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Cover Story: Internet over satellite: Plenty Of Wild Cards In The Deck

By | June 1, 2002

      By Peter J. Brown

      When it comes to delivering Internet-based content and providing high-speed IP data services over satellite, the satellite industry’s radars are sweeping the sky, searching for the bright spots. There are, however, several unknown blips to watch for on the Internet over satellite screen.

      Consider the sudden unwinding of Global Crossing on the heels of the Enron debacle as one. While this enormous bankruptcy has not paralyzed the fiber sector, the financial performance, or lack thereof, of many other Internet-driven fiber network operators, including Williams Communications, Teleglobe, Level 3 and Metromedia Fiber Network, has been called into question. The fiber sector appears to be going through what several satellite ventures have already experienced in the form of embarking upon a broad restructuring across the board.

      Are corporate customers rediscovering satellite in the process?

      “In the aftermath of the collapse of Global Crossing and uncertainty about the future of other broadband players, the satellite industry appears to be emerging in a more favorable light,” says Washington, DC-based satellite industry consultant Susan Irwin. “If you were a corporate decisionmaker overseeing a global network, where would you be committing your telecom dollars and directing your mission critical IP and data traffic?

      “It is an unusual twist and an unusual role reversal, to say the least. Satellite is rebounding and enjoying its status as perhaps the more reliable player in a marketplace where global connectivity counts,” she adds.

      Lots of satellite companies appear to be exploring new strategies and partnerships. This is part of a gradual process that reflects the realities of the marketplace, combined with the relentless drive of all the players in question at the same time.

      The recent partnering of SES Global, Gilat Satellite Networks, and Alcatel Space/Skybridge, and the teaming up of Hughes Network Systems (HNS), HP, and Inktomi, fall into this category. Loral Cyberstar is going ahead with Equinix Inc. using Equinix’s neutral Internet Business Exchange (IBX) centers in the United States. These are all good examples of this aggressive partnering across the board.

      As for smaller companies that are not simply biding their time and awaiting a market turnaround, consider the MPEG-4 over satellite activities undertaken by Santa Clara, CA- based iVAST using the Clearstar Satellite Network, as well as the recent launch of Tachyon Inc.’s Mobile Network Access solution.

      “I am expecting a Small office Home office (SoHo)/Small to Medium-Sized Enterprise (SME) concentration as companies flee the consumer sector,” says Kay Guyer, president of Los Angeles-based Mentat. “We are seeing surprising growth in international sales, including a lot of new ISPs. Because of our inherent flexibility, we do not care what underlying technology gets used. All we know is that you cannot run a global company today without total connectivity.”

      “There are a lot of interesting concepts and ideas out there, but in today’s Internet over satellite market, you better demonstrate that the new product in question offers a clear benefit, or else,” says Myron Mosbarger, president and CEO of Helius Inc. in Lindon, UT.

      Gone are the ambitious plans for Astrolink, Skybridge and Teledesic, the latter of which persists, but with a vastly decreased number of satellites. In April, Softnet Systems folded its operating subsidiary, Intelligent Communications Inc. a.k.a. Intellicom. The roster of companies that have scaled back their plans considerably is extensive.

      “Everybody is retreating back to the core as part of what I see as a far reaching industry rationalization. For Norsat, this means focusing on microwave products for high-speed data communications and open standards networking,” says Mark Ahrens-Townsend, president and CEO of Norsat International Inc. in Burnaby, British Columbia.

      “The demand in the market for consumer satellite broadband services today, for example, is nowhere near the point it was projected to be three years ago,” he adds.

      Then, there are the hard times surrounding a number of satellite-based content delivery networks (CDNs). This trend has been well documented. Many satellite-based CDNs in North America and Europe such as Cidera, Orblynx, Edgix and iBeam have suffered major blows, while others are going strong, including satellite-based players like Pathfire and Microspace.

