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Technical Review: Cabsat 2005

This year's CABSAT attracted around 400 companies from some 50 countries and a number of national pavilions, including the UK, China, Germany, and Korea. The event focused on three main sections: Cable & Satellite, Communications, and Broadcast & Production. It also marked the kick off of the first Middle East Broadcasting Conference, and the Middle East Satellite Summit. The Middle East Broadcasting Conference was organized by APBU (Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union) in association with ASBU (Arab States Broadcasting Union) and IABM (International Association of Broadcasting Manufacturers), while the Middle East Satellite Summit was organized by the GVF group (Global VSAT Forum). The first highlighted technologies and systems for the broadcast market, the second provided insights into new broadcasting and telecommunications applications.

IBM showcased its content management, storage, archival and retrieval solution for production and broadcast environments. Despite its young age (two and a half years) as a Media and Entertainment Unit, IBM has managed to get right into the ME market with deployments in Cairo for Rotana TV and Melody TV. Of the two deployments, the most exciting is Rotana's, as this project was to digitize, store, and manage Rotana's music library, some five thousand multimedia clips, and more than a thousand feature films. Rotana's choice of an IBM solution over other TV industry veterans such as the 33-year old Leitch and its NEXIO Servers deployed at rival ART in Amman is another example of how IT companies and TV-centric companies compete on the same ground.

Of the ME broadcasters, al-Majd and e-Vision (Emirates Cable TV & Multimedia) were the only ones present at CABSAT. Al-Majd signed a $3.5 million contract with Homecast, a Korean STB provider, for the supply of 50,000 receivers. At $70 per unit, al-Majd's goals are most likely based on a channels package offer with little room for possible added-values services.

Ettisalat's e-Vision came to CABSAT with a demonstration of High Definition Television (HDTV) supported and carried by its infrastructure, using Thomson HD decoders. Although e-Vision did not provide information on the possible provision of such a service, the demonstration was a tacit commitment to capitalize on the adoption of the latest technologies in TV entertainment. However, one might be excused for wondering why an Electronic Program Guide is absent from its platform. The battery of channels they offer from the three ME DTH players, its own channels and other pass-through ones, makes e-Vision a very compelling destination, but the lack of a what-to-watch map emphasized by an EPG could turn back many new subscribers, or, even worse, inflate churn numbers.

Satellite operators and services providers ranged from the likes of Eutelsat, Hellas, and Globecast to the Arabsat and Dubai-based SamaCom. In an effort to claim a leading position in the Middle East, Arabsat showcased the "First Live HDTV Broadcast" in the region, in the form of a Sony HDTV camera shooting live from the Arabsat booth at CABSAT and a Harmonic MPEG-2 HD encoder with the signal uploaded by Samacom teleport onto Arabsat 2D. From a receiver, the feed ends on an HDTV screen. Although CABSAT booth images were a poor choice for an HDTV prowess demo, Arabsat made its point. The other big news was about Arabsat fourth generation satellites. Named 4A & 4B and scheduled for launch in the 4th quarter of 2005 and 1st quarter of 2006 respectively, both will be co-located at 26E.

Now for the disappointing part of CABSAT: there were no interactive applications companies, with the exception of e-Vision announcing its basic interactive service (mainly plane games for now, developed by French HTTV) and a keynote at the Middle East Broadcasting Conference by the German company Frauhofer IMK, presenting the advantages of adopting MHP for iTV applications developments. It seems the Middle East region is of little interest to iTV companies, or at least that the market is not yet mature enough to justify participation at CABSAT.

Quite different is the case of satellite-broadband where many companies are trying to grab a share of the region's market in providing a fast, reliable, two-way connection, with Internet being the main offer. The Middle East Satellite Summit debated whether satellite broadband could compete with fixed-line broadband. Some panelists based their arguments on the Middle East's tele-density and distances, which make telcos reluctant to wire all regions. According to them, this should make the satellite broadband a winner. But with a $2,000 terminal to buy, I can see only SME and corporates signing for it. The PanAmSat panelist's presentation was the most interesting to me, as it demonstrated that satellite broadband is complimentary to the fixed-line offer. If the region can adopt prices such as US-based Hughes Network Systems DirectWay offer in New York, priced at a monthly $59.99, and a terminal priced at less than $600, then satellite's broadband future might become brighter here.

When one considers Dubai's location, all the media-centric things that are happening there, and all those big Arab and Asian regions that still yearn for quality entertainment at the industry's highest standards, one can look forward to bigger and richer CABSATs in the years to come.

About Hamid Ouddane

EPG team leader at the Information Systems Department, Orbit

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