By Angela Sutherland
|~||~||~|As corporate networks continue with their shift to broadband speeds, integrated applications and internet protocol (IP) services, CIOs are faced with immense pressure to provide connectivity to all their geographically dispersed locations. In order to meet this challenge, they are turning options such as satellite connectivity.
For instance, wired, wireless and satellite network provider NET has worked with the United Nations to deploy solutions for the Ministry of Environment in Iraq to facilitate internet access, data transfer and video conferencing in the war-torn nation. “The Ministry wanted a fast and effective solution to its communication needs. We built and tested the solution in the UAE before working with our partners in Iraq, Delta Net, to coordinate the installations and provide the customer with the system it required,” says Omar Naji, CEO of NET. In war-ravaged countries like Iraq, where there is no infrastructure, businesses prefer satellite connectivity. It provides secure communications than terrestrial landlines. 80% of Middle East’s population lives in rural areas. For many, satellite presents the best means for carrying international traffic. Historically, satellites have been associated with situations where there is little or no infrastructure available.
“The demand for satellite connectivity in the Middle East is high because a great deal of the region does not have [proper] fixed infrastructures at this present time. While the obvious example is Iraq, this is also true of many other countries in the region,” says Naji. “With satellite services enterprises are not dependent on the traditional infrastructures, which makes satellite based networks attractive for mobile sites, whether these be vehicle mounted or temporary sites. The only requirement is an electricity supply, but the power requirements are generally small and thus rarely an issue,” he adds. NET has also carried out a number of implementations closer to home, including one at Dubai Festival City where it provided the construction site with satellite connectivity, enabling the contractor to link to its head office despite not having an IT infrastructure.
Another reason for the growing demand of satellite services is its broad area of application in private networks. Corporations use private satellite network when they want point-to-point or point-to-multipoint or even multipoint-to-multipoint communications with or without internet connectivity. Unlike terrestrial alternatives, this network provides a separate, high-speed delivery channel to meet an organisation’s content delivery requirement. Credit Card Company Visa uses its traditional fixed line connectivity to conduct millions of transactions around the world. However, its global processing network, VisaNet, has been using satellite connectivity from Inmarsat since 1992 to conduct business in the Middle East, Central Eastern Europe & Africa. About two years ago, it secured a contract with the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) in Baghdad for domestic money transfer, and all its transactions are done exclusively via satellite.
Twenty state and privately owned commercial banks in Iraq have activated a full interbank and intrabank payment system that link not only the banks to each other, but also the entire Iraqi financial sector to the global banking industry. The automated system, which is based on a reliable money transfer service using a transportation type called Original Credit, allows funds transfer through VisaNet. Furthermore, like Visa, oil& gas companies also conduct a small part of their business via satellite, and again, not by choice. For example, Abu Dhabi for Onshore Oil Operation (ADCO) uses the services of the National Drilling Companies (NDC) to receive e-mail and data from its drilling rigs. NDC uses satellite connectivity to receive the data.
Late 2005, Emirates Airline teamed up with Inmarsat to enhance the in-flight communications on its fleet of eight Airbus A340-500s by enabling passengers to wirelessly connect to the internet. Using a Tenzing solution and the inbuilt infrastructure on the aircraft, passengers can now access their own e-mail accounts from their laptops while in the air. Passengers on the A340-500s, which are used on long-haul routes including New Zealand and Australia, now have a variety of connectivity options, which all rely on Inmarsat’s satellite communications system. For instance, the aircraft have seatback e-mail and SMS capability, which allows passengers to send a message to the ground via the touch screen in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen.
“We wanted to offer business people the chance to get their e-mail using their own e-mail account. Primarily that’s from a laptop, and a lot of businesspeople do travel with laptops,” says Patrick Brannelly, vice president, passenger communications & visual services, Emirates. “The advantage of being able to check your own account, whether it’s Hotmail, AOL or a company account, is plain,” he adds. Passengers throughout the aircraft can connect to the e-mail service using either a cable connection or the new wireless service. The wireless option gives passengers a dataflow rate of 11 M/bytes/s. It uses a standard wireless local area network (WLAN) system, 802.11b,which automatically identifies the users’ laptops and e-mail accounts, so they do not need to install any software on their machine. The aircraft are built with a WLAN infrastructure already installed and the onboard server and satellite communications systems are also Tenzing-ready.
Satellite operators are investing heavily in technology — providing faster broadband connectivity. They are also becoming total communications solution providers — bringing together their satellite capacity with fibre capacity to provide a range of solutions. These ‘hybrid’ solutions are becoming part of their end-to-end customised market offerings.
Businesses are not against using satellite, they are just not ready to make the shift from their fixed line connectivity and embrace something new and considerably more expensive, which may not be necessary in their day-to-day operation. Satellite broadband is still a niche product. It will only be used by businesses that are in remote areas where there is no fixed or terrestrial cellular network, or those that need temporary connections. However, the cost is no longer an issue.
