A year ago, a MENA-based satellite operator said in unequivocal terms that they are just the carriers and not arbiters of content. A year down the line, a lot has changed with countries in the region objecting to channels being aired on political grounds. Satellite operators are being asked to account for the content they carry and my first question to NOORSAT’s Omar Shoter was whether this was a fair demand of satellite operators.
“We would not feature obviously objectionable content such as pornography and material offensive to the region’s social and religious sensibilities. Other than that the content that we offer is driven by broadcasters catering to the region,” responds the satellite industry veteran. He adds, “It is not fair to make the satellite operator accountable for content. Usually in such a case, the party offended would sue the channel in a court of law. The satellite operators will always implement the court’s orders. In the absence of legislation, people and governments expect the satellite operators to fall in line with their way of thinking. As I stated earlier, in obvious cases, we can help readily, but with political views aired on channels, it is difficult to decide one way or the other.”
Forums to help regulate rival claims
On finding a meeting ground, Shoter believes that it is easier said than done. “You need respective governments, satellite operators, major broadcasters and regulatory bodies to sit together and resolve this though a forum such as the Arab League. In the meantime, it is a fine balance that we have to maintain. I personally don’t think we are facing a big problem and eventually only good content will prevail.”
As the first fully privately owned satellite service provider in the MENA region, established in 2004, NOORSAT offers satellite capacity at hotspots over the Arab world from the locations 25.5° E and 7° W. In addition, NOORSAT has expanded its satellite capacities at 8° W, 3° E and 85.15° E, to cater to the video and telecom sectors. With broadcast “accounting for the biggest chunk of business, though not by far”, in Shoter’s words, NOORSAT is currently transmitting more than 200 TV and radio channels that serve a broad audience of viewers from the Middle East, East Asia, North Africa and parts of Europe.
Surge in occasional-use service
The past year has seen a surge in demand for satellite capacity, says Shoter. “The recent political upheaval in the region, like any other high profile activity, does increase demand for satellite TV, video and telecom services, and creates new opportunities. NOORSAT was lucky to have ample satellite capacity that connects Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, [and one] that gave us the opportunity to be a leading provider for the greatly increased demand for the occasional satellite TV service.”
The increased business however did not come without problems. “Political differences and conflicts bring with them the unpleasant jamming of satellite services. On our part, we can only geo-localise the source of interference and notify concerned authorities. In addition, there are pressures to allow the broadcast of certain TV channels and to stop others.”
The past few months and days have seen MENA-based operators approaching the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) with claims and counter-claims of deliberate interference. Regional governments have raised objections about interference and objectionable content. There was also the much-talked about move by Bahrain TV from 26 deg East to 7 deg West.
It is not probably the easiest time to be in the business of providing satellite capacity and Shoter believes the close-knit professional team he heads and the absence of pressure from the owners who, having worked in the media and telecom sectors, understand the business well – all this has allowed NOORSAT to become the region’s third biggest satellite capacity provider after Arabsat and Nilesat, in a relatively short span of time.
The emergence of regional satellite operators across the MENA region
His challenges, however, are increasing with the emergence of Qatar’s Es’HailSat and Abu Dhabi’s Yahsat. Es’HailSat in particular has a 54.5% stake on Eutelsat 25A at 25.5 deg East. Will this prompt NOORSAT to revisit its business model that is based on leasing satellite capacity mainly from long-time partners, Eutelsat, I ask Shoter?
“When the existing Eurobird 2 satellite operational at 25.5 deg East, is replaced in 2013, Es’hailSat and NOORSAT are to use capacities available on this new satellite, as per the arrangements specified in the joint venture agreement between Eutelsat and Qatar.
Our business on 25.5 deg East is not expected to be negatively impacted because Es’hailSat will cater mainly to Al-Jazeera and others, and NOORSAT caters to its own group of well-established customers
“Our business on 25.5 deg East is not expected to be negatively impacted because Es’hailSat will cater mainly to Al-Jazeera and others, and NOORSAT caters to its own group of well-established customers. Moreover, NOORSAT has much more business from the main hotspot in the region of 7 deg West for DTH TV service and from other satellites for non-DTH TV and telecom services.”
