The 2010 FIFA World Cup brought about more than just soccer-fueled revelry. This celebrated tournament didn’t just showcase athletic excellence, nor merely prove South Africa’s unfaltering ability to hospitably host the world. In addition to the bitter-sweet excitement that goes with the sport, the event also highlighted a problem that disturbs the whole globe: satellite interference.
During the month-long tournament, the broadcast of several games was interrupted due to signal jamming, resulting in millions of viewers across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) being trapped in a state of sheer frustration. One of the biggest FTA markets in the world, the MENA region went from being enthralled by pure soccer adoration, to the annoyance and panic induced by pixelated images that shifted between fuzzy hazes and black nothingness.
Questions regarding the Middle East’s broadcast industry arose. The fact that this region is heavily punctuated by security, military, and socio-political factors just led to increased query into how this region can handle such matters. To add fuel to this fiery inquisition, the Arab Spring erupted in the same year and yielded numerous blazing examples of politically motivated signal jamming. By 2012, the situation had peaked to its worst state ever: intentional satellite interference, an effective weapon in the Middle East’s arsenal, was being well used.
Fortunately, there is some good that came out of all this. Similarly to the soccer fans from all corners of the globe that banded together during the tournament for something positive, so did the satellite industry players come together to unite for the same cause. These events that took place served the purpose to coalesce the satellite industry to successfully find means and ways to mitigate the effects of harmful interference, both technically and politically. A number of conferences, seminars, and workshops have been held around the world sponsored by different parts of the satellite industry, including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
“The outcome of these efforts was so successful that deliberate interference in the Middle East has reduced considerably,” says Guido Baraglia, director of business development and sales for the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) regions at Kratos SAT Corporation. “The joint effort made by the industry with the exceptional support of the ITU has raised awareness on the specific issue, not only in the region, but worldwide. Interference is a global issue.”
According to Baraglia, the vast majority of interference cases globally is unintentional, accounting for between 95 and 98 percent of all interference, and often due to equipment and human issues. This means then that with better awareness and mitigation tools, this type of interference can be radically reduced in the near future. Together with better training, Baraglia notes improved carrier detection and geolocation tools, signal cancellation, and type approval of antennae and equipment, as being necessary in order to combat interference.
Among the mitigation tools available, Baraglia sees Carrier ID (CID) as having a significant role to play in helping the industry promptly deal with cases of unintentional jamming. Making CID mandatory on all broadcast-related satellite transmissions worldwide would help operators and users, equipped with the right monitoring tools, to effectively shorten troubleshooting times on accidental interferences, he says. CID is one of the solutions in the toolbox made available by the industry to operators and users, such as DSP-based RF monitoring and interference geolocation systems.
While the volume of intentional interference may be considerably less overall, the industry takes the matter very seriously all the same, with operators, users and manufacturers perpetually focused on mitigating these problems. Organizations such as the Satellite Interference Reduction Group (IRG), Global VSAT Forum, and Space Data Association (SDA), the resulting data-sharing bodies of collaborative industry efforts, are committed to finding solutions to interference challenges, among others.
Regarding intentional satellite interference, the Middle East will remain the backdrop of this saga. This is because even though intentional interference makes up only a small percentage of jamming cases worldwide, the Middle East has more incidents of this occurring, with various industry players expecting this to remain the case in the near future.
“The political scene in the Middle East remains a problem and, therefore, deliberate interference remains — albeit a reduced problem now due to the successful efforts of the industry since the 2010 World Cup and the Arab Spring. Deliberate interference elsewhere is minimal,” says Martin Coleman, executive director of the IRG.
Beyond Middle Eastern satellite operators working closely together to ensure services remain intact, they are also investing in new technologies, notes Coleman. Both ground and on-board technology will, in particular, help mitigate this type of interference. The operators are continuing to work with regulators and the ITU to improve and speed up the cross-border processes to deal with these challenges.
“Technology, data, technology and more data. The smarter we can be with technology, the more instances we can prevent, or the quicker we can resolve those that do occur. We also need to improve processes and where possible and sensible, introduce standards. That worked in the case of CID and I believe that carrying across similar thinking, whereby we can standardize the geolocation reporting process would lead to a more cohesive approach.”
Time-efficient processes and effective technology: these are at the core of the industry’s solution, stresses Mark Daniels, vice president of engineering and operations for Intelsat General. Referring to the amount of time taken to resolve jamming disputes through the ITU, Daniels notes that while it is, of course, necessary to have such a body to handle these cases, the fact is that, when you are left with a long drawn out diplomatic process, you can’t promptly or effectively resolve matters.
While Intelsat General was not involved in the World Cup jamming problem, the company has had a similar issue concerning its client Voice of America, the official external broadcast institution of the U.S. government. Because of the content being broadcast, the signal was intentionally jammed. Following the ITU process proved very time consuming, notes Daniels, adding that despite this issue escalating to higher levels of the U.S. government, in the end, after a drawn out matter, the problem was never really resolved.
