Bandwidth Squeeze Puts Onus on Technology Providers for New Solutions

Bandwidth management has become a key issue for operators and customers alike. The question is just how far can the technology go in improving efficiency, and are we about to reach the limits of what can be done technology-wise?

Maximizing the finite resource of bandwidth and using it efficiently is a key challenge facing end-users, carriers and solutions providers alike.

The scarcity of capacity has become a driving force in the communications business, be it in relation to wireless, copper or fiber optic technologies. Squeezing more information through the same channel without compromising on quality is the ultimate goal of any telecommunications company, as this allows operators to use capacity in increments while keeping cost increases to a minimum.

In wireless communications, the need for companies to optimize bandwidth use has been particularly compelling, as testified by the premium prices commanded by segments of the radio frequency spectrum auctioned the world over. Wireless operators, in fact, are constantly under pressure as bandwidth demand grows to support the popularity of applications such as video and Internet connectivity. Technology innovations that bring efficiency gains are widely seen as the obvious answer to this conundrum.

“All across the wireless industry, not only the satellite industry, we are seeing that increases in demand are driving new technologies as well as new spectrums for commercial use, i.e., white space, re-allocation,” says Michele Scotto, Globecomm’s vice president of network services. “Thus, solution providers will be forced to utilize any and all technologies available to meet their customers’ demands.”

Satellite has long been at the forefront of bandwidth management efforts and the scarcity of satellite capacity has pushed manufacturers to develop new ways to squeeze more bits per kilohertz of radio frequency spectrum.

“In no other telecom sector is bandwidth treated as such a premium resource as it is in the satcoms sector,” says Carlos Placido, senior analyst at Northern Sky Research (NSR). “It is interesting when we read announcements in fiber coding and modulation, using programmable modulation such as BPSK, QPSK and 16QAM, which have been used in satcoms for many years.”

At UltiSat, traditionally we have been dealing with layers three and four of TCP/IP, but the focus now is also on layer seven, the application layer.
­— Michael Pollack, UltiSat

How was such a high-level of efficiency in bandwidth optimization reached? Clearly, technical solutions played, and are still playing, a crucial part in attaining this goal. A key, undeniable breakthrough, for example, was reaching near-perfect spectral efficiency at the “physical layer” — the so-called first layer of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, says Placido. “There are real-world implementations of satellite systems with efficiency within only 0.5 dB of the theoretical limits, the so-called Shannon capacity limit,” he says. “This is primarily driven by use of Low-Density Parity-Check (LDPC) coding in DVB-S2 broadcast/high-speed multi-point applications and in Single Channel Per Carrier (SCPC).”

Experts such as Andrew Lucas, Harris CapRock’s global operations officer, echo Placido’s analysis. “The bit/hertz relationship has become increasingly efficient through the improvement of modulation and coding schemes, along with frequency re-use technologies such as Carrier-in-Carrier and Paired Carrier Multiple Access (PCMA),” says Lucas. “Frequency re-use technologies allow you to receive and transmit on the same frequencies that potentially double the amount of available bandwidth.”

Other solutions allow link availability to be managed dynamically rather than statically configured. This leads to the associated transponder power being released to deliver higher link throughput rather than being held in reserve for rain fade conditions. 

Technology Improvements

Mike DeMarco, Intelsat’s senior vice president of product and asset management, offers an operator’s insight into the issue of bandwidth optimization from the point of view of a carrier.

“Technology improvements such as MPEG-4 encoding, DVB-S2 and higher order modulation schemes (8PSK, 16APSK and 32APSK) have greatly increased the throughput available on a satellite,” he says. “In addition, the Adaptive Coding and Modulation (ACM) technique takes this functionality a step further, allowing a link to be modified, on the fly, based on atmospheric conditions. The wide release and acceptance of this standard, and variations thereof, not only significantly increases spectral efficiencies but is also changing the satellite services model. This happens because point-to-multipoint links no longer need to be designed around worst-case sites.

With ACM, the performance to each individual site in a network can be optimized, thereby eliminating the disadvantaged condition that most sites within existing point-to-multipoint networks of today experience.”

Whatever the technology in question, experts seem to agree that innovation is a defining trait of satellite, as continuous improvements in encoding and modulation engines have become the norm in the industry, says Jose Boveda, senior vice president of engineering at Univision Networks. “For example, the next generation solutions are expected to move from MPEG-4 to High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) standard for encoders.”

While not downplaying the benefits derived from the introduction of new technical solutions in the market, Jack Waters, CEO of XipLink, argues that this issue should be seen from a slightly different point of view. He believes the positive market movements in satcoms have been about how known technologies are packaged and deployed rather than how major compression breakthroughs are achieved.

“Most of the optimization technologies such as TCP acceleration, packet compression, streaming compression, web page caching and data de-duplication (byte caching) are understood by the engineering community,” says Waters. “However, the issue for satcom has been Central Processing Unit (CPU) availability, storage and cost within an indoor unit to run these advanced algorithms.”

In his analysis, VSAT manufacturers have focused on reducing the price of remote terminals, which had a negative effect on CPU availability for features beyond the primary function of radio frequency processing on the WAN side and packet processing on the LAN side of a connection.

“Thus, most of the bandwidth optimization solutions today have required add-on appliances and in most cases this makes economic sense,” says Waters. “On the other hand, end-users desire a single, integrated approach within one box if possible.” 

Offloading Optimization

For modem manufacturers, one solution to the optimization problem is to design add-on computing cards that offload optimization processing from the primary CPU. Datum and Work Microwave recently announced deployments of embedded XipLink optimization into their next-generation modems using add-on processing cards.

