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HTS for DTH... A Conversation

Thursday, August 18, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: STN
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By Anver Anderson. Many things have been said about High Throughput Satellites (HTS) – some of them even true! However, the dialogue rarely discusses matters associated with Direct to Home (DTH) distribution. Sure, the effective re-use of the satellite space segment spectrum over a wider geographical area is to be applauded, but it’s not without its challenges. The idea of the throughput-multiplier effect of multiple-beam technology is a good one, provided that it can be offered at good market price (as has so often been promised) and it can be filled appropriately to support all the associated business plans – the satellite operators, the teleports and the content suppliers; not forgetting the equipment manufacturers.

It is clear that the HTS designers very firmly had/have the data distributors in mind; VSAT networks for IP backbone, Enterprise, Governmental, Offshore and even some Maritime and Aeronautical markets. All of these sound pretty sexy to me, but even a cursory glance at the current market place will tell you that the data-centric side of the industry has been going through some pretty tough times recently. The most recent WTA report, “Inside the Top Operators” clearly shows that data revenues over the last couple of years have reduced; significantly for some teleports. The withdrawal of troops from war zones worldwide, the introduction of major fibre routes to major satellite markets (such as the west coast of Africa), a slower than expected uptake in the overall Maritime markets to name but a few areas that the WTA report highlighted as being impactful on overall revenues. It may well be heresy, but could it be true that at a time when we finally are seeing the kind of capacity we have always wanted/needed that the market may no longer be there to support it in the long term? That question carries some heft and not one I ask lightly…

Another dynamic which is evident for HTS service provision is the movement along the value chain of the satellite operators. Traditionally, of course, the satellite operators were the purveyors of healthily powered MHz of bandwidth. However, technology will out, as they (don’t) say, and the latest encoding and modulation techniques have led to ever more Mbit/s per MHz. This sounds all fine and dandy until you get to grips with the implications of such a simple equation. More bits per Hertz is great for the data customer and broadcaster alike for the obvious reasons. It moves them towards a better business case as their costs come down (or they use more data for the same costs). It opens new markets to smaller users (for DTH distribution, for example, these would include thematic channels aimed at certain diaspora markets, based on language, cultural, religious or general entertainment). For HD providers it offers excellent visual results down to 4Mbit/s. But this is not the greatest news that ever happened to our satellite operators. Firstly, many more channels need to be sold as there is an evidently reduced return per element of their supply; the Mhz! It is then no surprise to see that many satellite operators are moving down the value chain, ever-closer to the end user, by installing their own hubs and selling the Mbit/s into the market place. Although this service is made available to the current teleports to provide services in their traditional fashion, it is also available to end users. So the teleport operators are similarly impacted by this philosophy. We have even seen some satellite operators buy up teleports to enable them to get ever closer to the end user.

All of this market dynamism is not a surprise and it’s what ultimately feeds what we all do on a day to day basis. But… as far as I can see, nobody yet has really opened the conversation on what we can do with the HTS satellites for the broadcast market – for distribution! Clearly, there is a contribution market. Feeding DTT networks or cable head ends using smaller-bandwidth channels with better-priced space segment is bound to be an obvious option for distributing such content. This has a double impact on the customers’ choice. Also, it can be largely IP-based, which is good news for the data-centric teleports of the world. It’s also good news for the satellite operators – who in fairness need us all to be successful in order to secure investment for future satellite launches. We are, if nothing else, a symbiosis of service provision, but one which is constantly in flux!

So why, when the broadcast market has shown itself to be relatively robust against its data-centric counterpart, has there been little or no discussion about DTH for HTS. Is it because of the choice of frequencies (as we know – not all HTS satellites are Ka-band)? Might it be that independent teleports may have to illuminate several beams in order to reach a particular geographical region? Surely that would not help the business model for distribution based on cheaper space segment. Could it be that nobody has the will to develop a new DTH distribution platform in the face of a rapidly changing delivery contribution network – for DTT and OTT?

I have no doubt that there might one or two options to cover countries which have a small geographical area – but I have concerns that such countries wouldn’t bring sustainable levels of eyeballs to generate the advertising or sponsorship revenue levels. What concerns me even more greatly, is that DTH for HTS (or should that be HTS for DTH) appears to be an oversight or even exclusion from the future satellite services debate. Perhaps I’m wrong, it’s impossible to read all of the industry press, but I cannot remember seeing a substantial debate on this particular issue in the magazines and newsletters or from the podia of the plethora of conference sessions. If our symbiosis of service provision is to continue successfully across ALL industry sectors, it’s time to open the debate on HTS for DTH methinks! Who knows? Perhaps somebody might raise this issue at IBC.

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