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A heritage of innovation

Satellite is too often overlooked in the broadcast world. It is a huge asset to any broadcaster’s portfolio and has an enormously bright future in the sector. The media landscape may be evolving, but satellite has the agility to move with it – anywhere.

India has been a longstanding powerhouse of media and etntertainment (M&E), where satellite broadcasting has been playing a crucial role for decades for Indian consumers. While the USA, Japan, China, Israel, and a few of the European countries have already locked their target on several industrial verticals to integrate commercial satellite communication (SATCOM) applications. India is levelling up its capabilities to boost domestic and international opportunities for the satellite market with several changes in the space policy and law.

The Indian space industry is predominantly driven by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Until now the private sector was largely working with ISRO in a subcontractor role and there was no independent space contractor outside ISRO. However, many industries are keen to enter the commercial space domain on their own and are actively discussing their partners for technology funding. A key challenge faced by the industry is the absence of national space policy for space transportation. The policies for Earth observation and communications also pose challenges for the commercial space industry.

India is now encouraging its global satellite technology reach with the government’s creation of Indian Space Promotion and Authorization Center (INSPACe), a new entity under the Department of Space, that seeks to streamline and promote the country’s utilization of private sector resources, know-how, and technology. INSPACe will facilitate interaction between ISRO and the private sector. This will include access to SATCOM capacity, access to launch, to facilities and the whole ecosystem.

ISRO has also recently released its Spacecom Policy – 2020. The activities will never be the same again. The changes will allow access to a range of areas including satellite communications capacity, while private launch vehicle companies will be able to launch from ISRO’s facilities. The complete ecosystem will be accessible. The draft Spacecom Policy 2020 was published mid-October and was open to comments until November 4. The draft act is under consideration and is expected to be put in place in the next few months, but timing will be down to the legislative process.

Policies addressing Earth observation, navigation, launch, and many other areas are already under preparation, which will further transform the industry. Antrix itself is also considering how to play a larger role, particularly how to align and partner with industry to boost the space sector. FDI will also be important in the new ecosystem. Considering the lack of space technology players in the Indian private sector, international partnerships are important for giving a fillip to commercial growth.

Currently, the industry has witnessed the entry of new commercial participants such as Agnikul Cosmos, Skyroot Aerospace, Vesta Space Technology, and NanoAvionics in partnership with Ananth Technologies. The new entrants are looking to address both local and global opportunities and have successfully raised initial rounds of investments for product development.

Prospects for the Indian SATCOM market

The direct-to-home (DTH) services are still holding a firm ground in Asia and prominently in India. Being one of the biggest satellite service consumers, India still has a lot to explore in terms of connecting the threads of business opportunities in content distribution through over-the-top (OTT) via satellite, military satcom, and satellite-based IoT. Developing OTT via satellite capabilities is expected to help Indian satellite companies to encourage domestic and international presence.

The high video content production, distribution, and consumption rates in India can be taken as an opportunity to develop in-house backend technology by collaborating with several production houses, distributors, and broadcasters. With foreign players like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ Hotstar, etc., focusing primarily on local video content development, there lies an opportunity for downstream satellite companies to set-up an in-house distribution capacity. Currently, companies like Eutelsat, Quadrille, and Broadpeak, have already entered the global OTT via satellite market segments. Therefore, private Indian satellite companies, too, have a chance to leverage the country’s massive consumer base to accelerate the OTT via satellite market.

Considering the implementation period of private satcom policies in India, the satellite launch and remote sensing verticals are the crucial India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) verticals to explore, especially for start-ups and small medium enterprises (SMEs). India’s PSLV has one of the highest success rates in the world, that is 94 percent. ISRO’s high-quality but low-cost services are the trends that are expected to be followed by the emerging private Indian space companies.

The private launch service scenario in India has to incorporate the new space trend but also align with the market supply and demand. Several questions related to manufacturing cost, launch site, policy, and regulations are to be addressed before the private launch service provider makes an entry into this competitive market.

The current progress in the industry showcases that the Indian private sector has the potential to compete and welcome the investors to boost private space finances. Although the future remains uncertain, it is by far safe to say that Indian launch market has a lot of offer in terms of low-cost and high-quality services as the country is revamping its in-house production capabilities with the government’s Make in India initiative.

Global market scenario
There may be some doom and gloom about the depressed state of consumer demand on applications like aircraft and other COVID-affected businesses, but an analysis of the global space industry by Bryce on behalf of the Satellite Industry Association paints a rosy picture for last year. Satellite-based services, representing some 45 percent of the total, was worth about USD 123 billion in 2019. Satellite manufacturing was worth USD 12.5 billion, while the launch sector was worth USD 4.9 billion. The balance was made up (48%) by ground equipment.

