EutelSat's NewsSpotter Ka-Sat Challenges Cellular Multiplexers on Cost and Time-to-Air

As you may have noticed, I have been busying myself this last two years becoming closely versed with the nuances of all the cellular backpacks, portable link-aggregators and what I collectively call cellular multiplexers or “cellmuxes.”

During my 16 years of electronic newsgathering using streaming encoders and whatever IP links I could muster, I have seen a fair combination of tools being combined to deliver video contribution in an ad-hoc manner for "outside broadcasts"–or "webcasts" as we call them in these pages.

It has been a pleasure seeing the swathe of new technologies appearing and I find myself inexorably drawn to the devices. The portability, convenience and flexibility they offer always makes me think back to the days when I would stand on the roof of a conference centre or a small van or suchlike, patiently (or sometimes not so patiently, as I am sure one or two NOCs and MCRs would attest) pointing a VSAT dish to bring up a satellite IP link.

Now the one great thing about VSAT is that when it is setup, the Service Level Agreement usually ensures that you have a very good quality of services over the link. This is ideally suited for video over IP and so VSAT always will offer some value to the producer wanting to guarantee good value back to their play-out or distribution network.

However with the upside of service level that comes from the satellite link also comes a comparatively complex setup of the link—certainly compared to "turning on a CellMux." A VSAT dish is very sensitive to any movement, so it’s a non-starter for (most) moving applications. They also require clear line of site to the satellite, which can have significant bearing on the connectivity and cabling between the VSAT antenna and all the "indoor" kit such as encoders and cameras.

Often the trick has been to mount the VSAT on a "self-aligning mount" where the VSAT dish is robotically rotated and swivelled by a computer using a combination of GPS, radio signal measures, and feedback systems to lock the antenna on to the required satellite and signal.

Towards the end of 2008 I sold my mobile VSAT-based webcast production business, which used self-aligning satellite VSAT dish based services. At that time a cheap self-aligning dish cost about the same as a contemporary Live-U/Mobile Viewpoint  backpack—somewhere from £15k-£25k. Then there were standing service fees due monthly, as well as periods of guaranteed bandwidth we'd have to purchase on an ad-hoc basis as we did each event. These guarantees would typically cost a few hundred pounds per hour and vary with the bandwidth guarantee required.

A portable fly-away self-aligning system would cost in the region of £60k to £100k or more.

While a self-aligner will align a dish in 5 to 10 minutes, without a self-aligning system the very best engineer, armed with a meter GPS and compasss, could expect to manually point a dish within perhaps 30 minutes. And while manual dishes and a meter are more portable than self-aligners, this time-to-live is not ideal if you are trying to setup for a time critical emergency news bulletin. 

So when I saw cellmux technology taking off I was impressed. A typical cellmux now costs the same as a cheap self-aligner. It turns on and is ready to go in a few seconds. It works indoors, around corners, and in some form factors can fit in a pocket.

AND they include the encoding and often the studio talkback link all in a hand-portable package.

What’s not to like!? And indeed the roaring takeoff of this niche sector is testament to the value these devices add to the eco-system.

However, while cellmux does offer huge flexibility, it is very important to appreciate that the "best effort" SLA that they offer (which is an effect of the contracts with the cellular networks that they utilise) is better than nothing for an emergency bulletin, or a mobile shot that is otherwise unobtainable. But it is not suitable for main live feeds for premium content acquisition, where SLA is offered to clients for whom the production is being made. The result is that VSAT still has an important proposition to producers requiring SLA guarantees, which is something that cellmux cannot offer.

Affordable IP Satellite with Ka-Sat

So when Cristiano Benzi, director of pre-sales and customer care, commercial department at Eutelsat, invited me to come and understand the latest activity the VSAT space in Europe as well as his company's current proposition, I was curious and made this a central meeting in my IBC visit last September.

At first I must have looked a bit disinterested as I arrived on Eutelsat's stand, since I have held for the past few years that cellmux is disrupting the satellite news gathering (SNG) market and will, in time, take the dominant market share of electronic news gathering—particularly in the VSAT news video over IP contribution space. Traditional satellite broadcast will continue for premium events that can be well-planned for, but my impression was that for practical reasons as outlined above (speed to setup, portability and the fact that "best effort is good enough") cellmux has shown it has an edge, Additionally, with the prolific use of cellmux at the London Olympics, now broadcasters are accepting this "good enough" technology into their workflows on the principle that the risk the shot is pixelated to a degree is something that the audience increasingly doesn’t mind, provided the lack of quality is outweighed by the "drama" of the shot that would otherwise not have been available.

But for those broadcasters who want SLA, and yet strive for portability and ease of use, new services from satellite operator Eutelsat's new Ka-Sat is fighting back hard for VSAT-based models.

In the past years the prices of kit and bandwidth have been driven down—my hunch is that that is a combination of the effect of widespread H.264 adoption, which has freed up considerable amounts of the bandwidth used by services such as MPEG-2-based DVB transmission and the like, and also increasing competition from low cost IP and cellular IP services.

The net result is that self-aligning systems can be found for a capital outlay under $10k, and can offer 10 to 20Mbps links at prices as low as $40/hour.

So just to remind you: in comparison in 2008/09 I would have paid well over £50k for a briefcase-portable flyaway system, and bandwidth at 1.4Mbps would have set me back around $400/hour.

In essence this means that as cellmux arrived a couple of years ago, and positioned itself at around half the CAPEX requirement of VSAT, now two years further on, VSAT has dropped its pricing by around an order of magnitude.

Frankly I sat on the Eutelsat stand less impacted by the technical "how" and stunned by how much the pricing has dropped.

Ka-Sat is an interesting proposition in its own right. The satellite provides 82 475Mbps spot beams, each  around 300km diameter and arranged as seen in the image.

A map of Ka-Sat's 82 spotbeams

Ka-Sat has been primarily developed to focus on rural IP services for subscribers. It is striving to open up access to high-bitrate, broadband capacity in a contended way that is similar to DSL, reaching almost every point in Europe.

Operators such as TwoWay are taking the Ka-Sat service to these subscribers with low cost, permanently installed VSAT dishes.  This high capacity spot beam layout is also coupled with a sophisticated terrestrial setup to ensure throughput for the intended millions of users of these DSL services, and this terrestrial setup is also of direct benefit to outside broadcast / webcast production crews.

On the ground, ten earth stations act as gateways for the up and down signals and these earth stations are interlinked with a diverse and redundant interconnection across Europe. This means that the typical streaming setup will "hop" once over the satellite link, and then the link from the earth station to the MCR (master control room for the production company) will be direct via fibre, or at worst case directly to a peering point with the MCR’s ISP. This really brings the SLA to the fore.

So while i am still extremely excited by cellmuxes and how rapidly they are evolving new markets for ENG and outside broadcast, it is clear that where premium, already evolved markets exist that require high service level agreements, there is now an option to trade between the guaranteed SLA of EutelSat's NewsSpotter VSAT, and the "good enough" SLA with the mobility and time to air that the variety of cellmux options out there can offer.

Critically there is little to choose between the two when it comes to capital expenditure and operating costs. If anything the NewsSpotter service is, on paper at least, cheaper than the top tier cellmuxes, and is about on par with a Teradek /Livestream paired with a Teradek Bond.

And that is a leap-frog that will once again disrupt the industry in a positive way for the end users.

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