Satellites still flying high

The use of satellite continues to figure prominently in the plans of broadcasters, despite terrestrial fiber networks' successful tunneling into the transmission departments of the broadcast industry.

"The boundaries that separate the terrestrial and satellite networking components are going to continue to change as new and different applications emerge," says Larry Thaler, NBC's director of distribution projects. "We have to continue to evaluate what makes the most sense."

In many ways, the networks are more dependent on satellite than ever. And they see the positive strides of the satellite-service providers in terms of overall efficiency gains as another incentive to stick with what has become an essential and reliable part of their total network grid. And, of course, the prospect of lower prices is appealing.

ABC, for example, is planning to run three or four digital video streams by 2004 over its existing satellite capacity, which consists of seven C-Band and two Ku-Band transponders spread over three satellites. Thanks to new digital multiplexing technology and the fact that fiber is just not ready for prime time in terms of cost-effective, bulletproof reliability, satellites are deeply embedded in ABC's operational blueprint.

"We have looked closely at what is available in terms of terrestrial distribution, and, while we will use fiber for back-haul purposes, we will continue to use satellites for outbound or networking services," says Preston Davis, president of broadcast operations and engineering at ABC Television Networks. "When televising HDTV, we are dedicating an entire transponder to our 720p feed, and, starting in November of last year, we began [a satellite newsgathering] project involving 10:1 compression using Tiernan encoding on a 54-MHz transponder."

Interestingly, the threat of fiber-based transmission hasn't stopped the satellite industry from creating its own potential problems. Over-capacity is definitely a topic of concern in the satellite industry. The launch of much larger Boeing 702 series satellites in the past few months (starting with PanAmSat's Galaxy XI and the first of a pair of Anik F's by Telesat Canada) opened the door to possible price-cutting as global satellite capacity soars.

At the facility level, the TV networks are turning to server-based solutions, including digital-video-file transfers for spots and promos. And direct fiber connectivity to network O&O stations (such as that enabled by NBC's hub project) seems to be gaining favor.

The transformation of NBC Skypath into multiple-digital-channel-per-satellite transponders is unfolding at NBC just as NBC is pursuing ATM-based store-and-forward options on the ground. NBC is using Qwest fiber for digital-video-file transfer, as well as for other applications, between the West and East Coasts. This evolution away from a single-analog-channel-per-transponder operation to customized feed-based digital-video delivery, which can be beamed to affiliates at will, is another excellent example of a hybrid-fiber-satellite–network strategy in motion.

"We plan to phase out the four transponders we are now using on the K2 satellite as part of our network-distribution-replacement project, and we will continue to use the capacity we have on GE-1 and Galaxy 7," says NBC's Thaler. "We have installed new Tandberg encoders, both at 30 Rock and in Burbank, and are installing new reception equipment at the affiliates as part of this network upgrade. A big driver here has been the ability to achieve substantial cost savings via a new control system and an expanded use of digital compression with multichannel distribution over satellite."

One of the problems facing the fiber networks is that, with only an estimated 3% of the fiber in the ground lit, the cost of lighting fiber is eight times the cost of putting it in the ground, according to estimates by one fiber-networking executive.

The cable industry, despite its land-based connection to customers, has actually proved to be one of the growth segments for satellite operators.

"We see increasing demand in the cable sector, especially from regional and niche programmers. Otherwise, due to long-term contracts, the demand from TV broadcasters for satellite distribution has not changed substantially over the past two years," says Carl Capista, GE Americom's vice president of global satellite services, North American entertainment and media. "We now sell occasional single-channel-per-carrier services in 5- to 15-minute windows for contribution to the TV networks."

GE Americom has established two cable "neighborhoods" on its C-3 and C-4 satellites, as well as on GE-1 and GE-4.

For leading cable programmers like HBO, delivery via satellite to cable head-ends is not in jeopardy. HBO recently signed a deal with PanAmSat through 2015, underscoring the notion that any prior reservations that the top-tier cable programmers might have had in the wake of several satellite failures or malfunctions in the late 1990s are vastly diminished now.

"A satellite decision is a long-term decision," says Bob Zitter, senior vice president for technology operations at HBO. "When we finished our analysis, despite all the talk of a glut of fiber, satellite still offers the most efficient and most affordable way to distribute content to several thousand sites. And we will be able to use our own satellite capacity to engage in the delivery of Internet content to the edge, as well."

HBO definitely has fiber on its road map, but no substantial migration to fiber is planned at this time.

"We are still assessing high-speed interconnects on the ground," Zitter says, "but the cost today of the terrestrial last-mile connection is as much if not more than the long-haul component."