Sub-divide the assorted satellite services businesses and it is no surprise that TV broadcasting (DTH as well as occasional use and news feeds) took the lion’s share of with the revenue of USD 92 billion. Radio was worth USD 6.2 billion while newcomer broadband – and expected to grow significantly – was worth USD 2.8 billion. The other segments incorporated fixed (USD 17.7 billion), mobile (USD 2 billion) and remote sensing (USD 2.3 billion).

Modern broadcasting via satellite
Using satellite technology for broadcasting has a storied history that reaches back to the 1970s. Since that time, broadcasters have used satellite technology for remote reports and transferring video from immense distances. News trucks with SATCOM antennas gained prominence in the 1980s and 1990s and enabled broadcasters to cover large sporting and other significant news events. Case-based antennas followed, and these antennas with segmented reflectors and lightweight positioners packed into cases for easy transport to any location.

The last few years have heralded a significant change in the media and broadcast sector. Applications and technology are evolving, on a variety of different levels. The digitization of the sector has meant that the use of IP is overtaking more traditional means of broadcasting. The role of satellite in this transformation is going to be significant due to its innate and unique ability to deliver content to a large geographical area, anywhere on the planet and far beyond the reach of any terrestrial network.

In the US, early remote satellite news gathering (SNG) from the late 1970s required large trucks with huge 2.4m to 5.0m C-band (4 to 8 GHz) reflectors (or dishes) to transmit analog audio and video back to a studio for broadcasting. Fast-forward to today and many news trucks have new, lighter weight, versatile, and much more powerful SNG antennas.

However, currently in many locations it is still necessary to use a 2.4m antenna for C-band, but with the recent move to digital technology it is now common to find 1.2m antennas operating in Ku- or Ka-band, and some of these antennas operate in both frequencies.

Another significant innovation has come from the makers of amplifiers. Today’s solid-state power amplifiers (SSPAs) and traveling wave tube amplifiers (TWTAs) have been designed to tolerate environmental changes, and they are now more powerful and lighter.

With outdoor ratings, SSPAs and TWTAs can now be located on the antenna near the feed instead of inside the truck. And with SSPAs and TWTAs being near the feed, there is less throughput signal loss, which enables operators to use less power and smaller amplifiers.

Having the ability to broadcast in multiple bands with one SATCOM antenna has dramatically increased capabilities. Many broadcasters with large trucks have two or more antennas on the truck and can easily select which antenna to use, or can use more than one at a time for dual broadcasts.

Smaller news vans and SUVs can operate dual-band, Ku-band, and Ka-band antennas – typically with 1.2m reflectors – and these antennas can operate in either band with a fast and simple swap the feed and corresponding RF equipment.

HTS and network efficiencies

High-throughput satellite (HTS) is a game-changer for users of Ku-band and Ka-band in both GEO and non-GEO orbits. Recent years have brought satellite advancements in Ka-band (26.5 to 40 GHz) and HTS. Ka-band HTS using spot beam technologies deliver much higher data rates than traditional Ku-band satellites but are more susceptible to degraded performance in rain, dense clouds or fog.

Highly efficient HTS networks enable lots of end-users access to lots of data simultaneously. Consumers and business professionals have increased appetites for demand – anywhere, anytime, and with any device – which is fueling the demand for terrestrial systems and SATCOM backhaul.

And with SATCOM backhaul or direct SATCOM service, geographic constraints disappear. Newer medium Earth orbit (MEO) networks are enhancing efficiency with minimal fiber-like latency, high capacity, and lower cost bandwidth.

SATCOM antenna efficiencies

Greater efficiencies on the space side of the beam drive an expectation for greater efficiencies on the ground side, too. SATCOM efficiency is also measured in terms of antenna operation, which includes gain, aperture taper, surface accuracy, cross polarization, and blockage. Blockage occurs when the feed or support structures block part of the beam’s path, and this is eliminated with offset or prime focus antennas. Accordingly, the efficiency – or gain – of an offset antenna can be improved by up to +1 db relative to the same size symmetrical antenna. This translates into an efficiency for the offset antenna that can be as high as 80 percent.

DVB-S2, or digital video broadcasting – satellite second generation is an established standard that has dramatically increased the efficiency and quality of satellite data transfer for video. SNG users and others have seen impressive performance over the previous DVB-S of transponder availability due to the use of satellite spot beams being optimized.

Industry efficiencies and impacts

Efficiencies with HTS satellites, MEO networks, Earth terminals, and modems have paid it forward to numerous industries, including telecom and SNG services, among others. Telecom networks use satellite communications services on a regular basis – yet phone and data end-users rarely recognize this due to the seamless integration of satellite and telecom services.

Telecom networks – both landline and wireless – use satellite communications for backhaul on a regular basis, and to increase bandwidth at events that draw crowds. SATCOM is not as easily impacted by extreme weather, so telecom networks use SATCOM to restore communications after severe weather when terrestrial systems are down.

Blended network technologies

Blended network technology is another recent innovation. Many broadcasters have moved to using this technology, which takes multiple IP connectivity types, including cellular, satellite and Wi-Fi, blends them together to create aggregated bandwidth, and transports compressed video and data over the blended network.