“For the longer term, I expect to see higher-end models from the VSAT manufacturers that include enough processing for advanced compression and acceleration,” says Waters.

In other words, technical advances are getting smarter and moving to a different level. Bandwidth management at the data link, networking and transportation layers are only three of the various elements used by companies to efficiently manage their communication needs. There is currently a shift from the provisioning of plain bandwidth in generic pipe systems, to smart bandwidth in application-aware communication links.

“This is enabled by a widening gap between the cost of providing bandwidth versus cost of storage and computing power,” says Placido.

In addition to the traditional bandwidth management techniques such as packet inspection and prioritization, the use of content delivery networks and application-aware optimization and compression technology will also gain prominence in the future. This shift will be enabled by more intelligence being deployed at the edge of the network, according to Placido.

“A scenario of increasing computing power and storage at lower costs prompts the developments of smarter compression and network optimization techniques,” he says. “For non-real time applications, additional efficiencies will be enabled by more powerful computing resources within communication networks. Flexibility is key since the limits tend to be found in trade-offs existing between compression ratio and processing latency.”

Applications are becoming increasingly complex and the satellite industry will need to follow this trend by moving up to higher layers of the OSI network architecture. This is precisely what solution providers such as Ultisat are doing. “At UltiSat, traditionally we have been dealing with layers three and four of TCP/IP, but the focus now is also on layer seven, the application layer,” comments Michael Pollack, UltiSat’s vice president of business development. “That’s where we are going to see a lot of advances in the future.”

Naturally, such a shift of focus is not without consequences. As operators continue to move up the value chain and become engaged in increasingly complex solutions, the traditional, symbiotic relationship between operator and service provider comes under threat. This also has consequences for the types of services users look for.

“The complexity of our solutions also create opportunities to use different systems and technologies, thus longer term commitments for capacity are not as palatable as they once were,” says Scotto.

In his analysis, the first reaction many operators have when facing this scenario is to continue to climb the value chain, which in turn leads them further and further away from their core offering. “In time, operators will find themselves without distributors, thus by definition they become solution providers and faced with the same technological evolutionary challenges service providers are better equipped to handle,” Scotto says.

Some challenges, such as the provision of on-demand services, are going to be incredibly complex to handle, according to Lucas. “An increased demand for clients to access high-speed, ‘on-demand’ services presents a challenge to the satellite industry to offer innovative business models, ensuring such services are affordable,” he says. “Ultimately, the adoption of such models will result in considerable benefits for all involved.”

But, in order to reliably deliver high-speed and on-demand services such as video capabilities, an ability to manage bandwidth at a granular level is required. Knowledge of available capacity is key in understanding what services can be activated on a real-time basis. “To succeed in delivering such type of service, a holistic approach to capacity management across all associated components is required,” says Lucas.

Technology is important, but even more so is the ability to use it efficiently, as the ability to provide cost-effective services extends to how the client network is configured, says Pollack. “Ultimately, the real breakthrough in this area is in operation not in technology. You can have nice tools, but for them to be effective you need to be able to use them well.” 

Continuous Improvement

In recent years, the satellite community has achieved remarkable advances in technology and the deployment of technology. But what does this mean in real-life? To find an answer, Pollack says it is useful to refer to one of the fundamental principles guiding any businesses — service providers should aim to meet their customers’ needs in a cost-effective manner. In the communications business, this translates into clear lines of actions.

“I want to make sure my clients use the least amount of bandwidth,” says Pollack. “We use the best tools out there to provide them with cost-effective solutions.”

Service providers are aiming to enable operators and users to optimize available wireless bandwidth for maximum data throughput at the lowest capital cost. Indeed, numerous breakthroughs in bandwidth efficiency have been achieved in the wired and wireless worlds. As the overall per unit price the market pays continues on a downward trend, the thirst for more and more bandwidth moves more rapidly in the opposite direction.

“I personally think that this is great news for technology companies and bitter sweet news for transport companies, though in the end we will all benefit,” says Scotto. “We continue to see more technologies that deliver more bits for less dollars than the actual bandwidth investment.”

According to Boveda, users see the benefit of such developments. “We added more networks to our offering, delivering more services and satisfying the need of more platforms. Gains in bandwidth efficiency enabled us to grow, and we were able to do so without increasing the number of transponders we leased.”

While continuous bandwidth optimization is an industry trait that benefits users, some say that it could also be a detriment to satellite operators. Bandwidth management essentially allows carriers to improve the bit-per-hertz ratio of the signals they transmit. This inevitably has the effect of reducing the volume of traffic for satellite operators, which in turn could mean diminishing business revenues for them. Carrier companies, however, appear to have a more positive view on the issue, with new applications playing a crucial role in their analysis.

“Rather than reducing demand for bandwidth, the greater demand for content tends to use up the capacity created by technology developments,” says DeMarco. “From a pure bandwidth standpoint, 3-D uses slightly more or the same as HD, so as technology efficiencies create more capacity the higher bandwidth demand of HD and 3-D naturally fill that capacity.”

But what types of future developments can we expect? Ultra HD is said to offer resolution on par with the IMAX cinema and though pundits sometimes describe the format as the next big development in video, DeMarco sees its emergence in the very distant future.

“At this point, we are not looking at Ultra HD as being a significant demand driver to the extent we need to reserve bandwidth for it,” says DeMarco. “There have not been any proven commercial applications for Ultra HD yet, and if it becomes compelling, we will be in a position to accommodate it globally as needed.”

While Ultra HD remains an unknown quantity for now, the satellite industry can expect new bandwidth-hungry applications to emerge in the future. Bandwidth optimization will still be needed, users will get more bits-per-hertz and carriers will grow their businesses.

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