NAB 2019 Reflections: Intelsat’s Bill O’Hara on IronRoute and the Benefits of Blended Connectivity

Combining the cloud with broadband, cellular, and satellite enhances reliability

Intelsat arrived at NAB 2019 with major announcements, including the launch of IronRoute in partnership with Dejero. The blended connectivity and cloud-based content-distribution solution for media delivers reliable connectivity by blending broadband, cellular (3G, 4G, 5G), and satellite connectivity from Intelsat’s global network. Intelsat also announced a new partnership with Aldea to expand satellite and fiber video-contribution and -distribution networks for media customers globally and use both companies’ extensive presence in Latin America.

SVG sat down with Intelsat GM, Media, Bill O’Hara to discuss the new IronRoute platform, why Intelsat is pursuing blended-connectivity solutions and how he sees them changing the industry, the benefits of the Aldea partnership, and how at-home production is exploding.

Intelsat’s Bill O’Hara: “[At-home] is exploding right now. And what does that explosion rely on? Connectivity. We need to be looking at ways that satellite can make a play in this connectivity portfolio.

Tell us about the new IronRoute platform Intelsat is launching here at NAB.
In partnership with Dejero, we’re launching a service called IronRoute for media. This service is creating an end-to-end managed video-distribution or -contribution platform for occasional use or full-time services. The way it works is that the cloud is managing connectivity at the origination point and the distribution point through our partnership with Dejero and Intelsat satellite connectivity.

As an example, you could have potentially fixed broadband, consumer-grade public internet at the content-origination point, and we would be aggregating that with cellular and/or satellite on top. You would utilize the cellular or satellite only if that consumer-grade public internet started degrading or experiencing packet loss or latency. The cloud is managing all of that by looking at the connections at each location every 150 ms and determining what is the right blend of connectivity for this video to go from the origination point into the cloud.

Then, once it’s in the cloud, it’s doing the same thing, looking at all the destination points and determining the right blend of connectivity to get it through that last mile all the way to the endpoint. And, at each one of these locations, we would expect there to be a diverse blend of connectivity from consumer-grade public internet, cellular, and satellite.

Through our global satellite footprint, we’re extending the reach of this into regions where terrestrial connectivity can be challenging. If you can grab a little bit of cellular or fixed broadband, you can put that into the connectivity stack and supplement it with satellite to create an aggregated pipe.

What are the primary differences or additional features between IronRoute and the CellSat service that Intelsat and Dejero launched a few years ago?
There are two major additional features in IronRoute compared to CellSat.

One is continuing to add additional connectivity to the overall portfolio. CellSat focused on combining cellular and satellite. This adds a third leg, if you will, of terrestrial public internet. That also, by the way, tends to make the overall throughput capability significantly higher. We have potential services that we’re demoing right now that have as high as 90-Mbps [throughput].

The second big difference is, CellSat was designed more for contribution, while IronRoute is full-duplex. The place where the content is originating could also be receiving. Think of a mesh network where you have 20 locations trying to send video back and forth to each other. Instead of doing that via MPLS or a managed fiber service, we strongly believe that utilizing the blend of connectivity at each of those locations —for both sending and receiving — creates tremendous value. These locations are essentially agnostic in terms of whether they are sending or receiving content. IronRoute provides end-to-end management of the first mile or the last mile, depending on if you’re sending or receiving.

We think that this is going to have tremendous application for occasional use, [for] locations that sporting events go back to over and over again. You can put some fixed infrastructure there and then utilize IronRoute as an aggregated pipe for REMI [remote-integration] feeds or anything that might require higher throughputs.

We also see it as good fit for full-time services – those that have [installed] MPLS circuits at 20 or even a hundred locations. With IronRoute, the cloud would be in the middle, looking every 150 ms at each one of these endpoints and managing the best blend of connectivity.

How can users customize their connectivity with IronRoute depending on their specific needs?
IronRoute isn’t about either/or; it’s about creating the best combination according to the business rules that the customer has set. You can customize what you need at each location. For example, a broadcaster has 200 total locations, and 20 of them are already on fiber. Our value prompt for those 20 is, let’s introduce a bulletproof network that utilizes broadband, cellular, and satellite, and that satellite is available to be dropped in dynamically at each of those 20 locations. What about the other 180 locations that it hasn’t been cost-effective to extend fiber to? We can create a system that the customer tailors so that locations 95-120 have broadband and cellular and satellite but the peak amount of burstable satellite is 5 megs. We can do that with what we call shaping: we can shape the different types of connectivity and the amounts that will be provisioned at these remote locations.

This is also something that scales and can be dynamic. If there’s a major event in that one location, you can turn that knob up to 15 or 20 megs just for that day. Your network connectivity is now scaled in terms of reliability and cost.

Why do “blended” offerings like IronRoute and CellSat make sense for Intelsat, and how does that help you differentiate your business beyond satellite?
We [are] very much focused on occasional use, cable distribution, direct-to-home distribution, but what are some other things we can use satellite for? Maybe it’s not that satellite is the only value prompt of that solution, but it’s a differentiator.

That’s what the partnership with Dejero has been about from the beginning. They do extremely well in terms of managing the connectivity, managing the congestion of latency that can occur on terrestrial links. Pairing that with a globalized connectivity takes it to a different level and a different scale. We think that satellite is a part of the ecosystem in some places and not just the only type of connectivity, but it needs to be done cleverly, and it needs to be done agilely and dynamically, which means you need a partner that can do that. That’s why we’ve partnered with Dejero.

Can you tell us a bit about the new partnership you’ve launched with Aldea?
This is extremely exciting for us. It’s a perfect marriage of tremendous infrastructure from two different companies. Aldea has significant reach in Latin America, not just into cities and POPs and things like that but actually all the way to customer locations. Premium customers, premium content programmers in Latin America are on that with Aldea. We are extending our reach, and [Aldea is] extending their reach.

Intelsat has premiere video neighborhoods over Latin America that are in high demand for distribution and cable headends. We have global neighborhoods around the world, providing [Aldea customers] with the ability to go global to these other distribution outlets. This extension of our mutual infrastructure is extremely exciting for the space.

Do you see Latin America as a major growth sector for Intelsat in the near term?
Absolutely, and that’s certainly much of the reasoning behind of our partnership with Aldea. We also see it as a growth area for some of the IronRoute products that we’re bringing to market. Where terrestrial connectivity can be challenging in these regions, a blend of connectivity can be very useful. We actually have a demo of this live right now in our booth, bringing connectivity from Slovenia to Singapore. It’s all cloud-managed blended connectivity first mile, blended connectivity last mile, end to end.

How is Intelsat looking to serve the growing trend of at-home production for live sports production?
We feel [IronRoute] is going to allow us to partner with people doing REMI production, to open up REMI production to new types of content.

[At-home] is definitely an area that is exploding right now. And what does that explosion rely on? Connectivity. That’s the bottom line. We need to be looking at ways that satellite can make a play in this connectivity portfolio, especially for smaller events. Satellite is highly relevant for big events like the Super Bowl and CFP National Championship, but, for a mid-tier or Division III college event, we needed to find a solution that would help enable REMI to be reliable using principally public internet terrestrial and augmenting it as necessary.

I think one of the things that we’re excited about is sending multi-path video over this IronRoute blended connectivity to a location for you to do the actual production. It’s a huge application.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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