NAB Reflections: Intelsat’s Bill O’Hara on CellSat and the Future of Hybrid Networks

Blending connectivity solutions improves robustness for users

Last year, Intelsat teamed with Dejero to launch CellSat, a service providing broadcasters with blended cellular and Ku-band IP connectivity for live television coverage from remote locations. The network-blending technology, which was highlighted extensively at Intelsat’s NAB 2018 booth last week, combines cellular connectivity from multiple mobile-network carriers with Ku-band IP connectivity provided by Intelsat. If the bandwidth available from cellular connections dips with network congestion or other factors, CellSat automatically blends in Ku-band IP satellite connectivity to boost bandwidth.

During the show, SVG sat down with Bill O’Hara, managing sales director, North America, Intelsat, to discuss CellSat and how the market has reacted to the new platform, as well as the potential rise of 5G, how satellite providers can factor into the live-streaming market, and more.

Bill O’Hara at the Intelsat booth at NAB 2018

Tell us a bit about the CellSat platform and how it’s being used in the field?
How we’re working with our customers and partners to provide a blend of connectivity solutions, bringing content from remote locations in a very reliable way. The best solution for a customer is probably not just one type of connectivity but multiple [types] used at the same time. We want you to be able to continue to leverage the connectivity that you have, but, if it starts degrading a little bit, you can augment that with reliable robust connectivity, which is satellite.

How has the market responded to CellSat since its launch last year?
The response has been really strong with our broadcaster friends, especially for covering local news and things like that. In areas that are remote or for very high-demand events, where you have thousands of people showing up to a location utilizing cellular, there has traditionally been a weakness [with] bonded-cellular services because networks get saturated and bandwidth decreases. In those types of use cases, we’ve seen our broadcaster friends utilizing CellSat and valuing the fact that they can have robust connectivity in situations where they could not in the past. So that’s been great.

It’s a great sweet spot because we still have a strong OU [occasional-use] community that uses strictly satellite, but there certainly were applications that were singularly bonded cellular. To be able to offer a middle ground of bonded-cellular–based [connectivity with] satellite [deployed] on an as-needed basis, that’s a lot of value that satellite is bringing to [a market] that we did not previously serve.

I think this is a true testament to our ability to innovate and where we’re going as a company: realizing that the future lies in hybrid networks and choosing the right connectivity at any moment to solve the problem.

Obviously, we’ve seen an explosion in live streaming and OTT over the past few years. Do you foresee satellite providers like Intelsat breaking into these markets?
Absolutely. It’s more eyeballs for our partners and the programmers that work with us, and we can help them deliver content more reliably. The reliability and scalability [of satellite] is certainly something that I think we see, as growth occurs in streaming markets as well. Satellite is arguably the most scalable platform for media distribution; we distribute on a daily basis to tens and tens of millions of subscribers. At the same time, over 75% of people that go to stream sports content expect there to be an issue. So, with bonded cellular and [its] scalability issues in certain situations, I think we can find ways to augment [connectivity] and do similar things [for streaming]

At NAB 2018, there has been a lot of talk about the upcoming deployment of 5G. How do you see that impacting Intelsat and the satellite business overall?
I think that the most important thing to remember is that we are incredibly committed to C-band spectrum within North America. This is reflected, for example, in our ordering a Galaxy 30, which is the newest member in the Galaxy fleet, replacing Galaxy 14. That is a significant investment in the C-band spectrum for us. Everything that we’re doing in terms of our initiative, our partnership with Intel and SES is focused on providing certainty around the C band spectrum.

But there are, of course, other forces at play, and the FCC has made clear that there’s a lot of interest in driving 5G. There are two outcomes from this. First, our C-band customers have a lot of certainty going forward that their spectrum will remain clear, usable, and protected, so that feeds investment and innovation in that space. Second, it also allows for driving growth and the adoption of 5G by allowing joint use of particular parts of spectrum. That’s very much our push forward: provide that for our end customers, who we feel will be utilizing 5G as well as satellite for distribution channels.

In terms of the sports space specifically, what have been some recent highlights for Intelsat?
It’s been a really key area for us on the OU side, as always. We were the sole satellite operator for the NCAA [Men’s Basketball] Tournament on an OU basis, and we’re extremely proud of that.

And then CellSat has certainly seen more interest [from sports customers] recently. The biggest demand that we’ve been seeing has been in hyper-localized sports, such as high school sports. These are [venues] where there were severe connectivity challenges, whether through bonded cellular or lack of internet capacity. The ability to blend connectivity has suddenly opened up channels to receive that content, which would have been either more cost-ineffective or just unpractical completely before.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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