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BTV: The Changing Scene for Corporate Communications

By | November 10, 2000

      by Peter J. Brown

      Business television (BTV) has been around for years, serving as an essential tool for multi-site enterprises. Today, dozens of these networks are in operation, and satellite plays a key role in their ongoing success. Companies prefer a satellite-based solution, since it offers a superb way to deliver the message at hand with unparalleled image quality and reliability.

      Still, the world is changing, and there are multiple ways to patch together a wide area network (WAN). Today, it is not just a matter of selecting between an ISDN-based videoconferencing model and a satellite-based approach. The BTV realm is abandoning models of the past, and looking to new alternatives on the ground and in space for implementing effective communications schemes within the facility, throughout the campus and over the entire WAN.

      Integrated Platforms Emerging

      There are differing opinions about the state of the BTV via satellite market. For example, Rozanne M. Brand, vice president of Washington, DC-based Irwin Communications Inc., reports the BTV over satellite growth curve has leveled off since 1997. Brand indicates that the marketplace for private networks for corporate communications, special events, and employee and customer training is changing.

      “Irwin Communications has found that while occasional space segment usage has decreased, the use of full-time channels has increased. A large portion of private networks today are adding value to satellite delivery by combining it with videostreaming, pre-work on CD/ROM and the Internet, and threaded discussions,” Brand says.

      “Our research shows that the number of BTV networks in the United States grew steadily through the 1990s. In fact, growth in the number of networks was steady, about 20 percent per year, from 1992 to 1997,” Brand adds. “The number of BTV networks reached its peak of 210 at the end of 1997. We find the number in 2000 is reduced to approximately 175.”

      She sees the slowdown in new networks as a by-product of confusion over the direction of telecom technology, along with the “rush to the Internet.” In many cases, mergers and acquisitions have also led to two networks folding into one.

      According to Brand, it is likely that many existing satellite networks will evolve into IP broadband systems for asynchronous communications, on-demand and store and forward applications.

      “These and new satellite IP networks will bypass firewall and last mile problems, and deliver rich media content, significant training, in real and non-real time,” Brand says. “Most, however, feel it is inevitable that the Internet will be improved over the next few years. Until then, many private networks in the United States remain the most proven and most direct link to the field.”

      At Atlanta-based Convergent Media Systems, all systems are a go as far as the BTV market is concerned.

      “We have approximately 70 networks in operation today with another 15 under construction, including the new 35-channel network known as GETN for the U.S. Government. We see no decline in this market,” says Greg Browning, vice president of network solutions at Convergent, who adds that roughly 25 percent of these networks involve full service contracts in terms of content development, content management and distribution.

      With video server costs coming down considerably in the past year, larger enterprise-wide implementations are getting under way.

      “IP and server delivery is coming, but it calls for a complete upgrade of the corporate LAN, and as far as the overall desktop environment is concerned, the quality is not yet where people thought it would be,” says Trevor Davies, Convergent’s vice president of engineering.

      Browning indicates the more IP gets wrapped into the BTV equation, the greater the degree of the client’s sensitivity about confidentiality surrounding the entire scope of the network in question.

      “Even more than before, our clients believe that their networks are a competitive advantage,” Browning says. “At the same time, the capabilities of these networks are expanding enormously.”

      “We are seeing the emergence of integrated platforms which can support multiple applications for live and asynchronous/on-demand content or programming. Thus, the architecture of the network is changing in stride with the acceptance of multimedia delivery of mission-critical information,” says Davies.

      We Have Everything We Need

      Jon Romm, general manager of BT Broadcast Service North America in Washington, DC, sees a robust demand for BTV services, although there is a significant transformation under way. Romm sees the “transitory effect of new technologies” on this market as it adapts quickly to the impact of IP, while at the same time he predicts that a substantial expansion in this sector lies ahead.

      “Using MPEG over IP at a much lower bit rate makes it possible to transmit BTV networks, while still maintaining a quality acceptable to the end user. This will ultimately have a major impact on the BTV market by lowering costs and making these services more widely available,” Romm says.

      Volkswagen’s (VW) IT subsidiary, known as Gedas Inc., oversees VW’s BTV dealer satellite network in North America. VW has tapped 10 percent of a transponder on Galaxy 3R, along with Convergent and the Skyrelay.IP product from Norcross, GA-based Viasat Satellite Networks, in order to reach roughly 1,000 dealerships all across North America. The 800 sites in the United States are fully interactive.

      VW’s portion of the transponder is split into three carriers, two for IP and data, and one for video.

      “When we move to Galaxy 10, we will be closely integrating all the data and video feeds. At the same time, we will be significantly increasing the speed of our existing high- speed IP link, which currently runs at about 0.8 Mbps,” says Mark Failer, VW’s dealer network manager with Gedas in Auburn Hills, MI.

      He describes his network’s goal as providing a cost-effective solution to meet whatever VW needs for essential dealer communications. “This BTV network has become an extremely popular tool in the last six to eight months,” Failer says.

      IP video, however, does not offer the full-motion video quality for the cost that Failer requires. “To get full-motion video over IP, the costs today are astronomical. We do a lot of live training broadcasts using Arel’s technology. The plan is to go to the desktop with browser-based applications, at least at the corporate level. I doubt we will see this soon at the dealership level,” Failer says.

      Loral Skynet’s Telstar 7 is where the BTV-related activities of St.Louis-based Edward Jones and Co. are beamed. Three transponders are used, including two for data and one for a video feed, which reach its network of small stock brokerage offices, approximately 6,500 sites, including roughly 400 in Canada.

