Bandwidth bottleneck

The contentious issue of satellite bandwidth supply - or lack of it - attracted plenty of debate among delegates at last month's CABSAT 2008 conference in Dubai.
Jamal Al Sharif, director of Dubai Studio City (DSC).
Jamal Al Sharif, director of Dubai Studio City (DSC).
Michael Rofe, du Broadcast Services.
Michael Rofe, du Broadcast Services.


The contentious issue of satellite bandwidth supply - or lack of it - attracted plenty of debate among delegates at last month's CABSAT 2008 conference in Dubai.

The emerging commercial strategies supporting the introduction of HDTV and mobile TV services dominated the two-day CABSAT conference programme.

The conference was opened by Jamal Al Sharif, director of Dubai Studio City (DSC), who focused specifically on both issues in his keynote address.

Speaking exclusively to Digital Broadcast, Al Sharif said that an increasing number of mobile TV specialists were considering establishing operations at DSC.

"Today, [the] 'bandwidth drought' continues. However, this may ultimately prove good news for satellite [service providers] in the Middle East. - Michael Rofe, du Broadcast Services."

"We're also hopeful that the first commercial DVB-H mobile TV services will launch later this year in the UAE," he said.

Michael Rofe of du Broadcast Services presented a paper at the event which focused on the amount of bandwidth currently being offered by the region's main satellite providers, Nilesat and Arabsat.

"Today, unfortunately the 'bandwidth drought' continues. However, this ultimately may prove good news for satellite [service providers] in the Middle East," he claimed.

Speaking off the record to Digital Broadcast, one delegate claimed Nilesat didn't "even have the capacity to carry a single standard definition channel at the moment".

Arabsat intends to launch a new satellite every year for the next four years, while Nilesat plans to soon introduce its next-generation 200 series satellite.

However, two of these satellites are replacements for existing hardware, which is scheduled for decommissioning in 2013 and 2015, distorting the amount of additional capacity these launches will actually provide.

Yahsat, a new UAE-based satellite service provider, confirmed it will launch its first satellite in 2010 with a second launch scheduled for the first half of 2011.

With the so called bandwidth drought set to subside and as the phased investment in HD by content producers begins to bear fruit, there should be few barriers to the wholesale introduction of commercial HD services.

As contracts for transponder space on the satellites come up for renewal, Rofe claims a phase of repurposing will begin with many smaller SD channels forced out as the big boys raise demand, and prices, as they look to secure enough bandwidth for their new HD services.

This could represent the beginning of elevated prices for bandwidth.

This process will also represent the earliest opportunity for broadcasters to get HD content on air. Rofe suggests a large-scale regional rollout of HD services will take place in 24 to 36 months. By the end of this period, there should be four additional satellites serving the region courtesy of Arabsat, Nilesat and Yahsat.

Continuing the subject of satellite usage, Wejdi Harzallah, VP of commercial operations with S2M, presented his case for a hybrid satellite/terrestrial solution for mobile TV in the MENA region. The company revealed in February plans to launch the region's first dedicated satellite supporting mobile TV services.

S2M's network will transmit mobile TV content via satellite to mobile devices in line of sight as well as to terrestrial networks. This gap filler network can be used to boost the signal for indoor coverage in urban areas with the satellite providing line of sight transmission in outdoor areas.

A GSM component can also be added to allow phones to download material during broadcasts.

"We're hopeful that the Middle East's first commercial DVB-H mobile TV service will launch later this year in the UAE. - Jamal al sharif, Director, Dubai Studio City."
This should open up the potential for new revenue streams linked to the broadcast material, for example allowing viewers to download music videos, film trailers or sports highlights exclusively via the mobile TV platform.

Given the spread of the region's major population centres and the vast unpopulated areas, a network operating entirely terrestrially would be wasteful. Harzallah argued that the hybrid model would decrease start-up costs as it would only require land sites in specific urban areas.

The reach of the proposed S2M beam - from Morocco to Pakistan -would permit roaming across national boundaries.

This multinational approach would also mean that the initial launch costs for the satellite would be split between operators across the entire MENA region.

Perhaps the most interesting application that a hybrid system permits is the use of mobile TV transmission for more than just handsets.

The technology also opens up the possibility of live in-car television reception. One such service, albeit currently limited to just three channels, is already in operation in the US.

Questions over the signal strength when the receiver, i.e. the car is moving at high speed have been dispelled according to one member of the audience at the conference.

This also has implications for mobile TV customers using their handsets on board public transport.

Many challenges still remain to be addressed before a full roll-out of mobile TV services will be possible, claimed Nicolas Chevalier, head of product marketing, mobile TV, at Nagravision.

"Without guarantees to content owners of authorised broadcasting of the content they provide, they simply won't make content available," said Chevalier. "The mobile TV industry has to ensure that the operators can go about collecting revenues in confidence.

Chevalier also stressed that the industry must be prepared - from a technological standpoint - to support a range of business models as users and operators experiment with a variety of options for access and payment.

"It is essential to offer more than just rigid control of access to services. Customers should be able to access content they want with the flexibility they need," Chevalier claimed.

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