Satellite Data: To Handheld Devices

By | November 1, 2006 | Broadcasting, Feature, Telecom

Telcos are seeking new ways to deliver satellite data directly to customers. A wide variety of information such as GPS coordinates, satellite imagery and maps is making its way to the desktop or to handheld devices. As information sources and platforms converge, which satellite services providers are leading the way in meeting customer demand?

In the increasingly connected world, there are overlapping spheres of connectivity, including wired, Wi-Fi, cellular and satellite. Darren Koenig, wireless market director at Tele Atlas of Boston, says that "users are growing to expect continuous access to data, and they increasingly are using location information where they live and work. Consumer and business users alike share a passion for access to real-time navigation and maps provided by companies like Tomtom on a personal navigation device or Telenav on a mobile phone," he says.

Many businesses are leveraging related technology for asset-tracking and work-order dispatch, Koening says. Others, like UPS, have added GPS-related technology into multiple aspects of their business, using location data to immortalize proof-of-delivery signatures, as well as in routing their van fleets.

"Satellite data services are beginning to play an increasing role in the mobile handheld market," adds Bryan Padgett, an associate with Booz Allen Hamilton. "The key driver for this change is the integration of GPS receivers into mobile devices."

Many businesses now rely on enhanced geo-data. For Koenig, when you can access satellite data of some kind, and "when you layer on additional information about local points of interest and add in dynamic elements such as traffic, it’s easy to understand why these technologies are being adopted so rapidly."

Mobile TV Initiatives

In France, Alcatel, France Telecom’s mobile subsidiary Orange and the country’s space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), have conducted the first trials of a new mobile broadcasting solution that uses a hybrid satellite and terrestrial transmission system to deliver content to handsets. The satellite is simulated using an S-band transmitter onboard a helicopter at high altitude along with terrestrial repeaters installed in about 10 Orange France locations. A test terminal and instruments on board a vehicle are used to measure and record the signal in real time. Eutelsat and SES Astra are supplying the satellite resources needed for feeding the terrestrial repeaters.

The system is central to Alcatel’s Unlimited Mobile TV solution, which will use high power geostationary satellites with large deployable reflectors to deliver data to handsets. European coverage will be provided through several spot beams, and all the satellites that will be involved in the system will be co-located at the same orbital location. The goal of Unlimited Mobile TV is to make TV ubiquitously available to mobile phones and PDAs throughout all geographies, including inside buildings.

Unlimited Mobile TV chose a solution which, according to Olivier Coste, president of Alcatel mobile broadcast, is "based on an evolution of the DVB-H standard in a unique frequency range in the S-band reserved for satellites. It also relies on powerful radio coding known as OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), which is well-suited to future generations of mobile telephony," he says. "The solution is entirely compatible with DVB-H in the UHF-band and with 3G mobile telephony, extensively reusing existing 3G network infrastructure (sites, antennas, and base stations)."

In Asia, mobile TV already has entered the commercial service stage. In Japan, Mobile Broadcasting Corp. launched a commercial mobile-TV services dubbed Mobaho in October 2004. The service provides eight video channels along with 30 audio channels and data information services using S-band services provided by MBSat along with terrestrial repeaters installed in some areas of Japan to extend the service into areas where the satellite signal is blocked, such as tunnels. In February, Mobile Broadcasting expanded the set of information services it provides, launching a service to provide information such as water temperatures, sea currents and sea surface height to marine users via a partnership with Japan Fisheries Cooperatives.

Other countries in Asia also are joining the mobile TV era. Korea’s TU Media launched commercial services in 2005 and plans to have more than 6 million subscribers by 2010. India will launch a multimedia mobile satellite system built by the Indian Space Research Organization to offer S-DMB services via mobile phones and mobile video/audio receivers for vehicles.

Imagery Gaining Traction

Beyond the mobile TV application are the more widely available imagery and mapping solutions already available via cellphone and desktop/laptop. Satellite imagery is hot because Google and some of its Internet competitors have introduced the data to millions of desktops — and now delivers the information to as many handheld devices.

Geoeye is a key provider of imagery to Google’s two biggest competitors: Microsoft Virtual Earth and Yahoo. Geoeye’s Mark Brender, says the company "expects to launch our next- generation imaging satellite early next year. What’s unique is that Geoeye-1 will be the world’s highest resolution commercial earth imaging satellite. From 450 miles in space, the satellite will be able to see or discern objects on the ground as small as 16 inches in size and all in color," he says. "More importantly, because of GPS in the satellite, we will be able to locate an object on the earth’s surface to within a few meters of its true location on the globe. The satellite is basically a mapping machine in orbit. This sort of quality, map-accurate imagery will be ideal for search engines."

