Music from Space
An ESA-backed project successfully transformed a satellite 36,000 km away into the most convenient music store on or off our planet.
This trial scheme showed how high-speed satellite communications can bypass terrestrial Internet bottlenecks, with potentially revolutionary implications for e-commerce. ESA also hopes to back other, similarly innovative business plans making use of space technology.
UK-based Avanti Communications came up with the idea of using the same geostationary ASTRA satellite that provides television services to millions of Europeans to offer a fast service delivering CD-quality music on demand. Customers select from a website and receive their choices via satellite to their PC-linked stereo or burned direct onto compact disc.
"ESA assisted us with the trial, which was very successful," said Avanti Managing Director David Bestwick. "It's one thing to develop an idea on paper but you have to test how it'll work in reality. Any technology is only as good as it is received by its users. We got very positive feedback from the trial users and at the end we knew our idea was right."
Right now anyone can download music through the net, but they need compression software and a lot of patience. The fastest ISDN phone connection runs to 8 kilobytes per second, twenty times slower than the bandwidth offered by Avanti's satellite system. Broadband services such as ADSL offer an Earth-based route around narrow bandwidth but these are costly and limited to high-population urban areas.
With Avanti's ABARIS (Advanced Broadcast Architecture for Retail Internet Services) project, the intention was to test if satellites could offer a feasible digital delivery system. Around 75 users took part in the five month scheme, together with partner companies including Sir Richard Branson's V2 Music Group, who supplied the music, specially encrypted before transmission to prevent illegal copying.
"It was as simple to use as a website like Amazon, except this time there was no waiting around for the postman," said trial user Bhazini Patel. "I ordered the new Stereophonics album, and there it was ready to play."
Users could choose whether to pay extra for immediate delivery, or pay standard prices and receive music through a cheaper bulk transmission along with other customers. An 'intelligent scheduler' software system worked out the optimal way for satellites to deliver the music requested. Users could also download free preview tracks for a limited number of plays, then decide to buy them.
The system requires only a standard satellite dish linked to a normal PC and receiver board, so ABARIS has the potential to distribute to all the 24 million European households equipped with ASTRA TV receiver equipment. Extending the system to Eutelsat's Hotbird satellite would bring that figure up to 40 million households.
Although the trial scheme concentrated on music, in future ABARIS could also be used to deliver software, books, movies or any other digital product. And the technology could be extended to provide secure broadband communications for industry.
Avanti gained assistance with the feasibility trial from ESA's multi-media division in the ARTES (Advanced Research in Telecommunication Systems) programmes intended to encourage new entrants into the telecommunications sector.
"Our experience from the ARTES programme is that many European businesses, often new to the space field, are a rich source of ideas for new telecommunication applications. In particular smaller companies often possess visions, which could lead to innovative systems, but all too frequently their ideas don't take off because of limited resources," says Francesco Feliciani, responsible for ESA's ARTES Multimedia Application Line. "We want through our ARTES programme provides opportunities to European and Canadian industries to launch innovations in the field of satellite telecommunication."
ARTES has already played a role in more than 40 projects in the field of Multimedia Applications with European and Canadian companies. For more information on the ARTES programmes and business opportunities, please visit http://telecom.esa.int/artes