Until the standard diplomatic processes available become more time efficient, interference mitigation technology will be instrumental in combatting jamming, says Daniels. Intelsat will be launching its Epic fleet of multi-purpose satellites in the first half of 2016, one of which, the Intelsat-33E, will be positioned over the Middle East to provide services to the MENA region and Europe.
“These satellites will have on-board interference mitigation capabilities that will allow us to tackle interference that reaches these satellites. Additionally, we are developing ground-based capabilities, like digital signal processing modems that take the interference out of the downlink signal. In removing this interference, the jamming can’t be passed on further. We expect to deploy this technology this year,” says Daniels. “Furthermore, we will be deploying protected wave forms in the future for use with commercial satellites. These will be built in to modems that will be able to operate even in an environment where there is interference. We have some existing products already available commercially off the shelf and we are working to develop our technology further into new, more advanced products. I feel the best solution for the industry is through developing mitigation technologies because the diplomatic channels available to resolve jamming issues simply take too long.”
The best solution for the industry is through developing mitigation technologies because the diplomatic channels available to resolve jamming issues simply take too long.
– Mark Daniels, Intelsat General
With steadfast conviction that mitigation technologies will help combat various types of jamming, Daniels is still readying for a worsening situation regarding intentional interference. As the United States and NATO militaries prepare for a more contested environment, Intelsat General is developing more resilient types of communication capabilities, says Daniels.
Arabsat, based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, shares similar sentiments. The satellite operator has developed interference mitigation technology that will be built into its upcoming fleet. At the same time, however, the operator sees intentional jamming worsening in the near future due to the region’s political landscape. Arabsat is currently working on the design of its new satellites, Arabsat 6A at 30.5 degrees east and HS4 at 39 degrees east, in addition to two more satellites, BADR 7 and HS3, being manufactured.
“We expect intentional interference to increase in the coming years, especially if the political situation in the region gets more complicated. Arabsat is investing in interference mitigation technology and will have this onboard the payload. We will also have up-to-date technology implemented in our geolocation systems to help combat future interferences,” says Yaser Hassan, director of transmission operations at Arabsat.
Looking back to 2010, Hassan explains that services for the Middle East and North Africa at its DTH orbital longitude were heavily affected by the ongoing politically motivated intentional interferences. Regarding deliberate signal jamming, the broadcast sector is targeted the most, says Hassan, pointing to news channels as being the biggest mark. This is because the culprits are desperate to prevent certain media or content to reach viewers, he says.
“However, incidents of intentional interference started to decline in 2013 and 2014. This was after the situation peaked in 2012 during the Arab Spring. Arabsat statistics show that intentional interference has steadily declined over the past couple of years, from 24 percent of all cases in 2012, to 10 percent in 2013; and in 2014 that figure was just 8 percent,” says Hassan.
Global satellite operator SES also believes that intentional jamming events are often specifically targeted. These occurrences can be state sponsored, which adds additional layers of complexity, making it more challenging for operators to resolve using traditional methods, explains Chris Grogan, senior vice-president of customer services delivery at SES.
“The interference environment across any particular region is dependent on a number of factors, such as the complexity of the satellite, the number of users being supported, and the applications being delivered. Broadcast neighborhoods are fundamentally different to those supporting data services. The number of interference events we experience in the Middle East is typical for a region where satellite is widely adopted to serve multiple market segments supporting a variety of applications,” says Grogan.
Noting the achievements made through industry collaborations so far, namely CID, Grogan believes there is still room for improvement. The satellite industry can do more to build upon collaborative initiatives such as the Space Data Association, for example, whereby operators can effectively share data critical to maintain the integrity of the space environment and RF spectrum. Beyond this, the industry needs to focus more on preventative measures, such as system approval processes and also in training and awareness, which continues to be a key element in interference mitigation, he says.
While CID is very effective in unintentional interference, it is not a de facto solution, notes Grogan. Equipment manufacturers have been fully supportive in creating a technology that works well. As users begin to adopt this, there should be an improvement in response times to interference events that are caused by customers operating in the OU/SNG, broadcast and enterprise segments where SCPC/MCPC technologies generally prevail. However, not all users will adopt CID if it not does address the VSAT MF-TDMA market, for example, where communities of many hundreds of thousands of terminals can coexist in relatively small segments of bandwidth, he says.
“For many satellite operators, this community is statistically the source of most of the interference events that we catalogue and can be the most difficult and time consuming to deal with. This is why SES is investing considerable efforts in the development of a CID-like system for MF-TDMA networks, namely SatGuard, which allows for the identification of terminals causing cross-polar or adjacent satellite interference,” says Grogan.
What may happen in the Middle East is of great interest to all across the industry, but what is certain is that new and improved technology is on the way. While it may be best to be prepared for the worst, perhaps the successful broadcast of the most recent edition of the FIFA world Cup in Brazil is an indicator of what might be achieved during the upcoming games in Qatar. VS
Adrienne Harebottle is a media specialist and freelance writer for the space, satellite and telecommunications sectors.