“I think companies that have not before considered satellite based solutions may be surprised at the affordability of modern systems. In some cases there really is no option other than a satellite network, but even when there is a choice between a traditional network and a satellite based network, the latter can be attractive,” Haji says. “While prices for bandwidth have not changed significantly over the last five years, there has been a huge price reduction in hardware for satellite-based networks. Furthermore, for small businesses that cannot afford to maintain some of the more complex systems, such as VSAT are now available in a "one-box" solution which can be entirely managed by the service provider.” One single major advantage of satellite systems that make it attractive to end-users is their flexibility. They can be setup quickly and easily, bandwidth can be tailored to meet demands, contention ratios of the service can be varied, all of which can be done usually within 24 hours of the request.
Furthermore, global satellite communications provider Inmarsat launched its Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) late 2005, bringing the service to the Middle East first. BGAN provides both voice and data services simultaneously at speeds of up to 500Kbps through portable terminals smaller than a laptop. “It was a pragmatic decision. There is more business per square kilometre in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world. So for our existing business, we can say there’s a good opportunity in the region,” says Inmarsat CEO Andrew Sukawaty. In preparation for the BGAN launch Inmarsat has been readying its I-4 satellite, which was early 2005. “Satellite connectivity offers a reliable means of communication that is available in areas where traditional terrestrial infrastructure is non-existent or simply of poor quality. In general, terrestrial infrastructure is only deployed in areas of high population density. Satellite connectivity by nature covers larger footprints,” says Samer Halawi, regional director for Inmarsat Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.
He says there is a strong demand for satellite connectivity in the Middle East. The region has a number of rural and remote areas with low population densities where it becomes difficult and economically not feasible to connect them through terrestrial infrastructure. “Furthermore, the region is rich with natural resources, which tend to exist in remote areas, attracting enterprises that need communications in their endeavours to exploit those resources. The Middle East is a region from which there is much media reporting, and that exclusively requires satellite communications,” he explains.
The demand for satellite connectivity is starting to grow in the Middle East’s enterprise sector. However, this growth will not be straightforward, and not across-the-board. Satellite is a technology that is looking for a market. Until a ‘killer application’ becomes available to satellite operators, the demand for their products and services is going to be specific to industries such as military and marine, but not to the business sector. The industry is experiencing the low communications cost in the fixed line market with increasing performance and improved latency, so unless a business has a requirement for data on the move, it will stay away from satellite connectivity.
Research company Futron says the challenge facing the satellite industry as a whole — operators and manufacturers of space and ground hardware — is to seek out opportunities in the business to maximise the value of the short term markets, without committing to those that will decline in the long term. Continued development is needed of satellites and ground terminals that can serve not just today’s last-mile growth business, but also tomorrow’s steady private network. Success of satellite connectivity in the enterprise sector will require careful timing to catch windows of opportunities as they appear in different regions in the Middle East. Furthermore, research firm Spotbeam says there is a growing demand for satellite connectivity in the Middle East’s military. There appears to be an immediate and significant demand for capacity on existing commercial satellites for military broadband requirements, according to Spotbeam.
Charles D’Alberto, CEO of digitalskys believes enterprises are starting to understand the advantages of satellite technology. In some instances, ROIs are much high than that of traditional networks. “The advantages are on many fronts. For people out of traditional coverage, satellite offers a unique alternative to receiving fast internet and voice communications. Users can have satellite telephone communications while on the move, or in isolated areas, almost anywhere on the planet,” says D’Alberto. “In addition, business can be done even if no fixed line connectivity exists, allowing users to work and communicate everywhere. There is no need for office locations to be close to industrial or high population centres. In some cases, the whole business can be conducted online.”
Inmarsat’s Halawi shares D’Alberto viewpoint. He says businesses are investing in satellite connectivity because in some cases it is the only technology that is available or that works, but mostly because the absence of mission critical communication is a lot more expensive than using the technology itself. “Imagine the economical losses from downtime that is due to not being able to communicate, and you would appreciate the value of having communications at hand at anytime. Also, satellite connectivity is very important in saving lives, and those are of course priceless.”
Intelsat says Middle East businesses are slowly starting to see the benefits of transmitting data via satellite, which provides a secure, reliable and efficient way to communicate. It also offers the ability to connect multiple locations, even in terrestrially underserved areas.
Latency is an issue that has affected satellite operators since the very first international telephone call. A one-way transponder delay in excess of 400ms is not uncommon and despite substantial advances in technology, it remains a barrier for many customers using real-time applications. In addition, it has always been technically difficult to provide a high-speed symmetrical service to many subscribers due to poor physical transponder capacity. Carriers favour an asymmetrical access for this type of application and use fixed line connectivity as an “upstream” link and the satellite for the high speed download portion. However, satellite is considered to have advantages that fibre does not and satellite communications operators are leveraging these factors in an attempt to woo enterprise customers.