Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Satellite broadband delivers news

Tuesday, 10 October 2006
News teams are discovering the benefits of BGAN services to deliver the latest news updates from remote areas in the region. Mike Feazel reports.

Shortly after a massive landslide devastated the village of Guinsaugon in southern Leyte province in the Philippines in February this year, a reporting team from Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) was in the village, broadcasting live
via satellite.
The KBS team was using essentially the same technology that allows yachts in the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, or even passengers on Singapore Airlines, data access or to send streaming media via the Internet. The Korean reporters sent both stored video files and live streaming video back to Seoul via a briefcase-like satellite antenna and transmitter terminal called the BGAN, or Broadband Global Area Network, that altogether weighed well under 3kg.

The briefcase transmitter/receiver could be set up in minutes and be transmitting via the satellites of the International Maritime Satellite Organization (Inmarsat).“In broadcasting, and the media industry, the most important thing is to be able to convey updated news reports to viewers quickly,” said Tony Park, engineering director of South Korea-based Arion Communications Company, which provided the transmitters and satellite time to KBS.Because the site of the landslide would make using heavy newsgathering equipment dangerous, only lightweight systems were allowed.“The field where the incident occurred might be unpredictable and dangerous,” Park explained, “so with heavy equipment, reporters might have difficulty moving promptly and gathering news.”

Inmarsat’s BGAN high-speed satellite data service solves that challenge by packing everything a broadcaster needs into a briefcase-sized package that is several times smaller than the camera and other equipment the reporting team carries anyway.

As the BGAN terminal can handle full-quality voice and Internet data transmissions, it also allowed the KBS team to leave its Iridium satellite telephones behind, thus reducing costs and, as the Iridium phones are nearly as heavy as a BGAN terminal, adding little to the total weight.Size and convenience are the main reasons KBS chose BGAN, Park said. “Because it is ultra portable and has a high-speed data rate. Besides, the price of the equipment is much cheaper, and the service rates are cheaper too.”

For its coverage of the landslide, KBS reporters sent back some video clips to Seoul as digital files that transmitted in slower than real time. The advance transmissions allowed higher-quality video to be received in Seoul, stored and played back during the 9pm newscast.

In addition, the reporter on the scene did a live stand-up, allowing the anchor to ask additional questions and show the responses in real time, though the streaming IP data rate was limited to a somewhat less than satisfactory 128kbps, meaning less than full broadcast quality video.“To be honest, the streaming service was not good,” Park admitted, “and sometimes transmission of data was not always successful.”

But, as has also been the case in news coverage of the Gulf War, many news organisations have found that even reduced-quality video of a very newsworthy event is better than no video at all.“In spite of the problems, KBS is satisfied with BGAN,” Park said. However, a high priority for future generations of the product is to get higher data rates. Park also said KBS would like an Inmarsat earth station closer to Seoul, allowing cheaper and more stable connections.

BGAN can be used via a variety of terminals from manufactures such as Hughes, Thrane & Thrane, Nera and Addvalue. The Nera terminal, for example, weighs less than 1kg, though its data rate is only 64kbps. One Hughes terminal handle up to 256kbps, and all have Ethernet and USB connectivity, and some offer Bluetooth.

Inmarsat BGAN satellite coverage is available throughout Asia, with the exception of the northern part of Japan, and extends through about half of Australia, as well as all of Europe and Africa, and most of the Americas. Inmarsat claims it reaches more than 85% of Earth’s landmasses.Customers can either pay per megabit for best-effort service or by the minute for reserved on-demand capacity at a guaranteed data rate.BGAN service was also used by rescuers in the aftermath of the Java earthquake in May this year.

France-based Telecom Sans Frontieres flew in teams equipped with BGAN to help aid agencies help thousands of victims.A similar satellite-delivered broadband Internet service is now available to yachts in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean via Intelsat. Integrated services provider Station 53 uses Intelsat transponders on the IS-905 satellite at 335.5°East to deliver voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) telephony, as well as data transfers and Internet connectivity through Intelsat’s GlobalConnexSM-managed network.Station 53 said the result is higher than DSL speed for connections, primarily to luxury yachts.

The speeds support streaming video both upstream and downstream, it said. “Our customers demand always-on connectivity, whether for work, recreational or safety rea- sons,” said Station 53 president Sean Farrell.Such mobile high-speed satellite broadband services, however, have not been a universal success. Citing high costs and relatively low revenue, commercial aircraft maker Boeing recently decided to pull the plug on its Connexion by Boeing high-speed satellite service to commercial airlines.Boeing officials said the market did not materialise “as expected” since the service was launched.

Boeing Chairman Jim McNerney said Boeing will write off about US$320 million of the money it invested in Connexion, but an internal evaluation determined that that was best for the company. Boeing talked with several potential buyers for Connexion, but did not receive any offers that were better than a simple shutdown, officials said.Not everyone agreed with that decision.

Harry Harteveldt, an analyst with Forrester Research, speculated that Connexion might just be “an idea that is ahead of its time”. He speculated that with time, and the right pricing, a service like Connexion could be a big success in the long term. Consultant Tim Farrar predicted in-flight communications could generate $300 million revenue annually.Part of the problem, some experts said, was that Boeing contracted for too much transponder space aboard satellites operated by Intelsat, SES Americom, Eutelsat, AsiaSat and others, including a 20-transponder SES lease just for trans-Pacific coverage.

But other inflight satellite or cellular communications services continue offering much the same thing to customers, including some operated by AirCell, OnAir and Jet Blue.

Thailand-based Shin Satellite’s broadband satellite business has also been struggling. For the fiscal quarter ended June 30 this year, Shin Satellite lost nearly $1 million, and revenue slipped 10% to $40 million. Most of the decline was in its IPStar satellite broadband business, where revenue fell to $5.7 million from $14.2 million a year ago. Shin officials, however, said they believed the downturn was a minor blip, and that future quarters would show renewed growth.Even Inmarsat had a downturn in its most recent quarter, though sales of its broadband service to the aeronautical industry were up 36%, driven by growth in its new Swift64 Broadband service.

Much of the growth has been in use of its BGAN service by the news media, said CEO Andrew Sukawaty. “In the Middle East, you’d be hard-pressed to see a single news programme which is not using [a BGAN terminal for broadcasting].”

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