Giving an inkling into the collaborative approach that has underpinned NOORSAT’s success, Shoter adds, “We are committed to continuing our strategy of cooperating and working with new and existing regional satellite providers and compete in a positive way, and in this particular instance, we are committed to cooperating and working closely with Es’hailSat.”
Catering to the verticals
The broadcast sector, Shoter concedes, offers a stable platform for the company given that telecom and other sectors are vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy and other factors. “For broadcast, the orbital slot is critical. Once you are established at a hotspot, you will not lose your market share. ” Going counter to the mantra of the day, Shoter believes in restricting the provision of end-to-end services to the DTH sector. “We like to compete with solutions providers on the ground. While the VSAT sector is thriving owing to the coverage we provide, we have not tapped into cellular backhaul.
For broadcast, the orbital slot is critical. Once you are established at a hotspot, you will not lose your market share
“We have managed to lease all of our bulk capacities to big users, as raw bandwidth lease. Also the need to provide equipment and the fierce competition from fibre optic bandwidth suppliers, are some of the reasons we have not entered cellular backhaul.”
Growing demand for hotspots
Facing the happy prospect of high demand for capacity on 7 deg West, Shoter predicts that by the “end of this year or the beginning of next year, there will be a rise in capacity costs due to lack of capacity. By 2015, we will have more capacity on the hotspot. The DTH TV market will continue to grow, more channels will convert to HD and eventually, those who broadcast on more than one hotspot will have to review the effectiveness of this strategy against real viewership, cost and benefits.”
He does not see the growth in TV channels, across the Arab world, as being excessive.
“Europe has a huge number of channels despite the fact that they have very little in common amongst them. The number of channels catering to the 22 Arab countries that have a common language, common history, religion and social background, need not be justified. I believe we should have more TV channels than Europe.”
No plans for Africa, yet
He sees NOORSAT growing in the region. Africa is not on the anvil. “Africa does not have a hotspot that serves the entire region. That should have been decided years ago – it may be a little late to get all the TV channels on one hotspot. You need the right orbital slot, the right operators and the willingness for others to move.
“We are not moving out of the Arab world when it comes to DTH. While North Africa is attractive, and a number of players are moving into that region, we will grow in our areas of strength.”
Looking ahead, Shoter believes that it is inevitable that new regional satellite service providers will enter the market for political, security and financial reasons.
“International players will keep coming too, given the potential for growth across the Arab world.
“Users will seek better options that are cost-effective in the telecom sector, and, eventually, players will have to merge or create joint ventures, to remain viable.
The DTH TV business may get more fragmented and the present status of having two hotspots, dominating and serving the Arab world, with varying degrees of success, may change drastically, either eliminating or changing the nature of competition
“On the other hand, the DTH TV business may get more fragmented and the present status of having two hotspots, dominating and serving the Arab world, with varying degrees of success, may change drastically, either eliminating or changing the nature of competition.”
Ringside view of the evolution of the ME satellite industry
From working in a government controlled industry to watching satellite TV enter individual homes, to helping create hotspots over the Arab world, Shoter has had a ringside view of the often dramatic changes in the MENA-based satellite industry.
“While the first Gulf war triggered the era of satellite TV in the region, the buildup to HDTV, for instance, has been more gradual. In any case, this is a business where you cannot relax. Our business model of leasing and sub-leasing satellite capacity is based on the bond we have created with Eutelsat. Free of overheads associated with the manufacture and launch of satellites, we are able to offer competitive prices.
“What I take personal pride in is our efforts to ensure that the private channels that we host are given a sense of security and a platform to communicate their political and social views.”
He takes pride in the fact that NOORSAT’s coverage allows broadcasters to reach Arab communities in Europe and ethnic minorities across the Middle East. Despite the ubiquitous nature of television across the Arab world and the many ‘moons’ since television entered our homes, Omar Shoter remains far from jaded and reiterates, “It is a privilege to be able to bring television into the homes of people and allow them access to programming of their choice.”