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Cover Story: Data broadcasting: Pushing Boundaries

By | October 1, 2002

      By James Careless

      Data broadcasting via satellite: whether one-way or two-way, this application continues to push back the boundaries. That is because, in today’s digital world, everything is data: whether it be voice, video or just plain old numbers.

      As a result, there are lots of exciting things happening in the data broadcasting world, right down to the integration of satellite and terrestrial to provide complete data broadcasting solutions. Here is a look at what some of the top providers in the world are accomplishing in the field of data broadcasting.

      Forecasting The Weather

      In terms of natural disasters, 1998 was a very bad year for Turkey. On May 21, torrential rains caused a major flood in the country’s western Black Sea region, plus hundreds of landslides on that day and weeks afterwards. Then, on June 27, an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale shook the provinces of Adana, Mersin, Nigde and Kayeri, killing 144 people and injuring 1,000.

      The damage and suffering caused by these natural disasters required serious action. With the help of a $369 million loan from the World Bank, the Turkish government responded by launching TEFER: the Turkey Emergency Flood and Earthquake Recovery Project. Its goal is not just to reconstruct the damage caused by the 1998 disasters, but to also set up early warning systems so that the Turkish people can be forewarned in time.

      As part of this effort, TEFER is installing a 356-site VSAT communications network throughout Turkey, using equipment made and supplied by Gilat Satellite Networks. Built for Turkey’s General Directorate of State Meteorological Works (DMI) and the Directorate of State Hydrological Works (DSI), the TEFER network will help monitor weather conditions nationwide. In particular, the Gilat Skystar Advantage VSAT network will improve communications between Turkey’s weather radar systems, its Automated Weather Observations Systems (unmanned stations that automatically record weather conditions, and then transmit the readings back to the DMI and DSI), hydrological measuring stations (which keep an eye on rainfall and water levels in lakes and rivers) and airport weather stations. It includes two central satellite hubs–one each for DMI and DSI–plus VSAT earth stations across the country.

      So why did TEFER choose Gilat? “Given the critical nature of weather and water data to the safety of our population, it is our responsibility to make sure our systems are driven by the most reliable, high-performance technology available,” says Halil Kutahya, deputy director general of DMI. “That’s why we are upgrading our communications platform to Gilat’s VSAT solution. Gilat’s technology, combined with its service, gives us the confidence we need to keep our people and agencies well informed.”

      Not surprisingly, this vote of confidence says good things about VSAT data communications in general. “The selection of our technology by these important government agencies demonstrates that VSAT technology is ideally suited to power the most vital information systems,” notes Erez Antebi, Gilat’s general manager for Asia, Africa and the Pacific Rim. “It is gratifying to know that our systems will help the Turkish people prepare for any type of natural disaster.”

      Creating Solutions For Customers

      Even before it founded the Internet communications provider Netsat Express in 1995, Globecomm Systems was an experienced data broadcaster. Today, thanks to Netsat, Globecomm knows this end of the satellite market very well.

      Among its current data broadcasting clients is the Kingdom of Tonga (the home of Tongasat). As a subcontractor to Shoreline Communications (the country’s first competitive telecom carrier), Globecomm has won contracts totalling $11.6 million to deliver data, Internet, entertainment, video, voice and wireless services to the 45 South Pacific islands that make up the nation.

      In a nutshell, Globecomm’s job is to help bring competitive telecommunications–not just data–to Tonga. As far as company Chairman and CEO David Hershberg is concerned, playing such a pivotal role fits neatly into Globecomm’s long-term plans.

      “This is a very important contract for us because it utilizes many of the capabilities that the company has been developing throughout the past four years, and furthers our position as an end-to-end telecom solutions provider,” Hershberg says.

      When it comes to data broadcasting, Globecomm does not restrict itself to satellites alone, adds Gary Gomes, the company’s vice president of business development. “Adding a satellite overlay to a fiber optic network makes a lot of sense,” he says. “As well, when it comes to creating solutions for customers like Home Depot–for whom we support 1,300 distance learning sites across North America–terrestrial is a big help in providing cost-effective return path connections.”

      Boosting Troop Moral Overseas

      The name International Datacasting Corp. (IDC) says it all: this Ottawa, Canada-based company is focused on data broadcasting via satellite.

      The digitization of satellites, however, has transformed everything into data. This is why IDC now plays a pivotal role in boosting the morale of Canadian troops overseas. The reason? IDC’s SuperFlex DVB hub in Ottawa digitally encodes and uplinks Canadian Forces Radio and Television (CFRT) for distribution worldwide. Whether in Afghanistan, Bosnia, or other hot spots where Canadians are on duty, CFRT provides them with one English TV channel, one French TV channel and several FM stations via satellite.

      The result is that “Hockey Night in Canada”–long a Canadian TV favorite–now doubles as “Hockey Night in Bosnia,” thanks to IDC’s data broadcasting equipment. For Canadian soldiers, who have never enjoyed the sort of services offered by the U.S. Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, the change is utterly dramatic. For the first time, being away from home does not mean being cut off from what is happening there.

