project." Under the multimillion dollar deal, Nanjing Toptry will provide broadband access and e-learning via satellite to businesses and schools across rural areas of China. Alcatel is to supply a turnkey solution including a satellite gateway, customer premises equipment and a network management platform. Similarly in Hong Kong, Speedcast Ltd. is launching two-way broadband satellite service to Asia. Using Viasat’s Linkstar VSAT equipment, Speedcast will provide users with broadband service at an impressive 1.5 Mbs, plus Virtual Private Network channels for businesses.

In South Korea, Scopus Network Technologies helped Korea Telecom deliver FIFA 2002 World Cup soccer coverage via satellite. Over 200 channels were broadcast live from 10 different stadiums during the 2002 World Cup "Final Draw," then routed via fiber optic cable to Korea Telecom’s International Broadcasting Center in Seoul. From here, the broadcasters’ feeds were sent by fiber to three earth stations, and uplinked to satellite for worldwide distribution. Scopus provided the end-to-end MPEG-2 digital compression equipment that made these broadcasts possible.

At the other end of the Asian population scale is the Kingdom of Tonga, which is comprised of 170 islands in the South Pacific. Not surprisingly, linking all of these islands by landline is hardly practical. This is why the Kingdom chose Globecomm Systems in 2001 to design and deploy a satellite network to deliver data, Internet access, entertainment and GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) cell phone services nationwide. According to Tonga’s Crown Prince Tupouto’a, who spearheaded this project, his goal is to "establish for the Kingdom of Tonga a communications network that will fundamentally change the social and economic fabric of the nation and provide the impetus for taking 21st century Tonga into the new world economy."

To deliver a workable solution within Tonga’s small market, Globecomm Systems decided to host Tonga’s satellite network at the company’s Los Angeles operations center. By using satellite, Globecomm Systems now remotely switches and manages traffic on all serviced Tongan islands. This approach won the company the 2003 GSM Technology Innovation Award for Best Infrastructure from the GSM Association.

Tonga’s leap into modern communications is all the more impressive, when one realizes that the island was once famous for "tin can mail." The name referred to the practice of sealing letters in tin cans, which were then taken by swimmers to passing ships. It was only in 1998 that the Kingdom established its domestic satellite system (DOMSAT) national telephone service, which was only made possible by satellite. Before DOMSAT, Tongans had to rely on Morse code and two-way high frequency radio systems.

Near East/Middle East

Satellite broadband, DBS, satellite telephony, military applications and business voice/data communications all are growth applications in the Near East and Middle East. In fact, this region is making substantial progress in joining the global telecom community, despite the repressive policies of its nations.

One country that is seeing a boom in satellite communications is Iraq, where military and aid workers need reliable high-speed links to their out-of-country headquarters. Raytheon’s First Responder vehicles are deployed there to support the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA).

"Three First Responders are in Iraq, providing telecom services to the people doing the rebuilding that they wouldn’t otherwise have," said Ken Knotts, Raytheon’s First Responder project manager. "Wherever the First Responder is parked, ORHA workers have access to global telephone and Internet service at 64 kbs, plus the ability to work remotely using laptops that are wirelessly linked to the First Responder."

The First Responder’s usefulness has been applauded by none other than Henrik Olesen, who is serving as an administrative director to the Iraqi provisional government. In an "e-mail of appreciation" he sent from Iraq on May 8, 2003, Olesen said, "I cannot overstate the importance of the First Responder and the technical team to the success of the humanitarian efforts that are ongoing here in Al Basrah. Prior to their arrival, we had absolutely no IT capabilities and were solely dependent on our Thuraya phone for outside communications. This was a massive impediment to our ability to help the people of Iraq."

The First Responder is just one satellite initiative that is aiding Iraqi reconstruction. Another is the work of Globecomm Systems, which deployed satellite voice and data communications to Baghdad following the fall of Saddam Hussein. "This contract, while not large in nature, further validates the quick reaction capabilities of Globecomm as the project was implemented in less than one week," says David Hershberg. He is being humble: Globecomm’s assistance restored international telephone service and Internet access to undisclosed users in Baghdad. The war had cut them off from the outside world; Globecomm reconnected them.

Africa

Africa has long been touted as the toughest place to make money from satellites. This too is changing, however, as Africans develop a hunger for satellite broadband, business voice/data, and rural telephony.

Of these three, satellite broadband is perhaps the most perplexing application to Simon Bull, senior consultant at Comsys. "I’ve said it before and I will say it again; I don’t know where Africans are finding the money to deploy and use satellite broadband," says Bull. "But they are." One answer may be the proliferation of "Internet caf�s" throughout the continent. By paying for computers and satellite access directly, then renting it out to clients, such caf�s make Internet access and e-mail affordable for cash-strapped Africans.

Opportunities Continue

Across the globe, satellite-driven applications are proving to be moneymakers. Better yet, the applications that are proving themselves run the gamut from consumer to business and government; single sites to national networks comprising hundreds and even thousands of earth stations. Moreover, as satellite users reap the benefits of these applications, their appetite for more of the same only increases. This is good news for the satellite industry, and for the people who rely on it.

James Careless is senior contributing editor to Via Satellite magazine.

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