Blue Sky For HD Transmission: Q&A With Intelstat's Tim Jackson

It's been more than 20 years since
Intelsat worked with NHK for the transmission of the first digital high-definition
broadcast in April of 1989, and over the years the two pioneers in HD technology
have continued to work together, with NHK recently announcing that it would use
Intelsat for the launch of an its global HD news channel, NHK World TV. In a
recent interview, Intelsat's vice president of media product management Tim
Jackson spoke about the demand for HD transmission, the company's preparations
for the World Cup and the transition to MPEG-4 compression and DVB-S2
modulation. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: How do you see the demand for
HD transmissions today?

Tim Jackson: The demand continues to be very
strong in the traditional developed areas where HD has been around for a couple
of years, primarily North America, Western Europe and Asia.

In those
regions, almost all new channel launches are being done in HD and there are very
few, if any, standard definition channel launches. Latin America, though, has been the one that will
probably see the most growth near- to mid-term.

MCN: What sectors are producing the
most demand?

TJ: [Direct-to-home satellite TV] has
been leading globally because of [its] ability to grow channel capacity more
quickly than the other segments, but increasingly we are seeing cable catch up.

MCN: How fast are you seeing people
move to MPEG-4 and higher modulation DVB-S2 to free up capacity for more HD?

TJ: MPEG4 and the higher modulation are
a big issue because that will be the global enabler of more HD and cost
effective bandwidth.

With the
legacy MPEG-2 platforms that are already up there, HD is very demanding on bandwidth.
Even with the better compression we are seeing for MPEG-2 encoders, there isn't
a lot of savings. We are still above 12 to 14 Megabytes per second for most of
MPEG-2 HD services.

So it uses
up quite a bit of bandwidth and that tends to drive the migration towards
MPEG-4 and DVB-S2, which allows a 36 MHz transponder resource to [transmit] 70
or more Megabytes per seconds of information.

That really
much more efficient but it tends to work best when you have a new platform
launching into a region, rather than customer trying to utilize one of their
existing ones. So, we are split today between people doing HD across their
legacy MPEG-2 platforms and people launching new MPEG-4 platforms.

The big issue
for our customers is how many decoder boxes are in the field on an existing
platform. The challenge is calculating the economics between bandwidth savings
and the cost of redeploying thousands and thousands of decoder boxes for the
existing channels.

obviously also depends on what else is on the multiplex as to whether you can
take advantage of all the efficiencies of MPEG-4.

For new platforms,
though, everyone is launching in DVB-S2. You can simply get so much more
bandwidth out of the transponder.

MCN: How fast are you seeing people
going to HD for their newsgathering?

TJ: Newsgathering has been slower than
I thought it would be. It is happening a little in the U.S., but we are not seeing much
internationally so far. My personal thought is that it is a challenge for a lot
of the stations to invest in this kind of thing for field production right now.

Now if we
broaden that discussion to our OU [occasional use] and special-events business
as a whole, of which newsgathering is a subset, we are seeing a huge uptake on
sports backhauls in HD, even though 2009 is what we call a non-event year. In
other words, you don't have the huge events like the Winter Olympics and the
World Cup, which we'll have in 2010.

MCN: Are you already preparing for
those events?

TJ: Absolutely. One of the key businesses
we run at Intelsat is the dedicated occasional use, special-events business. I've
got a team of four coordinators and two directors that manage our occasional that
business and assign capacity on our fleet. The idea is that any idle capacity
we have that is awaiting sale for full-time services is allocated and available
for occasional use services in our fleet. In addition to that capacity, we also
have a dedicated capacity in all our regions for OU. That way, we know we will
have the capacity to accommodate any kinds of services that we do.

For special
events like World Cup and Olympics, we block stuff out even further away. We
are already starting to confirm services for the World Cup even though that is
not for another 10 months.

I think one
of the key advantages we have compared to other operators that are starting to
diminish their OU play is that we have a dedicated pool of transponders across
our entire fleet.

MCN: What do you think sets Intelsat
apart for HD transmission compared to some of the other options out there?

TJ: First of all, we've been at it
longer than anyone else. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary of delivering
HD. Back in April of this year, 1989, we worked with NHK to deliver the first
digital HD transmission.

So HD is
something we're experienced with and we're used to managing our fleet to
accommodate it. We are clearly the largest and the most scalable of the global
fleet operators out there for HD.

[The recent
deal with NHK] is a perfect example of our ability to work with a customer and
deliver them globally around the world with a one-stop shop.

MCN: Fiber has become a lot more
available and a lot less expensive. How do you see the relationship between
satellite and fiber?

TJ: I've
switched from seeing it as a competitive threat to a complement to our network,
and we've been expanding our fiber offering so we can provide hybrid fiber and
satellite service offerings in areas where that makes sense.