When Elon Musk launched his car in 2018, he also launched his first test-flight Starlink satellites. In August, Starlink will be worldwide.
The launch of new low orbit satellites for global network coverage will have a significant impact on remote live streaming for broadcasters and webcasters. With the likes of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Amazon’s Kuiper, or one of the other vendors such as Oneweb vying for vertical space, the outlook for remote communications has never looked more open for change.
Low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites will bring major new developments with lower latency, higher-resolution streaming workflows for applications such as live news gathering and remote sports production from virtually everywhere. Compared to the familiar 0.24 second round trip delay of expensive geosynchronous broadcast satellites plus local signal processing latencies, the raw LEO satellite delay is 3 frames at p60, which shrinks to less than one frame before the satellite falls from orbit at about 100 miles.
If you take any snapshot in time of the broadcasting industry, you will always see much in the way of innovation. It is an industry that never stands still and embraces continuous change. If you look at current trends of today, you will see an industry undergoing a migration away from baseband video to IP workflows, coupled with a move to cloud-based implementations. And of course, a major discussion point over the last two years has been 5G and what this will enable in terms of remote live streaming and company interconnectivity.
However, it seems that 5G has a major competitor lurking under the radar which until very recently has almost gone unnoticed, and that is the launch of new satellite services from the likes of Musk and Bezos.
Return to Satellites?
Traditional satellite service such as BGAN and VSAT are still in existence and there is some irony that approximately 10 years ago there was a major shift from satellite to more compact forms of communication using cellular connections, and now we are expecting to see a return to satellite. But not everything is as it seems.
It used to be that the average news channel would rely on electronic newsgathering (ENG) microwave trucks and satellite newsgathering (SNG) trucks to backhaul live TV content from nearly any remote location. But when several companies began inventing cellular encoders that could be carried in a backpack, it invoked a major change for the industry. As with any new technology with a vested interest in the status-quo, there were always those skeptics believing that cellular could never offer an SLA to make live broadcasting reliable enough for mission critical application such as live news delivery.
Manufacturers mitigated against the skeptical by developing bonded technology, which is the ability to take multiple cellular carriers from different operators as a single connection with true bandwidth split across all available network connections. They would use adaptive encoding to optimize video based on available networks and could dynamically change the encoding if levels would deviate, especially when in a moving vehicle for example. The technology was quickly adopted by practically all the major global news teams and proved to be more cost effective and versatile than traditional satellite.
With both 5G and easy low orbit satellite connections, the live streaming market is about to evolve massively.
Satellite Time as a Commodity
These new satellite communications being currently launched are aimed for the commodity market, making it easier to use and is expected to be at a lower cost. The expectation for live streaming is the ability to add an extra communication channel will add not only additional bandwidth to support new resolutions such as 4K or additional channels within the same encoder, but will open up the technology to be used in remote areas where traditionally live streaming may be difficult due to lack of cellular coverage by any carrier.
Mobile Viewpoint has already been testing a Starlink device. Equipped with a specialized satellite dish that self-tracks the satellite, they were quickly able to prove the technology is already in a position where it has potential and were able to live stream in full HD, despite the fact that SpaceX are still in the process of launching satellites to fulfill the service.
Michel Bais, Managing Director of Mobile Viewpoint explains “The Starlink device is relatively lightweight and is a portable device. This means it can be easily used with our mobile encoders giving you the versatility to live stream from anywhere. Starlink is still in its infancy so one small drawback we experienced was that due to lack of satellite coverage, when switching between satellites, we experienced drop frames so we needed to increase the latency to compensate. We use error correction so we can resend missed frames, but we need to increase the overall delay to cover this.”
Error correction is a technique used to resend IP packets in the event they are lost to keep a continuous uninterrupted stream, but it can add a couple of seconds of delay.
Bais continues “We would expect SpaceX to address this over time as more satellites come on line, but when combined as part of our bonding algorithm with other connections, we can mitigate further against this reliability and latency issue. But the point is, in the longer term, just imagine all the additional applications for remote streaming this will open up.”
Hybrid Backpack Solutions
As with 5G, adoption is expected to accelerate over the coming months and years, and Starlink and other LEOs will be accessible in new cellular backpack solutions. This can be part of a fully resilient network strategy to create a bonded network consisting not only of existing 3G/4G/5G cellular networks, and Wifi connections, but with the addition of new satellite connections such as Starlink, this will enable even more possibilities. It will facilitate high quality live streaming for news, sports and other live streaming applications such as encrypted surveillance from places that before were impossible to obtain connectivity.
The set-up and use of Starlink is much easier than previous satellite systems meaning it really can be utilized as a commodity product and at a much lower cost. As part of the tests, Mobile Viewpoint were achieving approximately 30Mb/sec of upload speed which is enough for 4K or a multi-channel unit for multi-camera live production in HD.
Still Needs Line of Sight
As with all satellite systems, a line of sight is needed, unlike cellular this will not work indoors or in places where transmission could be interrupted such as trees. And unlike traditional geo stationary satellites, the dish or antenna needs to switch over to new satellites which it does automatically.
Though Starlink is currently leading the way with low orbit systems, others such as Amazon’s Kuiper are hot on their heels. Amazon is claiming their antenna prototype has a diameter of just 12 inches, the antenna is “smaller and lighter than legacy antenna designs.” This comes out to an area of roughly 730 square centimeters, versus SpaceX with 2,100 square centimeters, making the Kuiper antenna about 34% the size of a Starlink antenna. For mobile type live streaming applications, this could be a significant consideration for portability.
The technology is in its infancy but given the massive investment that is currently been injected into this enterprise, the expectation is that universal adoption will not be far away. As SpaceX launches up to 60 satellites at a time, they are aiming to deploy 1,584 to provide near-global service by 2022. SpaceX's goal is to launch around 42,000 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit by mid-2027. When compared to Amazons Kuiper, this is a stark difference of their 3,236 satellites that are planned to be in orbit Earth by 2029 and are yet to launch a single satellite.
Contributions from Mark Andrews, Mobile Viewpoint.
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