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Telepresence: Satellite’s Rising Star

By | April 1, 2010

      Decreasing costs, technological advances and enhanced experience mean the future is bright for telepresence via satellite.

      If you have participated in videoconferences, you would have noticed how the experience has changed over time. What used to be little more than a video phone call on relatively small screens presenting distorted faces and often affected by slight voice delays has become an experience that delivers impressive voice and audio quality to and from multiple locations and truly engages the senses. Like so many other applications and technologies, what is now commonly referred to as telepresence has grown from being an expensive niche technology — limited to the boardrooms of multinational companies — to an application used in a host of disparate sectors. The addition of enhanced features to the delivery of audio and visual transmissions of meetings has added to the experience: the possibility of real-time sharing of documents as well as adds-on like computer-displayed information and whiteboards has made telepresence into a mainstream application for a variety of industries. From simple videoconferencing between two offices, telepresence now is employed to facilitate distance government, allow remote access to hazardous environments, provide education to communities and even perform remote surgery.

      Yet the fundamental business proposition for telepresence remains unchanged. At a time when companies around are under pressure to increase connectivity while reducing costs associated with travelling, telepresence seems to be the ideal solution to this conundrum — transporting information rather than people is the expression often used to describe the new way to conduct business. For example, a technology industry leader such as Polycom, which markets itself as provider of unified collaboration solutions, is now promoting telepresence as a solution that allows customers to cut costs and travel while boosting productivity. 

      Green Technology

      While telepresence grew in sophistication and quality, technology advances both in the hardware and delivery chain made the delivery of telepresence via satellite a reality. This comes at the same time as an increasing number of companies demand applications that involve signals relayed over satellite to remote or multiple locations. After all, the advantages of satellite communications over terrestrial technologies remain true for telepresence as for other applications — e.g., mesh topology networks, broad geographical coverage, multicast capabilities, etc. “The true value-add of telepresence over satellite is the ability to bring a rich communication and collaboration experience to two or more parties who need to connect robustly, but who are geographically separated or on-the-move,” says John Morris, senior manager, global government solutions group, Cisco. “Further, parties who are dependent upon this flexible wireless satcom medium because a fixed wired infrastructure between them is not accessible, due to non-existence, cost, lack of security or other reasons, would look at a satellite-based solution. People involved in defense, oil and gas, telemedicine, desert or at-sea platforms, disaster recovery operations, remote governance in low-populated areas, and others share these same limitations,” he says. 

      Growing Commercial Success

      Telepresence is a relatively old application dating back to the early 1990s in its commercial form. Its satellite incarnation also has been there ever since, though it is only in recent years that it has revealed its commercial potential. In the area of private broadcasting, for example, industries ranging from pharmaceutical to financial are realizing the benefits of reaching their target audience with an immersive and interactive experience through HD television programmes. This market has boomed over the spate of just a few years. “In 2005, Velocity spawned a new industry, utilizing satellite technology to change the way in which companies deliver a targeted message to their niche audiences and reach key decision makers as well as the elusive C-Suite,” says Philip Elias, president and CEO of Velocity Broadcasting.

      Other companies, such as Cisco, officially included telepresence over satellite as a supported feature of their TelePresence solution set with their TP v1.5 code release in February 2009. “The follow-on release of TP version 1.6 in November 2009 enhanced the satellite solution by offering an even-further compressed resolution-and-motion-control menu setting in the codec referred to as ‘Extended Reach TelePresence’ in marketing literature, or ‘720-Lite’ in the codec configuration menu,” says Morris. “This configuration puts the bandwidth for a single-screen endpoint TelePresence call within the bandwidth envelope of a single T-1 line, including encryption headers and collaborative display for PowerPoint slides or documents. This means that users’ experience also is becoming enriched by add-on technologies that companies like Cisco and partners are developing. Collaborative whiteboard technologies, for example, allow users to share a real time draw-sketch-create capability over the link. Handheld, HD, two-way video, two-way audio, wireless device interoperability, on the other hand, allows applications such as telemaintenance.”

      Other initiatives aimed at saving bandwidth costs include making telepresence into a truly on-demand service. In this sense, Cisco has presented the addition of its Internet Routing In Space (IRIS) to the satellite network. “The ability of IRIS to assign bandwidth dynamically to users when they need it means that rich video services like telepresence will be available without needing to dedicate or pre-provision bandwidth to each user,” says Morris. By cutting bandwidth costs, these developments are expected to make it much easier for corporate and government customers to deploy telepresence via satellite across their networks. 