      “From our perspective, CDN implies the movement of IP content to the edge of Internet. This left the last mile/first mile issues up to the end user. We never pursued that environment out to the ISP. We stayed focused on the delivery of our clients’ content to specific remote sites, not to an intermediary,” says Joe Amor, vice president and general manager at Microspace Communications Corp. in Raleigh, NC.

      “Many prospective clients are still struggling with all the jargon. We serve business applications. If it happens to be corporate IP content over satellite, so be it. It may look like your typical Internet content, but it is different, and it is intended for a specific audience at a specified destination,” Amor says.

      Will Uncle Sam Be A Factor?

      On top of the mounting concerns surrounding the financial viability of the fiber sector, another wild card involves the networking priorities of the U.S. federal government, which may be spending a considerable sum in the coming months for updated civilian and military communications systems.

      Exactly how much money will be dedicated to advanced voice and data satellite communications for emergency response purposes, as well as to augment such things as the recently announced Smart Border Action Plan is unclear. Still, companies like Raytheon, with its new satellite-equipped mobile command post, and Norsat, with its standalone suitcase-sized PicoTerminal solution, are standing by. EMS Technologies Inc. is supplying PDT-100 packet data satellite terminals to be used on U.S. military support vehicles as part of a multi- year contract calling for 1200 units per year.

      “As far as military projects are concerned, we are seeing a burst in field deployments and a huge amount of interest in our SkyX gateway and client server solutions in the last six months,” says Guyer. “Previously, our primary contact with the military revolved around long duration experimental projects.”

      The unresolved issue of the U.S. military satellite bandwidth gap constitutes yet another unknown. In the late 1990s, a stronger emphasis on the synchronization and coordination of civilian/military satellite activities in general began to emerge. The U.S. military subsequently assumed it would benefit from the strong growth experienced by the commercial satellite sector. However, when that steep growth curve failed to materialize and suddenly started to flatten out, the U.S. military was jolted, if not blindsided altogether.

      The Right Support Tools

      “We will continue to leverage satellite’s advantage in multicast distribution. It is the common thread that runs through everything we do,” says Mosbarger. “Our customers want integration, and they are open to a two-way solution using a variety of return channels.”

      Helius has focused on adapting and refining its core router technology for BTV and interactive distance learning applications. It is moving forward by, among other things, recently acquiring 2NetFX with its Streamrider streaming media server.

      “We are moving most of the Streamrider server products to Linux, and we are putting the streaming element right on the router. The key piece is to have the streaming client and server code work together to control bandwidth on the network,” says Mosbarger. “Our emphasis is on a simple, common device to enable the user to either access live streams or to playback compressed content whenever it is convenient. We even provide our own graphical user interface (GUI) for management and configuration.”

      For Helius, the efficient movement of rich media downstream via satellite tends to be a push-oriented endeavor that is well served by a solution that encompasses streaming video and pre-cached content united in a neat browser-based presentation. In addition, by using a Helius ENDcapsulator, inbound DVB feeds are able to arrive at the Helius Satellite Router-equipped remote site in their native format. The entire IP multicast conversion process takes place at the entry point to the remote LAN in question.

      “Our ENDcapsulator is simply an additional module loaded on the base router,” says Mosbarger. “While we have always stressed IP compliance and absolute reliability, we want to provide the right support tools to IT managers as well. This involves a non-proprietary, browser-based approach using SNMP-based (Simple Network Management Protocol) remote management.”

      Modest Expectations Matter

      Any talk of the collapse of mania and Internet hype has to be balanced by some degree of consideration for the status of the underlying infrastructure, and where its strengths and weaknesses lie. At the privatized Intelsat, headquartered in Bermuda, engaging in creative risk aversion is not the name of the game. After all, Intelsat is not your typical video-driven FSS provider. Voice and data with IP make up the lion’s share of the business.

