— The world’s two largest commercial satellite fleet operators have embarked on a joint effort to tackle the long-simmering problem of unintentional satellite signal interference, which industry officials say has gotten worse in recent years with the privatization of the satellite services sector.
Bermuda- and Washington-based Intelsat and SES of Luxembourg have called on other satellite operators to join in creating an industry-wide database to collect information on interference, and to endorse standardized training and certification for personnel who install and operate satellite uplink facilities.
For some industry officials, the initiative by the two industry heavyweights is a long-overdue response to complaints by users. These officials say the growth of the commercial satellite business in the last decade that was stimulated by privatization has been accompanied by an increase in haphazard ground antenna installation and operating techniques.
Industry associations such as the Satellite Users Interference Reduction Group (SUIRG) and the Global VSAT Forum (GVF) have been warning about interference for years, apparently to little effect.
SUIRG President Robert W. Ames said that, based on research done by SUIRG, a satellite operator spends the equivalent of one full-time salaried employee per satellite per year just to handle interference-related issues.
“One major broadcaster told me his company is spending around $2.3 million per year fighting interference,”
said in an April 16 interview. “They need to hire a whole crew to fight it. Go to any conference of satellite users, and this is the problem they all want to talk about.”
Satellite signal interference can be divided into three main categories. The first is intentional interference, which despite several high-profile incidents, especially in East Asia, is viewed as still a relatively minor phenomenon.
The second type is unintentional interference from terrestrial wireless broadband transmitters, usually operating legally, that overwhelm a nearby satellite uplink station’s ability to send or receive clear signals. This remains a major problem despite the partial victory of the satellite industry at the November 2007 World Radiocommunication Conference of frequency regulators, but it is a battle waged with national regulators.
The third kind of interference is related to companies building, installing and operating two-way satellite antennas and terminals. This is the area in which the Intelsat-SES initiative is intended to make an impact.
Intelsat Chief Executive David McGlade said he has concluded that the problem will not go away just by leaving it to local satellite ground station operators to fix it. In a March 27 interview, he said Intelsat and SES are ready to encourage SUIRG and GVF efforts to train personnel in how to install satellite ground gear, and how to operate it.
“When markets deregulate, local authorities like to turn to local industry capability to provide the TVRO or DTH capability,” GVF Secretary-General David Hartshorn said in an April 15 interview, referring to receive-only satellite television equipment. “At the same time, satellite operators have backed away from requiring type approval of equipment.”
The huge decline in the prices of VSATs, or very small aperture terminals – two-way satellite communications terminals – has democratized the industry and fed the growth of companies that have no special expertise but are nonetheless installing satellite Earth stations. “We were told about one company whose business was installing hot tubs and VSATs,” Hartshorn said.
A badly pointed satellite antenna can cause signal interference on a neighboring transponder on the satellite the antenna is supposed to connect to, or on a spacecraft located at an adjacent slot in geostationary orbit.
It is not just antennas. Ames said substandard cabling at a satellite Earth station will result in the inadvertent pickup of FM radio signals, which are then beamed up to the satellite. “This is what happens when cables are not properly sealed,”
said Intelsat and SES have indicated they would assist, either with cash or in-kind contributions, in increasing the number of satellite Earth station installers that are given GVF’s one-day course in how to do the job. GVF has agreed to reduce the price of its training courses in less-developed nations.
The difficulty is that visiting, for example, the major African cities to host training courses is expensive, as is bringing the trainees to a single training center.
said GVF and SUIRG will be upgrading their online training courses, but this effort cannot replace trainees’ physical presence at a course using real antennas pointed at real satellites.
In addition to training, the Intelsat-SES initiative seeks to encourage manufacturers of satellite Earth stations to include carrier-ID technology in their products. This would give operators the exact location of the antennas, enabling a quicker response to interference.