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Technology Trends: Delivering The Internet Via Satellite

By | October 10, 2000

      By Rob Fernandez

      Few would dispute that the Internet has swept up the satellite industry as it has everything else within its broad reach. While the nature of satellite technology poses a few challenges to those seeking to adapt it to the terrestrially-designed Internet, more and more companies are rolling out innovative solutions for overcoming these obstacles and delivering Internet content as only satellite can.

      Easing Internet In Orbit

      In its continuing quest to compete with terrestrial means of delivering broadband Internet content, the satellite industry has put forth several solutions to the inherent delay of a satellite transmission, a delay that wreaks havoc with traditional TCP/IP protocols.

      One such solution is being put forth by Helius Inc., a company that has worked on speeding the delivery of Internet via satellite for Hughes’ DirecPC platform, and is now directing this same know-how towards a product for the general market. The Helius Optimized Gateway (HOG) is a box that sits at the uplink site and optimizes the transmission stream, reducing latency, to allow a 200 to 400 percent improvement in file download and browsing response times.

      “One of the things we watched is that we didn’t optimize the link at the expense of some of the protocols and services available, such as IP security (IPSec) and virtual private networks (VPN). We’re really firm about being IP-compliant,” says Myron Mosbarger, Helius’ president and CEO. Mosbarger explains that it has been the strategy of some competing solutions to convert the IP stream into a proprietary protocol for transmission over the satellite link, and then re-convert the stream back into IP at the other end and send it on its way. While these proprietary protocols may greatly speed the transmission of the content over the satellite link, some commonly-used, open-protocol services, like IPSec and VPN, cannot make this transition to proprietary protocols and back again. Helius also avoided using any spoofing in designing the HOG, preferring to maintain continuous connections, in fact up to 10,000 simultaneous connections, Mosbarger says.

      Another distinction resulting from Helius’ approach of keeping everything IP-compliant from start to finish is that when using the HOG, only one box is required, at the uplink site, Mosbarger explains. With other solutions, there must be a box at the uplink site to convert the stream to the proprietary protocol, and another box at the receive site to convert the stream back to IP. Since many satellite solutions involve the transmission of content from one point to many points, this can make a big difference.

      “The objective in creating this was to create a device that was based on industry standards and would provide optimal performance for satellite providers so they could get the most out of their bandwidth and still provide all of the services they would like to provide, like IPSec and VPN,” Mosbarger says.

      Helius is targeting this product at any service provider seeking to deliver interactive Internet services with a satellite link. “For streaming data and media, it would essentially have no impact. With streamed IP data only, since you’re just a one-way service primarily, you don’t have any latency once the stream is started,” Mosbarger clarifies. Helius is also looking for another company to market the product, as Mosbarger emphasizes that Helius is an engineering company only. The price point for the product should be $20,000-25,000, he estimates.

      IP Optimization With A Twist

      SSE Telecom Inc. (SSET) is another satellite company re-focusing its emphasis to serve the rising IP wave. The company’s IP3 system is a satellite IP gateway that not only speeds the transmission of IP content over a satellite link, but also incorporates a handful of other useful features as well. The system is composed of an industrial PC platform, complete with Ethernet interface and PCI plug-in modules, paired with an intelligent RF/MW transceiver system for the outdoor unit.

      For the outdoor unit, SSET has partitioned the transceiver into two boxes: an RF unit, which contains all the intelligence; and a power amplifier. “An advantage of doing it this way is that, if you buy a certain power amplifier and tomorrow your needs change, you can just replace the power amplifier,” says Ram Chandran, vice president of engineering and chief technical officer. This separation of the power amplifier from the rest of the RF components results in easier upgrades and less downtime when upgrades occur.

      The IP3’s main task, to accelerate Internet transmissions via satellite, is accomplished with a solution designed by Mentat Inc., which has been incorporated into SSET’s solution. What Mentat’s solution does is intercept the TCP/IP stream, convert it into a proprietary protocol optimized for the unique characteristics of satellite transmission, beam the content over the satellite link, and then convert the stream back into TCP/IP at the other end. This, of course, requires the IP3 system to be present at the downlink end as well.

      In addition to TCP/IP acceleration, the IP3 also comes with simple network management protocol-based software package for remote monitor and control (M&C) of the gateway. This M&C function usually operates over the IP3 satellite link itself, and can be used from anywhere in the world. The system comes with an optional V.90 modem that allows the users to configure the unit via a dial-up modem using the terrestrial phone network. In addition, this feature permits the customers to configure the system before establishing the link.