      Chief Information Officer Rich Malone indicates that his company has been using its own studio and BTV network since the late 1980s, and that Germantown, MD-based Hughes Network Systems’ Integrated Satellite Business Network (ISBN)–512 kbps carriers–and DirecPC/Enterprise Edition (DPC/EE) technology has played a key role.

      Two DPC/EE 5.9 Mbps outbound broadband carriers–expandable to 23 Mbps–constitute what Malone describes as “super out routes” involving new compression techniques and enhanced bandwidth utilization. These can be used for either branch-specific unicast traffic, including trades and customer information, or multicast quote streams and software distribution.

      Scientific-Atlanta’s (S-A) Powervu system powers this triple-channel BTV network, which provides market updates, sales training and live sessions with CEOs from top companies as guests. Another goal of this BTV network is to ensure that all branch offices in all time zones start their day with the most up-to-date market information.

      “Data runs our business. We process millions of data transactions each day. Video is important to us, but data is the key,” says Malone.

      With its enormous number of offices, the BTV network is constantly under refinement. Malone says the existing two-way data and one-way video network includes an electronic programming guide so any live transmissions and rebroadcasts are easily accessible. BTV viewership can be tracked by computer to determine what channel each branch office is viewing at any given time. Forced tuning to one of the three specific 4.2 MHz video channels is an option. Thus, the entire BTV network can be switched to a channel before a major presentation, with polling of the network possible after the program starts to determine how many offices are tuned to the broadcast.

      Make Toast, Don’t Build Toasters

      Barrie Woolston, managing director of U.K.-based Visage Group, counts almost 40 networks on his company’s roster. Visage Group oversees a number of automotive accounts in particular, including BMW in Great Britain, which has 160 One Touch-equipped receive sites throughout the United Kingdom, and uses S-A’s Powervu encoding technology. Woolston sees the recent commissioning of a pair of business-to-business (B2B) channels for the automotive and leisure industries by U.K.-based BSkyB using that company’s DTH platform as a sign that the BTV sector is open to innovative ideas.

      “The BTV market is not shrinking, it is converging. The availability of a domestic DBS platform in the United Kingdom for BTV purposes is significant. The advantages from both a cost and performance standpoint to this sort of closed-user-group approach are beginning to be more widely recognized. In addition, corporate users are becoming more comfortable with security,” says Woolston, who adds that while local content caching on BTV networks represents the next logical step in BTV, desktop-related BTV activities are just getting under way in Europe.

      At Sun Microsystems Inc. in Dallas, “Sun BTV” has a noticeable off-the-shelf DBS and DTH dimension. Sun uses this consumer-oriented satellite technology throughout the Americas, tapping Englewood, CO-based Echostar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network Business Solutions to reach 200 sites in North America–CT-based Group W Network Services oversees operations and maintenance–and El Segundo, CA-based DirecTV Inc.’s Galaxy Latin America DTH service to reach 15 sites in Latin America.

      “Our philosophy is to use cost-effective off-the-shelf DBS equipment from the start. We want end-to-end TV-quality MPEG 2 as well,” says Arnold Kaber, Sun’s director of Americas sales force training and development. “Our main thrust is communications in a one-to-many environment. We call it consequential interaction. We want to make toast, not build a toaster.”

      There is no DBS service in India, not yet anyway. For Srinivasan Venkatesan, the Iselin, NJ-based senior manager for IT support at Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. (TCS), an Asian software services company, the challenge of operating a 20-site U.S.-based network linked directly to India via fiber and satellite is formidable. In order to maintain essential communications for its multiple software projects and roughly 4,500 TCS employees in the United States, TCS uses a 3 Mbps connection provided by MCI and VSNL consisting of Intelsat satellite capacity and fiber links. In addition, BT provides TCS with a satellite link between the TCS hubs in Iselin and Phoenix.

      “The majority of our links are satellite-based. Some applications cannot handle the latency associated with satellite, so they go by fiber,” says Venkatesan. “For all our major customers, we establish two totally redundant links, and the links we seek must be free of any common points unless it is absolutely unavoidable.”

      Hybrid fiber-satellite (HFS) networking has made TCS a software powerhouse in the selective outsourcing market. Venkatesan indicates that TCS operates these links from the United States to offshore development centers in multiple locations in India in order to better serve TCS’s impressive list of clients, which includes GE, Lucent Technologies, AT&T, Nortel Networks and American Express, to name a few. Venkatesan reveals that a new satellite-based virtual private network (VPN), which will tie together TCS managers in North America with headquarters in Mumbai, India, is going through its final test phase as well.

      Not Just Videoconferencing

      The BTV network executives and managers interviewed here are not just responsible for ensuring the most vital components on the corporate communications menu reach all the far- flung corners of the map, or reach every member of the enterprise. They have to accomplish these tasks while being able to justify this activity at a time when many other telecom options are readily available.

      Fortunately, satellite hardware and service vendors have seen the writing on the wall, and have demonstrated that limited user group access to satellite communications remains a top priority. Sure, competitive pressures are mounting, but the shift from live, or real-time broadcasts to an anticipated greater emphasis on cached, on-demand programming– synchronous to asynchronous–is going to bring change to this marketplace and may further the cause of satellite rather than erode its prominent role.

      To accelerate this transition, the satellite industry will need to adapt and not simply assume the BTV market is running on autopilot. New service packages, and even new and more automated switching capabilities represent just two of the areas where the satellite industry will need to accelerate in order to win new customers, as well as impress old allies.

      Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia Editor. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

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