      The Real World

      There are signs that, while still largely limited to the corporate environment, telepresence via satellite is spreading its reach. Cisco’s telepresence solutions via satellite, for example, are being used within the U.S. Department of Defence as well as other defence ministries around the globe. For example, CommandAccess, a service designed for military and civilian agencies deployed in remote areas of operation by CapRock Communications, enables customers with portable and manpackable terminals to benefit from broadband satellite communications at speeds up to 1 megabit per second.

      Civilian applications, also feature high on the list, as in many cases telepresence is the only means to provide essential services to entire communities. Recently, for example, a contract was awarded from the government of the Canadian province of Nunavet to a system integrator who partnered with Cisco for the deployment of services to 25 remote northern villages. The services included remote-governance, telemedicine and morale benefits.

      An old candidate for telepresence, telemedicine, remains one of the most interesting applications. “Telepresence over satellite was deployed and in daily use in a mobile healthcare vehicle in China, providing remote care and medical support for the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake,” says Morris. Telemedicine’s reach is, of course, global. U.S. charity Medical Missions for Children, an organization focused on providing diagnostic and treatment consultations for critically-ill children in 108 countries around the world, recently received the support of Glowpoint, a provider of advanced video communications solutions, to broadcast medical symposia and educational programs to 300,000 health care institutions worldwide via satellite and Internet technologies. Glowpoint joined forces with MMC Worldwide, a provider of high-quality video production and post-production services for global healthcare and education communities, to deliver a complete turn-key solution for doctors and hospitals.

      The oil and gas industry also is a natural candidate for telepresence via satellite, as it allows companies to extend corporate information technology network and applications to vessels and platforms as well as provide onboard crew morale services. CapRock recently announced a three-year contract with Gulf Offshore to deploy its broadband maritime service, SeaAccess Communications, onboard Gulf Offshore’s fleet operating in the North Sea and along the coast of Africa. Services include managed turnkey service enabling VoIP, Internet access, e-mail service and corporate networking capabilities. 

      Expanding World of Uses

      The future of telepresence also seems bright for the entertainment industry. The appeal is in the possibility of live, HD programming that offers a new level of audience participation and feedback: The emotional connection that gets lost with some technology, such as webcasting or commercial TV, is no longer an issue. “Not only do audience members get the immersive experience of live television, but they have the ability to literally ‘broadcast themselves’ and become a part of the program through live Q&A with the performers as well as audience polling,” says Elias. Velocity Broadcasting also offers an alternative for auction services and estate sales. Live, customized broadcasts eliminate the need to travel and move objects to a centralized auction location, and the HD clarity provides better than in-person view of lots. Bidders are connected through the Velocity Audience Response System and bidding by a worldwide audience takes place instantly.

      If past is prologue, telepresence via satellite certainly has a bright future. “While certainly not boundless, due to the current cost and availability of satellite bandwidth, I believe that we are seeing the leading edge of a technology that will grow in deployment, both as additional innovations for these services add value that we have not yet considered and as satellite bandwidth increases, cost decreases and availability becomes standard,” says Morris.

      The growing availability of Ka-band satellite capacity is set to help this process. Small footprint and antenna size for Ka-band terminal sets and the proliferation of its use as a means of generalized Internet service provision will add to the spread of telepresence applications. According to industry experts, opportunities in this sense abound. “We have met with several companies in the satellite industry that are exploring or engaging in the development of a business model to offer telepresence over satellite as a service offering in and of itself,” says Morris. “I hear discussions of locating this service either in portable vehicles or in-office suites available for multi-hour lease by end customers who have geographically dispersed offices and without rich video collaboration services in their own enterprise networks.”

      Technological innovations also are set to have an impact on the very nature of the services delivered. “We have expanded our technology platform for audience insight, interactivity and engagement into a new suite called Mind Over Matter,” says Elias. “This new business intelligence platform is powered by an array of audience response tools and technology, Mind Over Matter enables Velocity broadcast clients to tap directly into the mindset of the audience while also empowering audiences to question experts live on the air.”

      Decreasing costs, technological advances and enhanced experience — all seem to point to a bright future for telepresence via satellite.

      Giovanni Verlini is a communication executive and freelance journalist based in Europe. Email: giovanniverlini@hotmail.

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