Radiofrequency interference isn’t something satellite operators like to talk about, but by most accounts the problem is growing. Deliberate jamming of satellite broadcasts tends to grab the headlines, but 96 percent of the problem is caused by faulty or improperly installed ground equipment, says Martin Coleman, executive director of the Satellite Interference Reduction Group, or sIRG.

Known until early last year as the Satellite Users Interference Reduction Group, the restructured organization, based in Britain’s Isle of Man, is today focused on promoting technology to combat the problem. Priority No. 1 is carrier ID, a stamp on uplink signals that will enable operators experiencing accidental interference to quickly identify the intended satellite service provider.

Carrier ID’s big validation rollout is at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, where several broadcasters have agreed to use the technology. Competing carrier ID systems developed by Comtech and Newtec are expected to hit the market sometime thereafter.

Coleman, who in the corporate world is director of satellite and broadcast network services provider Colem Communications Ltd., spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.


Who carries the onus to install carrier ID?

Broadcasters have to put the stamp on. The satellite operators have to detect the stamp. And they put that into an automated system. We’re right at the beginning. We recently brought carrier monitoring specialists together with manufacturers and satellite operators. We brought those people together because we’ve got carriers in place to test carrier ID. It’s not so much testing the ID; it’s to test the process. Nobody swaps commercial information. It’s just a stamp that says, “Oh, this guy belongs to SES, this guy belongs to Intelsat.” But in Intelsat or SES’s database, that ID then refers to telephone numbers — who it is, where it’s coming from.


What is the cost of the interference problem?

Approximately, for every satellite you own, it’s at least a million bucks a year. When you work the sums out for Intelsat and SES and Eutelsat, it’s a big number. We think it’s probably higher, but I’ll give you a conservative estimate. What’s happening is the day-to-day interference is taking all their time so they can’t investigate the difficult stuff. The good guys, all of them will adopt carrier ID. Then they’ve got staff to concentrate on cleaning up the bad stuff.


Is the interference problem getting worse?

Right now it’s getting slightly worse because of the sheer weight of the traffic. But the word is getting out, people are starting to be a little more careful and everybody’s starting to look at ways of fixing it. So we won’t stop it increasing, but I hope we start to slow the rate of increase down. It’s going to be a very slow process to flip over the coin and start to reduce. But if we don’t do anything and leave it another year, and another year, it’s going up exponentially. If we don’t tackle it, which is what’s been going on for decades, we’re in trouble.


Is there a financial incentive for broadcasters to install carrier ID?

Your cost per megahertz could come down once you start to clean things up. People who are given wider bandwidths to put their same traffic in can now have the bandwidth they should have, which then releases capacity for other users. This is, if you like, the financial incentive for everybody.


Where is the industry in terms of adopting carrier ID?

We have the technology and we’re in the testing phase. It’s like a project: We’ve bought the kit and now we’ve got to go through the testing and get ready for service. We’ve had confirmation that Eurovision, SISlink and APTN are all ID ready for the Olympics. We want to ID every transmission out of London for the Olympics. That’s what we want to use as our marketing tool to make it start. And then the idea is to pull the drain lids up after the Olympics to say, “Well that was good; this was bad, the process was sort of OK but we could improve how we work together to solve the problems.” So we’ve got a process, very simple, very manual. Learn to walk before we run.


Then what happens?

By the time we finish the Olympics, the Digital Video Broadcasting Project should have ratified the technology for the carrier ID we want for the future. Newtec and Comtech are already geared up to ensure that by somewhere around the middle of 2013 they’ll be fully ID compliant on all equipment. Once that happens, the satellite operators can say all new services must have carrier ID. Eutelsat announced last year that all new services will have the simple ID by June 30 this year. SES and Intelsat are now following. We’re concentrating on the three big guys because that’s how you get the dominoes to fall. They pretty much cover what, 55, 60 percent of the satellite market? That gives us a good start. The idea then is once you get new services, look at everybody and say by the first of January 2015 it will be a requirement on all services. That will give time to add boxes and be able to do this on legacy equipment.


How much will this cost?

We’re thinking in the few hundred dollars per uplink. Sometimes free — if it’s in equipment, it’ll just be there. We’ve got to keep it cheap for the uplink. Now the satellite operator has to invest in specialized carrier monitoring equipment to do all this automatically, so we get the satellite operators, the few, to spend the bucks because they’re the ones — if you like— losing the bucks.


Are your efforts exclusively devoted to promoting and supporting carrier ID?

Obviously we’re going for carrier ID big time but because of carrier ID we’ve actually started a working group looking at satellite ID to help auto-deployed, communications-on-the move terminals because the one thing that’s still bad with these terminals — they come out of a suitcase — is you can’t guarantee you’re on the right satellite. A lot of them are automated and a lot of them make mistakes, coming up on the wrong satellite, not pointing correctly. But if we could identify the satellites, each one would know this is the right satellite.


When might you start more aggressively promoting satellite ID?

After the Olympics, at our next annual conference, usually at the back end of the year, I would like to start that next campaign. We’re also looking at new technologies on satellites to do geo-location, the methods of finding transmission. Carrier ID’s the easy bit; it starts on the ground. Satellite ID, the beginnings of satellite ID, will have to be done by either special transmissions or some signature analysis of each satellite. But wouldn’t it be great if the satellite just had the ID built in? We’re going to need two to three technologies to get satellite ID progressed to the perfect solution. But we’ve got to deal with it now. Because auto-deploy terminal users are growing like mad — the military is buying these systems by the thousand and we’re making thousands of mistakes.


You’ve been trying to get the military on board with all of this. Is that a different challenge?

Yes, because they’re cautious. They’re going to be slower to pick up because they want to check everything out and make sure that the ID is just an ID and it doesn’t actually give them away. But they’ve just realized that as soon as the commercial world adopts carrier ID, they need ID. They’ve realized that if we go ahead and ID, everything that isn’t, the military will get blamed for. We’ve both got to get it together to standardize so that everybody looks the same.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...