Satellite Finds New Role in IP World

By | June 1, 2011 | Broadcasting, Feature, Telecom

Internet Protocol (IP) is far from perfect, but it has become the central rallying point for global entities, setting in motion the early homogenization of the electronics, telecommunication, electric utility and entertainment industries. The implementation of IP strategies is not new, but aside from a common transmission protocol, what impact will the buildup of IP networks have on the satellite sector?

What makes IP such a game changer is that it has been universally embraced by every facet of industry and provides a congruent pathway to the interconnection of a massive number of disparate devices. The ramifications are significant when you consider the sheer numbers of electric meters, television sets and electric appliances that could conceptually become consumers of telecommunication services. A common network interface and a common transport protocol not only simplifies the collection and dissemination of data, the idea of universal connectivity is changing the way companies do business.

John Ball, vice president of satellite distribution and technology for Turner Broadcasting, highlights an example of the positive effects that IP has had on the distribution of video content. “We recently completed a video distribution ring around our playout center in the United Kingdom. The ring is based on 2.5 gigabit switched Ethernet, and it is a much more robust network design than a hub and spoke architecture. We can now hand-off content to six different transport providers. The IP architecture allows us to grow up to 10 gigabits per second should we need additional bandwidth,” says Ball. “The shift to IP has also improved our network management visibility. We can now actually look into the network beyond our interface, giving us viewing privileges so we can now assess the integrity of the network.”

The network also has provided “some interesting technologies available for contribution links,” says Ball. “Fiber is still very expensive in many countries and has a lot of maturing to do in certain geographic regions. One interesting technology we discovered is the use of secure Internet delivery (IP SEC) to provide backup paths over the Internet for contribution links. There are risks involved, but these links are only used as backups to primary links,” he says.

Ron Mankarious, vice president of sales and marketing for PolarSat, a Montreal-based manufacturer of hub-less, mesh VSAT modems, says. “IP provides a common switching fabric. In the past, satellite equipment manufacturers would have to build one type of interface for voice cards that went into their modems and a different type of interface that went into the data cards. Now everything is Ethernet and all of the applications communicate through a common interface. From an equipment manufacturers’ perspective, this makes everything much simpler and allows us to reduce pricing to our customers,” he says.

Mankarious cites the wireless industry as an example of how IP can transform entire industries. “The mobile environment was built around dedicated circuits with point-to-point connectivity between the Base Transceiver Station (BTS) and Base Station Controller (BSC). Putting in an IP switching fabric allows wireless operators to handle multiple types of traffic, which allows them to drive additional services over the same network and create new revenue streams. An IP-based backhaul solution allows wireless carriers to push intelligence to the edges of the network rather than consolidating in a central site. By doing so, calls can now be routed from cell tower to cell tower via a single hop instead of going back to the central switching site. Not only do you eliminate double hops, creating a better user experience for cell phone users, we can cut the bandwidth a wireless carrier needs by half,” he says.

The advent of IP-capable systems has helped satellite technology become more of a mainstream networking technology, Mankarious says. “It has allowed the satellite equipment to be incorporated as part of the end user’s network since it is the same basic technology that is running in the IT closet.” PolarSat supports two groups of customers: satellite service providers which use their equipment to provide services and end users who integrate PolarSat’s hub-less VSAT system into their existing IP network. “We are finding more customers who are willing to do the integration themselves. The adoption of IP and the ease of use of the equipment are driving this commonality,” he says.

Mankarious feels that satellite technology is becoming accepted by IT organizations for several reasons. “Satellite isn’t seen as exotic now days. IT departments don’t need wires anymore to connect devices and it is only reasonable to ask ‘Why shouldn’t my long haul connection be wireless as well,’” he says.

Service Providers Doing More

Several satellite sector executives note the increasing hybridization of terrestrial and satellite networks and the desire to centrally manage the different elements. “We are increasingly being asked to manage the complete network infrastructure from our Compass Network Management System,” says Wally Martland, president of Newpoint Technologies, a wholly owned subsidiary of Integral Systems. “In the past, we were primarily responsible for management of the satellite hubs and remote site radio frequency equipment. Today, customers are looking for 100 percent network visibility and complete situational awareness. We have enhanced our GUI to accommodate new equipment types such as the microwave and fiber backbones as well as the facility infrastructure such as HVAC, UPS, generators and fuel systems, remote site security systems and more.” As more of the industry move to IP connectivity to meet their needs, Newpoint is being asked to manage additional network components, such as hubs, switches and firewalls as well as computer servers located at remote sites, he says.

“There is no question that networks of all sorts are becoming hybrid,” says Carlos Placido, senior consultant for NSR. “Examples abound, from telcos launching satellite TV platforms and buying wireless last mile providers to cellular networks making use of backhaul and backbone solutions of all sorts to reach end users. Sometimes, a single cell phone call travels over a satellite backhaul link, a terrestrial microwave link and a fiber backbone to reach the other end. Indeed hybrid satellite-wireless optimization may become an interesting development niche. However, satellites tend not to be in the driver’s seat of this move towards hybrids. When it comes to unicast applications, satellites are still perceived as the technology of last resort to reach end users,” he says.