      The last major feature of the IP3 system concerns bandwidth aggregation. Simply put, the IP3 system is capable of combining the multiple segments of bandwidth into one large segment, even if the component segments are not contiguous, or even on the same transponder. Thus, a user who wants to expand the bandwidth of his/her application does not have to worry about whether the satellite provider has available bandwidth on either end of the existing allocation, or contend with complicated relocations of other satellite users if neighboring bandwidth is not open. The user can simply acquire bandwidth wherever it is available, and the IP3 system will combine it seamlessly with the existing capacity.

      SSET is targeting this product towards the ISP market and small to medium enterprises. The product has been undergoing beta testing with strategic customers over the past year, and initial shipments are imminent.

      Encryption, IP Style

      Although Logic Innovations has been offering its IP Encapsulator (IPE) since 1998, the company has recently added two new enhancements. The IPE is a rack-mounted unit that provides broadcasters the ability to encapsulate IP data into the industry standard MPEG format for a variety of data broadcasting applications. The first enhancement, IP-level encryption, was developed in cooperation with Broadlogic. The two companies have been working on developing this enhancement since 1999.

      According to Frank Creede, president and CEO of Logic Innovations, IP-level encryption has been eagerly awaited by the ISP community for some time now. The standard in encryption for satellite users up to this point has been PID (packet identification)-based. PID encryption is ideal for audio and video content, but is poorly suited for IP content, as it is very costly and limited in scope. Creede explains that PID encryption has a theoretical limitation of 8,000 PIDs, with one video, audio or data stream per PID. While 8,000 may seem like a very large number for a DTH broadcaster, it is a very limiting number for IP services. Also, PID encryption is costly both in terms of equipment and bandwidth, as the encrypted stream requires greater space than an unencrypted stream.

      While IP-level encryption is not as secure as PID, Creede argues that IP applications do not have the need for such extensive encryption, and IP-level encryption provides security equal to what is commonly found in terrestrial IP networks. In addition, as stated before, IP-level encryption does not impose data overhead in the broadcast data stream.

      Broadlogic’s president and CEO, Toby Farrand, also points out that with IP-level encryption, the user can opt to employ any of the multiple encryption methods that the system supports, and change them with a simple software update.

      The other upgrade Logic Innovations has incorporated into the IPE is software-based as well. The product now offers remote dynamic configuration, essentially allowing users to configure the unit remotely, and write their own programs to control the IPE with much greater facility and speed than with manual configuration. Creede asserts that this is a necessary feature for applications such as ISPs that require dynamic configurations, because Web surfers are frequently dialing in and hanging up. In this application a route must be configured in the IPE to handle the IP data packets requested. When the Web surfer disconnects, the route must be removed.

      Air Mail

      One interesting application that has recently been put forward by Globalstar, Qualcomm and the In-Flight Network (IFN) concerns the delivery of broadband Internet and e-mail to passengers on commercial aircraft. IFN is a joint venture of News Corp. and Rockwell Collins, and will market and provide the service to airlines. Globalstar will provide the return-link satellite capacity, and Qualcomm is working on the CDMA technology used in the service, including an upgrade to allow greater throughput.

      “From your seat in an aircraft, basically you will be able to plug in your PC and work on the Internet, or even within your company Intranet, as if you were plugged into a home DSL line,” says Mac Jeffery, a spokesman for Globalstar.

      Globalstar’s role will be to provide connectivity between the aircraft and the ground, at data speeds of 200 kbps. According to Jeffery, the addition of Qualcomm’s HDR technology in 2001-2002 will take the data speeds up to 800 kbps.

      The service offerings will be delivered via a combination of geostationary and low earth orbit (LEO) technology. Broadband Internet data and entertainment will be transmitted directly to the aircraft via geostationary satellites, and the return link will travel via the Globalstar LEO constellation. The Globalstar system will also be used independent of the geostationary satellites for e-mail delivery and other two-way applications.

      “One of the important things that Globalstar brings to the table for IFN is the antenna,” says Jeffery. He explains that today’s larger geostationary antennas would create issues concerning drag and aerodynamics.

      The technology was tested in an actual flight in June. The service will be available to airlines for installation in their fleets in late 2001. Jeffery admits that deployment will take time and proceed on a rotational basis, as airline operators will be reluctant to remove large segments of their fleet from service in order to install the technology.

      New Breakthroughs Every Day

      With the seemingly limitless promise of the Internet, new applications and technologies are being created every day. Since no article could hope to provide a comprehensive listing of every application available, this article simply presents a few samples of some recent accomplishments. Readers can look forward to reading about a host of new technologies and solutions in the coming issues of Via Satellite.

      Rob Fernandez is Via Satellite’s Senior Editor.

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