Brender thinks there is no going back to the era of cartoon maps: "People are now used to looking at satellite imagery maps or hybrids," he says. "The race has begun between search engines and we are caught in the middle as a provider of content." In Brender’s view, "the search engine that can boast they have the most accurate and most current satellite imagery married with the most functionality will be the victor."

For Ian White of San Francisco-based Urban Mapping, the real value in all this is not the spatial data itself but the other data connected to the spatial data. For example, Urban Mapping offers a database of mass transit systems, which includes point data, routing, scheduling and other information such as "what hours a station is open, does it have an escalator, is there a station attendant, are there (un)scheduled repairs, etc.," he says.

Another example is "point of interest data." Traditionally, coordinates for the Empire State Building are available via a POI database. But, White says that "for people to act on this information, they in fact need to know the hours of operation, on which corner the entrance can be found, and so forth."

White contends that "the explosion of satellite imagery acquisition is good all around, but it also begs the question–what do I actually do with satellite imagery as a consumer? The answer lies in annotating it with a rich collection of data that support and directly link to the spatial data."

This evolution is being shaped by small firms like Urban Mapping, which enables telcos and others to develop consumer-facing applications using geodata. Urban Mapping offers several spatial data products which include a database of informal spaces and mass transit routing with a rich collection of attributes. The neighborhood boundary database allows telcos, web portals and others involved in local search to connect online research with offline activity. White and his customers think that this evolution will continue — and the pace of change will increase. What will develop, perhaps rather quickly, is "an increasingly large gap between traditional GIS/remote sensing and web-based platforms," White says. "… Concerns such as projections and formats are not of great significance for network-served data via the Web, yet the GIS community continues to solve its own concerns, not wholly aware of the way in which spatial data is leveraged."

Patrick Agnieray, vice president of marketing at Alcatel Alenia Space, says that his company "is devoting major resources to the use of satellite navigation in the provision of location-based services. It is seen as an enabler for other types of value-added services, particularly those using position data to help enable specific services for the end- user," he says. These include ‘find-a-friend’ applications for the general public; critical vehicle positioning for professional applications such as fire emergency; locate individual users for dangerous tasks to ensure organizer has correct positioning; and many other types of transport applications. Agnieray and his colleagues in France have concluded that the "value added services are sellable, with vertical applications, but the location data is not of sufficient value itself."

Greg Turetzky of Sirf Corp. of San Jose, Calif., argues that the growth in satellite data systems capable of pushing large amounts of data to mobile users "has great potential if proper context is added to the content. Just like the Internet, when large amounts of data are available, a method to search and sort for relevant data is the key, especially on a mobile device where storage and display are limited," he says. "We believe that location awareness will be a key filter of data in making these new applications user friendly and intuitive."

Turetzky thinks that what’s really needed is a "Location Stamp" to "add context to such data, such as traffic information relevant to the navigation route of the driver, the video clip of the movie at the nearby theatre, the talk radio show whose subject today is of local interest, etc." Innovations in geo-search technology by Google, Microsoft and others clearly are a major step in this direction. Sirf is providing location awareness to these mobile devices via GPS and in combination with other satellite and terrestrial technologies. Turetzky is especially hopeful because "location will be a key technology enabler to allow mobile devices to access the new satellite data services in a meaningful way for the end consumer."

Some important new players are making a dent in this area: Chuck Herring, a spokesman for Longmont, Colo.-based Digitalglobe says his company "sees a rise in demand for its imagery products as organizations increasingly look to geospatial information to overcome challenges and support the decision-making process."

The increasing demand for and prevalence of geospatial data is leading to what some analysts are calling the "Geospatial Web" where data becomes increasingly easy to search for, discover and integrate; digital imagery is a foundation on top of which new services can be created and delivered. Digitalglobe was among the first companies to deliver an always-on source of geospatial content via the Internet and provides on of the largest archive of current and accurate satellite imagery available with more than 200 million square kilometers of data.

Unlimited Ceiling

The growth for satellite information providers who can serve the handheld area looks to be unlimited, according to analysts. "Looking ahead, mobile devices will continue to integrate specialized applications, ranging from vehicle tracking to personal fitness that increasingly rely upon satellite data," says Padgett.

"GPS capabilities and location based services are features that are valued by consumers, as we’ve seen in multiple IDC surveys over the past two years," says Randy Giusto, group vice president of IDC’s Mobility, Computing and Consumer Markets research groups. "… For map providers and GPS technology providers, who currently play in a portable navigation market measured at around 2 million units in the United States a year, the potential to tap into a market measured in the hundreds of millions of units, is quite significant."

The winners will be the satellite providers that find the quickest and best routes to market.

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