Data star

Enterprises in the Middle East are realising the benefits satellite connectivity can bring to their business; from redundancy planning, to the transmission of digital content.

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By  Christopher Reynolds Published  December 31, 2006

It was only a few years ago that the dramatic bankruptcy of global satellite operators Iridium, Globalstar and Astrolink heralded a downturn in the satellite communication industry, from which it has only recently recovered, for the most part.

Last year witnessed market growth the industry enjoyed in previous years continue, and the Middle Eastern region has seen increased demand for satellite communication services on the back of new technologies and the need for redundant enterprise systems. Inmarsat’s estimates its BGAN satellites cover 98% of the world, and studies by National Sky Research (NSR), an industry consultancy, estimates that by 2010 revenues from mobile satellite services will reach US$9 billion.

As more and more companies utilise IP based systems, from voice to data, they need a system which is reliable and readily deployed. According to Paul Seaton, general manager of Newsat’s Middle East and North Africa operations, there have been two factors driving the market: the opening up of Iraq and more business-level awareness of satellite communication applications in Africa and the Middle East. “ People understand satellite now and are becoming comfortable with it. Satellite services have grown quickly throughout the region where demand is almost outstripping supply,” says Seaton.

Satellite service provider Lunasat has been working within Iraq and with the Iraqi government to provide very small aperture terminal (VSAT) solutions for government users. New developments in voice, data and video delivery through satellite systems are advancing the capabilities of operations in areas such as Iraq, where commercial satellite systems aided government communications and delivered the main bulk of bandwidth on the ground.

Peter Samaha, Lunasat marketing manager, claims that Lunasat’s technical teams are available on the ground for immediate support to clients, be it from the 24/7 NOCs or from the availability of on-site support, and that this is the type of support that clients are looking for in order to facilitate negligible down times.

“We can give a turnkey solution for any client. We can give installation and support, we have stock ready always and we can supply hardware and bandwidth. We work in challenging environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The client is always looking for the right support and long-term relations and this is our stance. It is usually not enough to have somebody providing you with satellite coverage, you need also on the ground someone to give you support and this is our forte,” comments Samaha.

Two years ago Inmarsat launched two new Inmarsat 4 series satellites as well as its Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service. BGAN offers both voice and IP capabilities as well as up to 492kbit/s uplink and downlink speeds, allowing IP streaming, teleconferencing, file transfer, and video and audio broadcasts. Regional director of Inmarsat’s Middle East operations, Samer Halawi, believes that businesses are beginning to realise the benefits satellite offers over terrestrial communication technology.

When an enterprise operates in an area where it needs communicate and satellite connectivity is the only available option, businesses are left with the simple equation: not having any communications whatsoever versus the cost of using satellite. “So in those terms, and in those conditions, satellite communication is definitely cost effective,” says Halawi.

Oil companies in the region have put VSAT technology to good use in offshore rigs. Oil rigs require adaptable and dependable bandwidth to support an array of applications for use in remote areas that are not reliably served by line-of-sight microwave and high frequency radio. VSAT products are suitable for such operations, providing high bandwidth and IP-based services. This permits business applications such as email, VoIP and video conferencing capabilities through constant bit rate single channel per carrier (SCPC) systems, or asymmetrical Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) and symmetrical mesh TDMA VSAT architecture.

“So if an oil rig has a machine breakdown, they need to contact someone to get a flight to the oil rig and fix the problem; that means a lot of down time and loss of production, which could be very costly.

However, with satellite technology they could conduct a five minute video conference, which say costs them $100. That is nothing compared to the value of the lost productivity,” says Halawi.

Newsat is also experiencing very strong demand for its teleport services according to Seaton. The Australian company owns a number of ground stations, media ports, in eastern and western Australia, which access satellites with coverage over the Middle East and Africa, as well as Western Europe, Australia and the US. There are only around 100 communication satellites orbiting the planet and satellite operators sell their capacity to service providers, who effectively act as middlemen.

The majority of satellite connections to internet services entail a bi-directional link with VSAT through a geo stationary satellite, ground station and IP backbone. The use of IP has allowed the satellite industry to make use of VoIP and further shift emphasis away from purely voice-based services. Voice has now become increasingly reliable over the internet and that has been very much a part of recent consumer demand in the resurgent satellite market.

More and more communications companies, ranging from telecommunication providers, to government agencies and major corporations are hosting their own media communication equipment from media ports.

There is constant demand from medium-sized enterprises that want an individual service, but more recently there has been a requirement for bigger dedicated communication channels. “Newsat are playing a partnership role there, so as a company we have moved up the food chain. We are a supplier to them and we provide services to them at a wholesale level; there is very strong demand there,” Seaton says.

For enterprise users, the main concern with using satellite communications is the dependability and quality of the service provided, according to Milan Sallaba, director of Mercer Management Consulting’s Dubai office. Sallaba believes the key for enterprise users is simply the quality of the service they are given: how dependable it is, contention, and bandwidth.