      The Internet services arena is still a high growth area in many parts of the world, and by taking small, conservative steps, Intelsat ensures that the revenue streams will keep coming and coming.

      “We are offering simple modular productized services for customers like Tier 2 and Tier 3 ISPs, including IP exchange and connections,” says Kevin Mulloy, Intelsat’s senior vice president for strategy and business development.

      “Major PTTs with under-utilized infrastructure are making it available to us at very reasonable rates. As part of this plug and play augmentation, we recently acquired teleports in Maryland, Hawaii and Germany from DeutscheTelekom (DT) and Lockheed Martin. We also acquired Points of Presence (POPs) at 60 Hudson Street in New York City and at Telehouse London,” he adds. “Our emphasis is on inland points where medium and thin route fiber is scarce or absent altogether. We are still seeing strong growth in these areas.”

      The Consumer Market

      The sobering effects of the telecom slowdown that hit full stride in 2000 have not diverted several companies from pursuing what has been an elusive objective to date. Creating a sustainable Internet via satellite platform for the consumer market is proving to be a challenging undertaking, to say the least.

      There is no question that thousands of satellite customers have signed on since the mid-1990s, when HNS opened the door by launching DirecPC, which uses a phone line return path. Today, SES Astra, HNS, Starband Communications, Tachyon and other companies are offering two-way services in the United States and Europe.

      Despite all the enthusiasm, the jury is still out, even with the work now completed on the DVB/RCS (Digital Video Broadcast/Return Channel over Satellite) standard. Proponents of DVB/RCS see it as a breakthrough, while its critics say it is not ready for primetime, it is an expensive proposition to work with, and it needs to be refined. The search for “DVB/RCS Lite,” for lack of a better name, is underway.

      “There is only the beginning of a commercially deployed RCS system in the world. SES Astra is leading the charge, and we want to see the model succeed,” says Ahrens-Townsend. “While the industry works on enhancing the technology and reducing overall costs, the commercial broadband market will present the best opportunity for RCS.”

      In April, Norsat completed a shipment of its first thousand hybrid Ka-band/Ku-band Outdoor Units (ODUs) to SES Astra’s Broadband Interactive System (BBI) via Montreal-based EMS Technologies Inc.

      “We were not big on a return channel via Ka-band, and we are a little skeptical about a return channel via Ku-band, too,” says Mosbarger. “The market seems a bit undefined, and there are a lot of limitations that you have to deal with.”

      SES Global is attacking the Internet via satellite market from a number of different angles. With its BBI banner flying high, many readers might assume that SES Astra is placing all its bets on a two-way satellite solution alone. But according to Robert Feierbach, business director for SES Astra’s broadband interactive group, another opportunity for success lies in an innovative combination of satellite and terrestrial links for one-way services.

      “Deutsche Telekom is absolutely taken by the T-DSL via Satellite solution we developed jointly as a pure overlay. The key is not sending everything via satellite, but retuning what we are providing on each available link, through policy-based routing,” says Feierbach.

      The T-DSL via Satellite customer pays 199 DM (U.S.$100) for a Ku-band satellite dish and a one-way DVB card, and $20 Euros (U.S.$18) per month for a basic satellite (overlay) service, including 768 kbps downloads. DT sells the service and provides the installations and billing.

      “It is a win-win. They got the deal done on a wholesale level without making any adjustments to their network, while we are allowed to go further into services. We are not just a wholesaler of capacity here,” says Feierbach. DT wanted a plug and play scenario, in which the satellite installer just runs a second cable to the PC. They also wanted something that launches automatically with simple end-user software.

      With the announcement in April that SES Global, Gilat Satellite Networks, Alcatel Space–through its Skybridge subsidiary–are creating a joint venture focusing on two-way satellite broadband communications services for consumers, as well as enterprises and SoHos in Europe, the BBI story becomes a bit more complicated.