But as more customers embrace hybrid networks, they will seek a single solution they can put in place to manage the entire infrastructure, says Martland. “Network management providers must be able to quickly and easily interface with the SNMP equipment that makes up today’s IP networks. The move to IP-centric networks, along with customer’s requirement to have all their network assets managed by a single solution, makes it imperative that you have a solid and robust SNMP management capability. One thing often overlooked is that scalability now will become a major issue because in the past, for a traditional monitor and control system, you were interfacing into modems and RF equipment that had anywhere from 30 to 500 points associated with the device itself. The number of changes and the size of the database even on large systems was relatively small. When you look at the standard IP equipment, often times you are interfacing with 1,000-plus points for equipment such as hub and routers, and this means your network management system has to be able to scale up to tens of thousands of points and still maintain performance,” he says.

“We see a continued hybridization of terrestrial and satellite networks in the future. This is driving the move to have a single [network management system] capable of managing both and providing a single system for operators to manage across the whole network and not use one system for terrestrial and one for satellite networks,” Martland says. “This has also driven demand for operators to be able to have service level views that enable them to track their traffic across both the satellite and terrestrial networks so when there are problems in the network, they can determine which services have been affected and prioritize recovery of these services. Trying to do this bouncing between three or four or more network management systems makes the task difficult, and it delays recovery, which directly affects the quality of service they are able to provide,” he says.


Changing Contribution Links

John Glass, executive vice president of marketing at Nevion points to the benefits that IP networks have brought to contribution links. Nevion provides video solutions to broadcasters and telecommunication carriers. “Although we support any video format over any video network, the basis of our future business is IP-based. It is significant to our future growth,” he says. “IP allows you the flexibility to provide fully managed video delivery services with all of the critical facets, including: service provisioning, scheduling, connection management, analytics and network monitoring. The major telcos and carriers in the United States have been offering switched video delivery services for over 10 years, but those services have just started hitting their growth curve over the last two to three years.”

Placido says IP delivery is becoming the de facto transport protocol. “For the satellite sector in particular, near-term implications are the increasing use of IP across many satellite applications. Examples include the complementary use of satellite TV and IP video converging at the DVR, use of IP transport in optimized cellular backhaul links, the strong erosion of IDR fixed telephony in favor of satellite (and terrestrial) VoIP, use of IP in statistically multiplexed video systems, and enterprise networks’ continuing shift from transparent serial-based networks towards multi-point IP systems,” he says.

The next step for IP transport will be the transition from bent-pipe satellite links. “We see a clear shift with the emergence and globalization of high-throughput satellites (HTS), a sector that was born to address the endless appetite for broadband bandwidth. Most HTS initiatives use bent-pipe architectures but are designed with IP in mind from day one. One recent implication of HTS has been a redefinition of roles of the satellite operator and satellite service provider,” Placido says. “Unlike traditional FSS operators, HTS players do not just provide capacity but IP services. Indeed, HTS players tend to define technology for their ground infrastructure and deploy terrestrial gateways, functions that used to be part of satellite service providers,” he says.

“At the same time, service providers are increasingly agnostic in terms of what technology they use to reach end users, so the long-term picture of the impact of IP on the satellite sector is that services and architectures may be increasingly defined at the satellite core rather than at the edge,” Placido says. “Service providers will tend to rely on wholesale IP services and rebrand/bundle these under a virtual operator model to reach their users. The shift towards IP will possibly encourage evolution of the occasional-use model for video contribution and terrestrial restoration. Also, spot beams’ small coverage characteristics limit demand ‘liquidity,’ so operators will need to find ways to make the most out of existing capacity; perhaps by even exploring auction-based offering of vacant capacity at certain times of the day.”


Impact on Business

The advent of IP has “virtualized” network management, says Placido, allowing operators to run a teleport business virtually without owning one by relying on teleport facilities and housing services offered by major operators. “Additionally, as satellite network management and traffic optimization become more complex, some advanced network management functions may eventually move to the cloud. This could help both service providers and vendors to focus on their core competencies. There is not yet much experience of could computing and the software as a service (SaaS) model in the satellite sector, but there have already been some interesting developments around SaaS replacing software licensing in areas as diverse as satellite bandwidth optimization and digital signage,” he says.

IP also fosters structural changes towards a more efficient supply chain, “a situation that can lead to winner-take-all outcomes in detriment of small players,” Placido says. “IP has been the key driver for the emergence of HTS and structural changes to the satellite business in some parts of the world. But it is worth keeping in mind the ‘creative destruction’ nature of the IP openness, which can destroy traditional thinking and give birth to new business models and companies very quickly. Indeed, I think that the biggest implication that the migration to IP has not just on the satellite sector but on all telecom sectors is that IP networks encourage service disintermediation via all sorts of network effects and virtual services that take control off pipe providers.”


Future Issues, Benefits

The reality is that satellite networks no longer can enjoy security through obscurity. Now that satellite hardware uses the same interfaces and management tools as those found in everyone’s IT closet, that hardware now is more prone to attack. Only the naive believes they are immune. IP has evolved over the years, but the most current protocol release still includes several assumptions, which have been carried forth since the inception of the protocol: devices are attached to wires with unlimited bandwidth, there is low latency, and the transmission of data is error free. While satellite networks handle point number three with ease, points one and two are troublesome, and the sector is not the only one, which has trouble with the first two points. The cellular industry also must deal with finite amounts of bandwidth and latency. Requests for comments to the Internet Engineering Task Force regarding changing the protocol based on link characteristics have failed to gain any traction, at least for the time being. Perhaps, in the future, the satellite and wireless communities will be able to jointly succeed in getting hooks added to IP protocol for non-fiber media and it will truly become a universal protocol.

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