“What about fair access policies? We could have 20 people accessing the same stream and you have one or two guys sucking all of the capacity. Depending on the application that I need you could argue that the service provider could provide higher bursts for my immediate needs. For example if I am in an army base and there are more people making VoIP calls at the same time without having the system break down then that would be a distinct advantage,” says Sallaba.

Recent natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina and 2004’s tsunami have encouraged a range of enterprises, from banks to hospitals, to rely on satellite connectivity for redundancy purposes, setting a demand level that almost surpassed supply. However, according to Sallaba the technology will only ever be used as an alternative to fixed line connectivity due to the intrinsic cost of launching and maintaining an orbiting satellite. “I would not expect satellite communication to grow into a mass market. For instance I would always want to locate call centres in areas where I have alternative technology such as mobile or fixed line connectivity,” says Sallaba.

Satellite communications provider NSTT is looking at new and innovative ways to bring satellite technology to enterprise users. One avenue that is currently being explored is content streaming. Satellite enabled digital signage allows a business with multiple branches to stream digital content via satellite networks.

Users can send multimedia advertising via a single control centre through a multicast server, nodes can then pick up on any modifications to the content within one or two minutes, allowing one way speech broadcasts. Digital signage is especially suited to satellite technology as Mohammad Abu Hmaidan, MD of NSTT, explains.

“If you want to use fixed line internet then you would need an internet connection in each site, and you would pay monthly for this connection. There is no need to have internet access when you can pay on demand for the access. For example a company needs to modify an advertisement tomorrow at 12am, so we only charge them for this period and a very low cost subscription,” says Hmaidan.

Data prices for such services, while still relatively high, are decreasing according to Halawi with the steady advancement of technology. With Inmarsat’s BGAN system the per-minute pricing of data services has gone down due the increased capability and smaller size of the satellites themselves.

However, with the market expansion in data services, and the increasing pragmatism of satellite broadband, demand for voice services has stagnated. “Because more people are demanding data and because the areas that people need voice connectivity in there is already good GSM growth, due to GSM increasing in coverage. But no matter how fast GSM expands it is always the voice service that is first offered, the other services such as 3G and WiMax are always going to be more limited in terms of geographical availability,” says Halawi.

As well as smaller and more powerful terminals and satellites, providers are looking toward a raft of new innovations to grow the market. Mobile television, video conferencing and e-learning are features already offered by terrestrial networks and offer further sectors that satellite providers can exploit.

Projects such as Emirates’ deployment of GSM services over aeroplanes, via Inmarsat’s satellites, are also growing the market. Hybrid systems such as digital radio, which can offer customers seamless connectivity whether they are inside a building with fixed-line access, or in a remote rural location, have already seen a strong uptake in the US and Europe. With the diverse geography of the Middle East, many players sees a great deal of potential for the technology.

Last mile connectivity

Providing last mile connectivity to wireless networks is something satellite technology provider Smartbridges is experienced with. Recently Smartbridges worked with Riyadh based Saudi ISP Hattan to supply the service provider with last mile connectivity for their wireless broadband service.

Hattan installed the Smartbridges Nexus access point, the airPoint Nexus, and the backhaul, airHaul Nexus, at the top of the Al Faisaliah Centre, 270m high. The backhaul link covers the distance from the Al Faisaliah Center to their office and spans 3.6km. The satellite technology provided Sa’aid Ihsan Abu Yaseen, Project Manager for Hattan an easily deployable system for VPN and VoIP enabled services. “We had a lot of problems with other wireless products, and we had one years rent on this tower to test many different solutions.

Interference and sometimes the breaking up of long distance transmission has been an issue for us. We use VSAT and VSAT has huge delay of 600 milliseconds. To let a subscriber reach the tower you have to add delays from wireless link plus VSAT link. However, with the solution we have just installed we can fix any interference, we have dual band and we can select different frequencies,” he says.

Enterprise applications

Enterprises are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits satellite connectivity can bring to their businesses when fixed line connectivity is not an option, or when taking continuity planning into consideration.

Voice solutions:

Satellite telephony can connect remote users to the public switched telephony network, as well as enable live broadcast radio streaming, one way audio streaming using IP protocol and VoIP.

Video:

Video conferencing can provide low quality two-way video and audio over remote sites over narrow bandwidth links, providing flexible ways to access two-way video links, which are often used by news broadcasters in remote areas. Video streaming, video surveillance and store-and-forward video also allow broadcast of video over the internet, TV and digital signage.

Data transfer solutions:

File transfer, using FTP to maximise bandwidth efficiency, in conjunction with email and always on broadband internet services can be accessed via satellite systems.

Monitoring, tracking and control:

Asset tracking can use Global Positioning System (GPS) data to be beamed from a terminal to update online or local fleet management systems in almost real time. Telemedicine can transmit important patient information from remote areas; from basic data such as an ECG trace, to high quality video feeds.

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