Eutelsat’s announcement in September to implement Carrier ID in video transmissions for the 2012 Olympics could prove to be a key moment in the battle against satellite interference. With satellite operators losing millions of dollars each year due to interference, new initiatives and solutions to counter this growing problem are in high demand.
Satellite interference, whether in the form of a lost TV video transmission, an incomplete credit card authorization or potentially any form of satellite service interruption, continues to occur with increasing frequency. Human error is a major cause of interference, followed closely by poorly performing equipment. “The largest culprit we see is the untrained or undertrained installer or operator,” says Ron Busch, vice president, Network Operations, Intelsat. “With two-degree spacing, it’s becoming more and more prevalent around the world.” In 2008, operators estimated that there were between 14,000 and 15,000 interference events a year, and of those, half were of too short a duration to track. A little more than half of the incidents that could be tracked were VSAT-related and due to installer error or bad equipment. Interference Costs Mount
The satellite operator community, while not providing specific numbers, acknowledges that losses from satellite interference are significant — in the millions annually. Three years ago, one operator stated that for every three satellites in its fleet, it lost $10 million per year.
“Every stage of the value chain of our industry is affected by this problem — not just the operators,” says David Hartshorn, secretary general, Global VSAT Forum (GVF). He notes that operators typically see it first, followed by the satellite operator’s customer and then the end-users, who may seek competing alternatives if they experience degraded quality of service. “We have the competitiveness of our industry on the line if we don’t get this right,” he adds.
While high-profile satellite customers such as network television broadcasters have found ways around interference by using back-up capacity or other fixes, “interference still represents a huge hit for your network in terms of reputation and reliability and the promise we have to our customers,” says Dick Tauber, vice president, Transmission Systems & New Technology, CNN News Group. “Media broadcasters don’t want 100 percent reliability; we want 110 percent reliability. There’s very little patience in this industry on the TV-side for interruption.”
When it comes to escalating satellite interference, Stewart Sanders, senior vice president, Customer Service Delivery, SES, contends that the technology advances and market factors have come together in such a way to create a “Perfect Storm.” These factors include the explosion in the number of VSATs and other satellite services worldwide; the availability of cheaper, more powerful equipment; less emphasis on type approvals for equipment; loss of the PTT-sponsored training and certification; and the industry adoption of two-degree orbital spacing.
“You put all those things together and it’s inevitable that we are going to have a lot more problems than we did 20 or 30 years ago,” says Sanders.
SES and Intelsat, the world’s largest satellite operators, have stepped up, responding in part to a growing chorus of customer concerns by bringing together 19 operators as part of an industry-wide effort to intensify the battle against interference. “If we don’t work on it together, I don’t know if we can ever solve the interference issue,” says Busch.
The companies’ decision to take action and the broader efforts by leading industry groups such as Global VSAT Forum and the Satellite Interference Reduction Group (sIRG), have led to significant milestones in the satellite interference battle. They include a new global industry standard to train and certify installers worldwide, the launch of numerous working groups to develop solutions, such as Carrier ID, and the establishment of the Space Data Association, to enable operators to share satellite position and other critical information.
The Global VSAT Forum leads two of the industry initiatives — installer training and product quality assurance. The forum’s installer training program has already reached about 4,000 installers and certified dozens of examiners, cutting by half the cost of training technicians in developing countries, says Hartshorn.
Hartshorn adds that number is only a “drop in the bucket” compared with the total population he needs to reach, which he estimates to be in the tens of thousands. Both Intelsat and SES have funded hundreds of trainees for their customers, and Arabsat, Hispamar and Star One have begun similar programs in their markets. Hartshorn believes that it is necessary for all installers to eventually be required to complete certification before they are permitted to work on earth station equipment. He adds that the program now is delivered online as well as through formal hands-on skills testing with certified examiners.
In Brazil, all five operators agreed to coordinate installer training in a model approach that GVF hopes to replicate in other regions. “We will do this country or regional market by market worldwide until we get the whole world. It’s not going to happen quickly but it’s going to happen,” he says.