      Whereas Norsat, EMS Technologies and Raytheon have done much of the early developmental work on the so-called BBI Satellite Interactive Terminal (SIT), under this new joint venture the responsibility for continued development and enhancement of the BBI technology now shifts to Alcatel Space, which will also take the reins for the continuing evolution of the DVB/RCS subsystems, among other things.

      KA-Band Internet Over Satellite Inches Along

      The expansion of two-way Internet over satellite services from Ku-band to Ka-band could be happening sooner than you may realize. After all, Hughes Spaceway is scheduled to roll out in 2003.

      “Spaceway happens to be a strategic technology platform. It will expand the capabilities of the services Direcway can deliver, and it will enable us to offer full mesh connectivity, among other things. This opens the door to peer to peer networking and a wide range of other services,” says Arunas Slekys, vice president of corporate marketing at HNS.

      “Otherwise, all our efforts today are concentrated on migrating all of our enterprise VSAT platforms, including our TES VSAT, to Direcway, which delivers more bits using less capacity. Low bit rate VSAT is simply not a market any longer,” he adds.

      While the launch of Ka-band services is definitely underway, it is proceeding at a snail’s pace. As noted earlier, the establishment of the DVB/RCS standard is entering a critical phase. Yes, it is complete, but adoption is spotty and proponents are already focused on making refinements to the existing standard.

      While Europe awaits the launch of SES Global’s second Ku-/Ka-band satellite, Astra 1K, the schedule for the launch of North American Ka-band services had to be eased back with the slowing down of the planned launch of CO-based Wildblue Communications. Still, in addition to Spaceway, Telesat Canada is intent on proceeding with the launch of its first Ka- band payload next year as well.

      “Anik F2 will be completed by early next year with testing and integration carrying on into 2003. Launch is scheduled for June of 2003,” says Paul Bush, Telesat Canada’s vice president of corporate development. “Wildblue has been licensed to use the U.S. capacity on Anik F2. We have been actively working with them to assist where we can. We are convinced that Ka-band multimedia will be a viable service in North America, and we plan to be providing services in this market.”

      With the growing demand for bandwidth for two-way interactive services, Telesat has focused on developing a range of services and applications. It has been in the trial and development stage, according to Bush, leading toward lower cost terminals for consumers and enterprises.

      “We have been very supportive of the Wildblue model for the roll-out of high-speed satellite services in North America, and we have worked with a number of hardware suppliers,” Bush says. “As with any new service development there will be some bumps in the road as we proceed, but we have attempted to take a gradual approach with these new satellite services and we believe this will serve us well in the new multimedia market.”

      The Bigger Picture

      Looking at the Internet over satellite sector involves far more than inspecting the satellite backbone and its tributaries. Searching for spots on the map where the terrestrial Internet does not or cannot reach is only one of several ways to proceed. Internet over satellite networking must be seen in the context of a seamless interconnection with its terrestrial wired and wireless counterparts, which are evolving quickly as well.

      Dan Stancil, professor of engineering, serves as the director of Carnegie Mellon University’s new Center for Wireless and Broadband Networking. He sees a growing acceptance of the need to look at the entire communications system as a whole. As far as protocols are concerned, TCP/IP will probably maintain its dominant status. Beyond that, there are no guarantees.

      “The network of the future will have to be able to reconfigure itself and be able to adapt and anticipate,” says Stancil. “Here, one theme centers on the search for opportunities for optimization. The seven layers under the Open System Interconnection model are merely building blocks subject to change over time. In addition, we will be looking at different ways to deliver QoS over heterogeneous networks where you factor in the issue of mobility. Satellite will certainly play a role here, although I cannot say at present how this will all unfold.”

      The Internet is more than an immense opportunity, and the satellite industry is keenly aware that the competition on the ground is going to intensify, as such things as large IP file transfer mechanisms and network conditioning and reliability tools undergo further refinement.

      Satellite will continue to thrive in the future because of the technology and the enormous talent pool that drives it.

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

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