Such IP network blending solutions use a MIMO, or multiple input multiple output, approach, and eliminate the risk of transmitting or receiving large data files over one fluctuating or unreliable signal.

Broadcasting by cellular phone

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted broadcasters in ways that were never anticipated. News anchors now sit with acrylic dividers or increased distances between them – sometimes with one anchor in a different area of the studio.

Sports came to a standstill, so live sports coverage disappeared for several months. Live event coverage required engineers and reporters to travel separately and maintain distances while reporting – sometimes with masks on.

The NFL 2020 draft was the first live sporting event in months to be covered by several networks. The NFL moved a very large event to an entirely virtual live broadcast, and only had weeks to prepare for the transition. But it proved cellular phone technology has a place in remote broadcasting. The NFL’s IT team created custom iPhone 11 production kits and deployed them to nearly 200 homes where young NFL prospects lived as well as GMs, team owners and college coaches.

The NFL also distributed the iPhone kits to 300+ fans. The iPhone kits included lighting, a microphone, headphones, and two phones – one interview phone mounted to a tripod for apps, interviews, and the prospect receiving the virtual hug from the new NFL team coach, and one for always on showing prospects and their families waiting to be selected.

In all, the NFL coordinated more than 600 live feeds into a single broadcast. It was a tremendous effort and many viewers expected to see a stream of issues, but very few happened. Bandwidth was a concern at prospects’ homes but ended up not being an issue. One team experienced a brief delay with a selection, but the NFL was prepared for this possibility and it was a non-issue.

The NFL Commissioner was the anchor of the event and announced each selection. He also was being broadcast from his home and his feed was via a SATCOM truck in his driveway to ensure his stream was prioritized and could not be impacted by terrestrial network issues.

SATCOM via FPA

The SATCOM industry is awash in news and announcements about flat panel antennas (FPAs) using numerous advanced technologies including phased arrays and fully electronic beam steering. New FPAs are being installed on long-haul aircraft, ships, and other modes of transport.

These technologies are transforming SATCOM and being used for many new applications for which SATCOM was not previously considered. These technologies also are expensive and not practical for applications for which traditional SATCOM and blended networks work well today – including broadcasting.

Within the next 10 years, FPA technology may advance from a design and manufacturing standpoint for costs to decrease enough to be attractive to small businesses and consumers. But FPAs will always have limitations with regard to look angles (particularly when directed to satellites near the horizon), power requirements and bandwidth/throughput, and this is why these technologies are better suited for niche applications today.

Broadcast and streaming video requirements for throughput are easily managed by an antenna with a 1.2m reflector, but an FPA with comparable throughput will be much, much larger, heavier, and require more power.

FPA technologies are well suited to large aircraft where the panels are conformal – panels physically shaped with an arch to match the shape of the fuselage – and look angle is not an issue, and this is the case for traditional Ku-band and Ka-band communications with satellites in GEO orbit.

Communicating to satellites in LEO and MEO orbit from aircraft will be more challenging due to spacecraft movement, link handoffs from on satellite to the next, and maintaining links with satellites moving toward a horizon.

Way forward
Today’s users of VSAT technologies are familiar with small and easily transportable antennas – either mounted to trucks or transported in small cases – as well as the simplicity of the green and red buttons that enable easy-to-use satellite communications on the go. But VSATs have transformed and innovated over time – just as satellites and other segments of the industry have – and few remember the days when it took an engineer to point a large antenna as this was the only option.

Thanks to innovators and industry pioneers, the industry has changed and the tools have greatly improved, and these advancements have contributed to the proliferation of VSAT antennas atop the modern-day uplink van, which is easily supported by a crew of only two: the camera operator and the news journalist.

Even though India is one the world’s next big market for satellite technology applications, when it comes to investing a considerable amount of taxpayer’s money in space, the government has to think twice before allocating higher amounts of budget, mainly due to the country’s other earthly issues.

On the other hand, a partnership or an agreement with foreign nations as the United States will help the country to accelerate its private satellite technology presence on a global scale. Though currently, India has to take a bottom-to-top approach in scaling up the upstream private satellite sector capabilities, the downstream market already has a significant amount of rolling satellite applications in broadcasting.

Therefore, taking thorough advantage of the existing downstream capabilities and accordingly iterating the future market supply and demand, will result in healthy growth of the private Indian satellite companies.

Satellite is too often overlooked in the broadcast world, as many still consider it an expensive option and perhaps even consider it latent. Satellite is a huge asset to any broadcaster’s portfolio and it has an enormously bright future in the broadcasting sector.

Where terrestrial networks become congested, satellite steps in. Where terrestrial networks cannot reach, satellite can. Where the ability to multicast is not available, satellite prevails. Where terrestrial connectivity is not available, satellite provides the infrastructure no matter where it is needed.

The media landscape may be evolving, but satellite has the agility to move with it – anywhere.

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