Quality Control

SES explains how satellite operators secure quality broadcast services in the age of IP content
Hussein Oteifa, General Manager, Middle East, SES
Hussein Oteifa, General Manager, Middle East, SES

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The American congressman Steve Daines once lamented that “my son’s generation think a sacrifice is when their satellite or Internet is out for a day and that the country owes them something”. But whether Steve Daines likes it or not, constant connectivity, and ever-greater quality in that connection, is the over-riding demand of the future of broadcasting.

This is a demand that Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES has been meeting globally for several decades. And after recently opening an office in Dubai to cater to fast growing demand in the Middle East, SES aims to raise the bar in the region’s satellite broadcast sector.

“SES is on the cusp of major expansion, so although we’ve been doing business in the Middle East for the past 12 years, we wanted to open an office here to have a more direct relationship with our clients,” says Hussein Oteifa, general manager for the Middle East.

“What we really sell is not just capacity on a satellite, but also access to the millions of dishes pointing at that satellite, because that’s what a broadcaster needs to know. Who can get which kinds of signal and what strength is it in each geographical area?” SES, then, is re-defining its mission in the Middle East, moving from simple capacity provision to a more integrated service.

“The broadcasters want to focus on their marketing, their content and their subscribers,” says Markus Payer, vice president of communications at SES. “We provide their signal needs from A to Z so they can do that. We handle the encrypting, compression and everything else involved in getting the right signals to the right subscribers.”

Part of the reason that SES has now changed its mission in the Middle East broadcasting sector, says Payer, is not only to meet this demand, but also to provide for the surging need for capacity forecast in the region.

With the rising dominance of OTT providers and IPTV, however, how central does satellite TV remain to the TV network - especially in the Middle East, where IPTV, has seen 73% growth this year alone, according to Ahmed Mokhles, the executive vice president of consumer business at du.

For Payer, IPTV is in no way sapping demand for satellite operators. In fact, the growing trend of IP content is increasing demand for the type of services that SES offers: “IPTV isn’t a disruptor to our business. In fact, the growth of IPTV not just in the Middle East but worldwide, has been a driver of revenue in recent years.”

Oteifa agrees, adding that most IP signals are beamed via satellite at some point, although they may arrive at the end-user through cables. “We cover 99% of the world’s population and we’re able to provide them with an IP signal via the satellite that is sent to a head-end and is distributed through a terrestrial IP network.”

A satellite network is flexible to the needs of the future of the sector, but Payer goes so far as to say it is ‘future proof’. “Our satellites have built in scalability,” he says.

“It’s extremely expensive to replace or upgrade terrestrial networks for greater capacity. Our satellites have loads of bandwidth and they’re also neutral, in terms of physics, to the signal that you send up, it has no impact on the satellites themselves whether the signal is standard, high or ultra-high definition.”

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While the growth of IP and internet TV represents a significant change for satellite broadcast operators, it is just the latest in a long list of changes to which satellite operators have learned to adapt. First from analogue to digital, then from standard definition to high definition.

Now, the industry is discussing 8k TVs even as 4k is still finding its feet in the region. So will SES’ current fleet be able to meet these new demands? According to Payer, the 54 satellites that SES has in orbit at the time of writing will be capable of beaming a signal for 8k resolution when those prototype televisions become mainstream on the market. “We’d be able to do that today, if we had to, whereas a terrestrial network needs to be upgraded for greater capacity at enormous cost.”

During GITEX Technology Week, Broadcast Middle East had an interesting conversation with Heinz Henkenjohann, managing director for the Middle East & Africa for Kathrein, a broadcast systems provider.

According to Heinz, a major challenge for terrestrial networks is the surge in data traffic between 2000 and 2014. Meanwhile, Dubai-based telecom operator du, at a separate press conference during GITEX, pointed out that between 2008 and 2013 alone its mobile data traffic grew by 46 times over.

This kind of growth is occurring across the broadcast sector in the region, and Heinz says a major challenge is the relatively flat value of each subscriber in comparison to their growing data usage. “The monthly subscription fee in 2008 was not much less than it is now, on average,” says Heinz, “and yet we’re using astronomically more data.”

According to the website techspot.com, in 2013, in any given minute of the year, 640 terabytes of data was transferred online, while a study in 2012 by MBAonline.com, found that 22-million hours of movies and TV shows are streamed via OTT provider Netflix alone in a single day.

To put that into perspective, if someone had started watching all of those movies and TV shows 2000 years ago, they’d still be making their way through them now. This is the enormous challenge that TV operators have to meet, especially given the rise of OTT content through smart TVs and IPTV.

“The demand for capacity is enormous, it’s grown exponentially because the signal itself has to be higher quality for HD, there are hundreds of channels available now via broadcasters like OSN and also consumers want to watch TV on their tablets and smart phones as well as their actual television,” says Payer. “For satellite operators, however, there is an advantage in all this, because while a non-linear network adds households and capacity at a cost, we do so at a vastly lower cost.”

This relentless demand for capacity from the industry and SES’ proven advantages in terms of reach and signal quality, has seen SES grow significantly since it launched its first satellite back in 1985. It has launched 11 further satellites since 2011 and has another five planned for launch between now and 2017 to improve coverage, redundancy and to replace older satellites of the orbital fleet.

Two of the new satellites will provide coverage of the Middle East for UAE-based satellite broadcast player, YahLive, in which SES owns a 35% stake. SES-12 is particularly interesting as it will be a hybrid ka and ku shared-beam satellite.

This will improve the throughput to the client and therefore the end-user, eliminating the sensitivity to signal attenuation under rainy conditions for which ka band is renowned, Oteifa says.

Sensitivity to disruption is of course one of the primary criticisms of satellite networks, but according to Payer, SES has “real figures of monitored reliability that we can show our clients”, adding that “technical interferences” are rare due to the heavy investment SES has made in redundancy.

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Payer references SES’s relationship with BskyB as an example. “One of our biggest clients is Sky, who have booked satellites on the 28.2-degrees orbital slot. We have Astra 2-e, Astra 2-f and Astra 2-g soon to be launched and even on each satellite we have back up transponders,” Payer says, insisting that this is how the entire fleet has been built.

“Each satellite is linked, so the signal can be seamlessly transferred from one to the other, without any disruption.” It is for this reason that channels such as Sky News were available without interruption Middle East viewers last month, even as the edge of Hurricane Gonzalo battered the UK from the North Atlantic.

“Super-fast 4G networks, 4k TVs and IPTV are the future of the industry,” Oteifa says. “Especially out here in the Middle East, where the market is very conscious of quality, in terms of both the consumer-facing products, and the backend systems.

SES is very interested in addressing this desire for quality, because in the Middle East you have an audience with the expectation and the buying power. The market and demand with it, can only grow.”

In any given minute of the year, 640 terabytes of data is transferred online and 22-million hours of movies and TV shows are streamed via OTT provider Netflix alone in a single day.

This presents an enormous demand for capacity that Payer insists satellites are best placed to meet, because of their flexibility in terms of bandwidth and the type of signal they can transmit. For this reason, the growth of IPTV has actually benefitted SES, acting as a driver of growth.

“The demand for capacity is enormous, it’s grown exponentially because the signal itself has to be higher quality for HD, there are hundreds of channels available now via broadcasters like OSN and also consumers want to watch TV on their tablets and smart phones as well as their actual television,” says Payer.

“For satellite operators, however, there is an advantage in all this, because while a non-linear network adds households and capacity at a cost, we do so at a vastly lower cost.”

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