      Not surprisingly, CFRT is getting rave reviews from the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency (CFPSA), the government body responsible for keeping Canadian Forces happy. “This service is great for the morale of our troops overseas,” says Randy Helgason, the CFPSA’s director of personnel support program resources. “It allows them to access Canadian content–news, entertainment, sports and other programming–direct from Canada via satellite. This means they can listen to their hometown radio stations and follow the hockey playoffs. The service also provides the troops with Canadian coverage of breaking news, such as the significant events that have taken place throughout the past year.”

      Beyond CFRT, IDC has also supplied SuperFlex DVB/IP uplinks for the Reuters’ financial news network. In fact, IDC’s equipment is the basis of Reuters’ uplinks in New York, London and Geneva. The company also has provided more than 1,100 data broadcasting receivers to Reuters, including equipping the news agency’s entire Latin American network.

      The bottom line is that data broadcasting is a strong, ever-growing market. Moreover, IDC is seeing “a transition in this market, moving from the ‘early adopters phase’ into an era of more standardized solutions,” says Diana Cantu, IDC’s director of marketing communications. “As a result, what used to take months to install and configure can now be up and running in a matter of hours.”

      Linking Banks, Businesses And Lotteries

      Intelsat seems to be taking its evolution from government body to commercial services provider in stride, at least when it comes to data broadcasting.

      A case in point: the World Bank has hired Intelsat to provide VSAT connections between the World Bank’s Washington, DC, headquarters and World Bank offices in 64 countries worldwide. Using the Intelsat 901 satellite at 342 degrees E, the World Bank now has solid data and voice connections throughout the globe. In addition, the financial giant is saving money on travel, by staging nearly 700 videoconferences a month.

      Meanwhile, Intelsat has teamed with Gilat Satellite Networks to support Afripa Telecom. Their goal: to create a satellite telecommunications backbone for western Africa’s financial institutions, which operate in an environment of poor to non-existent terrestrial networks. Their solution: to marry Gilat’s Skystar Advantage VSAT terminals with Intelsat’s global C-band satellite coverage to deliver an integrated mesh/star hybrid VSAT network to 200 earth stations across western Africa.

      Today, in an area where basic terrestrial telephone services are limited at best, and unavailable at worst, the Intelsat/Gilat combination is providing Afripa Telecom clients with voice, e-mail, Internet access, file transfers and even ATM access for their customers. “I value the reliability of Intelsat’s and Gilat’s VSAT network and the excellent post-sales service provided by them,” says Afripa Telecom President Louis Diakite. “We’ve been extremely satisfied with their regional coverage and technical assistance with other networks in the past.”

      Intelsat and Gilat are also working together in Argentina. In this instance, the client is Sevicios Para el Transporte de Informacion S.A. (SPTI), a telecom solutions provider based in Buenos Aires. SPTI’s task is to provide the necessary communications links for most of Argentina’s state lotteries. Every month, these lotteries generate $100 million in revenues, both through daily drawings, and twice-weekly “Big Game” drawings.

      To keep the lotteries on air and on track, Intelsat and Gilat jointly supplied and supported 5,000 VSAT sites in Argentina. Using Gilat Skystar Advantage earth stations and Intelsat Ku-band coverage, SPTI can now transport up to 7,000 lottery transactions a minute, with headroom to handle more.

      “Intelsat and Gilat offered a simple and ubiquitous solution that they implemented very quickly to meet the goals set for the state lotteries,” says Gonzalo Llanos, SPTI’s director of operations. “We have been very impressed by their engineering support. Their around-the-clock customer care has given us complete peace of mind.”

      Getting The News To The Street

      International newspapers like USA Today live and die by data. Small wonder: with printing plants in London, Frankfurt, Brussels, Milan and Hong Kong, the only way for USA Today to get its fully-formatted editions on the street in time is to send all the layout data by satellite.

      This is where Loral Cyberstar comes in. Every printing day, USA Today uses Cyberstar’s Digital Link satellite service to send layout data worldwide. Uplinked from Cyberstar’s hub in Virginia, USA Today’s signals travel at speeds of up to 45 Mbps to VSAT antennas located at each printing site. Thanks to its design, Digital Link provides USA Today with 99.5 percent or better network availability, with no delays due to inadequate terrestrial networks.

      “Reliability is our number one priority, and Cyberstar’s Digital Link service gives us that,” says Steve Terrillion, USA Today’s prepress operations director. “When using terrestrial lines, we’ve had downtime and data transfer rates that slowed to the point where it was just impossible to meet our press deadlines, an untenable situation for printing a daily newspaper. These data links are mission critical, and we cannot rely on an unreliable terrestrial infrastructure. Our responsibilities to our readers and to our advertisers demand that we have a dependable and secure solution.”

      Not surprisingly, Loral Cyberstar COO and President of Enterprise Services Pat Brant is pleased by USA Today’s endorsement of data broadcasting. Even better, USA Today renewed its contract with Loral Cyberstar late last year. “There’s no better validation of a company’s performance than having repeat customers,” says Brant.

      Not Just For Numbers Any More

      As the examples above prove, data broadcasting isn’t just about numbers these days. In fact, it is about everything satellite transmission has to offer.

      The reason is digital: once video, audio, or anything else has been reduced to bits and bytes, it is technically data. In fact, the day will come when all satellite transmissions will consist of data and nothing else, simply because they will all be digital.

      As a result, the architecture and demands of data will increasingly define satellite broadcasting in years to come. In fact, eventually the two will be synonymous.

      James Careless is a contributing writer to Via Satellite.

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