Satellite still remains the best method of providing the highest quality content reliably, and it’s this trump card that will enable it to compete with OTT, writes Andrew Bond of ETL Systems.
As viewers demand content everywhere at any time, eschewing linear viewing in place of the widespread adoption of OTT services, some suggest that satellite for broadcasting is moving towards its demise. While it’s true that fibre, OTT and other internet-based distribution methods have caused the satellite industry to lose some of its market share, rumours that satellite has had its day are not strictly true.
The high demand for live events and sport is great news for the satellite industry. There’s no way of ensuring reliable and quality coverage of live events without satellite. Of course, the dependence of 4K OTT content on fast internet speeds also plays into the hands of satellite, since even areas of the UK struggle to reach the required speeds needed to stream 4K perfectly.
OTT is undoubtedly piling the pressure on broadcasters. To maintain the attractiveness of satellite in the face of this competition, it’s important that broadcasters ensure that viewers at home get a high-quality feed resilient to outages. This way, satellite broadcasting continues to offer something which OTT and other internet-based service can sometimes fail to provide.
At the same time, the responsibility for maintaining a quality viewing experience doesn’t just lie with the broadcaster. It’s up to the entire satellite industry (manufacturers and operators alike) and all those with a stake in the satellite broadcasting sector. After all, when a consumer experiences a poor-quality broadcast, it not only encourages that one consumer to move away from satellite services, it can cast doubt over satellite broadcasting as a whole.
In the case of live sport, particularly long-distance events or those based in a rural location, not many other distribution methods can provide the required level of reliability” Andrew Bond, ETL Systems
Of course, it’s not just consistent quality that satellite can offer. In April this year, a report from Futuresource Consulting predicted that consumer demand for TV sets would return to growth of 5% in 2018, boosted by 4K ultra high definition (UHD). I see this trend reflected in the satellite industry too, with demand for 4K content pushing the popularity of satellite services. This is because satellite is well capable of coping with the high bandwidth required by 4K, whereas streaming this content usually requires internet speeds of around 25Mbps. This is pretty significant when we consider that the BBC recently reported that the average broadband speed in the UK is 18.5Mbps.
With all this talk of the death of satellite, it’s easy to forget that satellite is still the most relevant choice for broadcasting popular events. When a signal needs to go to 100 broadcasters at the same time, for example, satellite is always the most cost-effective way of doing so. Just one SES satellite, Astra 3B, currently carries 243 channels, reaching a huge 35 million households. This doesn’t even take into account the importance of satellite for broadcasting live events and sports, which almost completely relies on satellites like Astra 3B.
For one, live sport and breaking news aren’t well suited to the OTT viewing experience. This is due to the demand for immediate coverage and little to no latency, as well as social factors in the case of sports viewing. It’s difficult to imagine satellite becoming irrelevant with such high demand for sport and other live events to be made available to viewers unable to attend.
In the case of live sport, particularly long-distance events or those based in a rural location (rallying or cycling races for example), not many other distribution methods can provide the required level of reliability. Broadcasters spend billions of pounds for the rights to some popular sporting events; imagine the disruption if a feed was suddenly cut off or became unwatchable. That’s not to mention that consumers pay a lot for satellite TV packages that include access to this sports content. Any disruption or even minor latency could prove seriously detrimental. With satellite, sports rights holders know a feed is reliable, cost-effective and offers viewers the best possible quality.
News events are rarely predictable. Despite the fact that we live in an increasingly connected world, news reporters can’t always rely on there being a fibre connection installed at every breaking news site. This is particularly the case in remote locations, where satellite remains the only option. The problem for the satellite industry is that outside broadcast (OB) relies on very small aperture terminals (VSATs). These are cheap and quick to install, but almost everyone working with them admits they are a cause of many problems and transmission errors. It’s absolutely essential that we don’t allow errors caused by VSATs to threaten the validity of satellite broadcasting. Luckily, many of the problems pertain to poorly made equipment and components, which is at least easily solvable by investing in properly manufactured equipment.
It actually makes more cost-effective sense to invest in quality equipment, especially for moving parts like amplifiers, attenuators, block up converters, couplers, etc. That’s because the added cost of better-quality equipment is offset by spending less time and resources solving VSAT problems. Broadcasters are under increasing pressure to keep subscription costs low (partly because of OTT), so operational costs must also be kept to a minimum. Satellite operators that invest in the right equipment can keep errors to a minimum. In turn, this means less expenditure of resources, meaning they can keep the cost of services low and reliability high. That’s a win-win for everyone.
There seems to be a misconception surrounding satellite that it is a legacy technology and won’t keep up with the pace of change. In actuality, satellite is a highly innovative industry which is constantly developing solutions to problems around the world. It’s the satellite sector which developed auto-pointing antennas to solve the problem of unskilled employees incorrectly setting up VSATs, for example. Without doubt, satellite will remain relevant, an opinion reflected by a report from Northern Sky Research, which points out: “It is sometimes easy to forget that video markets remain the single largest driver of satellite revenues worldwide, and are expected to continue to do so moving forward.”