Jamming/interference reduction Tech Features

Interference in satellite broadcasting can no longer be ignored: Martin Coleman of Satellite IRG

With increased competition from streaming services, interference in satellite broadcasting can no longer be ignored, writes Martin Coleman of the Satellite Interference Reduction Group.
Martin Coleman.

For broadcasters, satellite interference can seem like a thorn in the side. It’s always there niggling away, but it’s not something that usually causes major disruption or is worth worrying about. Interference is seen as a satellite problem, and not something broadcasters can tackle easily. But interference becomes much more than just a nuisance if it hampers the provision of content to consumers, especially with increased competition from OTT providers.

This is not bad news, as several measures are already in place on the satellite side of the fence to ensure the validity and reliability of satellite broadcasting. In some ways, it’s these measures that make broadcasters feel safe in their assumption that interference isn’t a big problem. So where does the broadcast industry currently stand in relation to interference, and where does it go from there?

The Current State of Interference

Solutions that have proved successful in the past haven’t been designed to work long-term. For example, satellite operators have long been simply moving broadcast customers to different spectra to solve interference issues in the short term. This means we gradually end up with scattered amounts of unusable bandwidth, as well as doing nothing to consider how we could prevent interference in the long term.

The inception of Carrier ID (CID) has helped. For one, it is great that satellite manufacturers were able to come together towards a common goal, but we still struggle to encourage users to fully adopt CID or simply switch it on! It is already in all modems and modulators, but very often it is shipped with CID switched off. Many broadcasters are not aware of CID or even realise that it needs to be activated, so there is still work in progress here.

Interference will probably always be a problem, but if we can get better at spotting patterns of occurrences, we will be able to resolve them more quickly using technology” Martin Coleman, Executive Director, The Satellite Interference Reduction Group

Low budgets also counteract the ability for broadcasters to embrace CID. There is a reluctance to invest in new CID-enabled equipment when existing infrastructures are still operating well. And, of course, broadcasting is changing with IP and the use of VSATs.

These changes in broadcasting have naturally led those tackling satellite interference to rethink the mitigation strategy. For OB, VSATs are now essential, but they have been responsible for causing an unparalleled percentage of interference. Statistics aired at last year’s IRG Annual Workshop neared 40%. OB services can include breaking news, live events and sports. It’s imperative that these remain error-free, not only so that broadcast customers are satisfied, but also so that the validity of satellite bandwidth is maintained.

Poor equipment is a big cause of problems with VSAT. The terminals themselves can be cheaply made, as they are designed to be quick to deploy and cost-effective, but the result is often more errors in the long run. Broadcasters must ensure they always invest in the best quality equipment to avoid this issue.

Another issue with VSATs is human error. Broadcast personnel do not always have the specialist satellite knowledge required to operate equipment. On top of this, in the OB environment it is common to see only two people, or even one, responsible for the entire operation. As a result, there is a lot of pressure on these multi-skilled employees, which can often lead to more errors.

Over the last five years and on the back of CID, manufacturers have been developing a range of new tools for VSAT operations and management, which have proved effective when integrated into broadcast operations. Particularly useful for correct installation of VSATs, these tools can monitor for issues and auto-point antennas, for example, as well as now being able to quickly find any VSAT terminal that may be causing problems, regardless of the size of the operating network.

A Competitive Future

Broadcasters are facing a challenging environment, with increased competition from streaming services and tightening budgets. With a desire to keep operational costs low, it’s no wonder interference isn’t at the top of their to-do list.

At the same time, though satellite broadcast providers shouldn’t be too worried about the so-called death of satellite, they should at least be prepared to put some measures in place at their end to ensure that services offer reliability and quality. This relies on preventing disruption caused by interference.

For broadcasters, entire operations rely on resilient transmissions – if there’s any disruption, it can mean two things: • A bad user experience for consumers • Potential loss of revenue from interrupted ads

Particularly for live sports, events and breaking news (which still rely almost solely on satellite), any disruptions can have serious consequences on the overall business operations of the broadcaster.

While interference may not be a big enough problem, the consequences of even the smallest amount of interference are much more significant than they were when satellite broadcasting dominated the market.

An AI Collaboration

The satellite industry has always innovated to stay relevant; you only need to look at the amazing applications it enables across the globe to see this. The broadcast industry is much the same, having evolved significantly since the inception of broadcast television.

Having said this, artificial intelligence remains relatively unexplored in the satellite industry, especially when we consider the breadth of advancement the technology has enabled in other sectors. The broadcast industry, on the other hand, is awash with talk of AI-enabled processes, from content management to network optimisation. This poses the question: could we both work together to explore the potential for AI to solve the issue of interference and for more efficient management of our ever growing and complex networks?

AI and machine learning techniques have the potential to improve processes and efficiency, and possibly completely remove the likelihood of interference incidents. Furthermore, as the learning process gathers knowledge over time, the more precise characterisation of a problem means decision-making and predictive processes become more accurate. It is likely that incident management will speed up by augmenting this new process with automated systems and tools. It will also be interesting to see if deliberate interference can be avoided before it happens, using our collected data and adding both commercial and political trending to this specific scenario. Interference will probably always be a problem, but if we can get better at spotting patterns of occurrences, we will be able to resolve them more quickly using technology.

The current state of interference, in general, is positive. Our members are constantly developing tools and methods to limit the disruption caused by interference, but we in the satellite industry need to work more closely with those in the broadcast space to find real, workable solutions for the long term. AI could be one major solution, so I’m excited to see where it takes us.

Going forward, we would like to get broadcasters to the table. That way, they can better communicate what tools and technologies they really need from the satellite industry to improve operations and prevent incidences of interference in the first place. Collaboration is the key to the successful future of satellite broadcasting.

Martin Coleman is Executive Director of The Satellite Interference Reduction Group