Broadcast journalists are placed under great pressure while working in the field, sometimes in some incredibly remote and inhospitable places, but innovation in satellite and cellular connectivity is making the job of reporting a story in multiple ways to multiple outlets a much easier task. By Adrian Pennington
News is no longer something that we just watch to find out what has happened during the day. We require immediacy online and on TV, breaking news as it happens, with updated coverage of every part of a story. As stories unfold, journalists are expected to be at the heart of the action getting the inside interview and exclusive pictures to convey a sense of being there to the viewer.
With budgets squeezed and the demand for coverage unrelenting, the technology for gathering news is evolving at pace. The emergence of solutions which take advantage of mobile and internet networks offer a potential threat to traditional Satellite News Gathering (SNG) but the sector has responded with fresh innovation.
“There are scenarios where it’s reasonable to use cellular, but if you are in the middle of the Amazon, in the Himalayas, in a military zone or disaster areas then cellular networks will be shut down, limited or non-existent,” says Ali Zarkesh, Product Development Director at global broadcast communications provider Vislink.
He admits, however, that the future of news-gathering will rely on a mix of cellular and satellite systems providing live video over a multitude of communication infrastructures.
Vislink’s own LiveGear range includes AirCam Max, a hybrid wireless camera-back transmitter for transmitting via cellular networks, or should congestion rise, be switched to microwave transmission.
“While the use of cellular is increasing, if you base your whole communications policy on it you have to bear in mind the limitations,” Zarkesh warns.
Cellular bonded solutions suppliers will generally claim that working with 3G/4G LTE channels or hybrid solutions linked to satellite, are perfectly capable of routine operation in both remote and urban areas, including tunnels and large crowds where vans and portable satcom systems are too bulky or lack line of sight.
In many metropolitan areas traditional SNG deployments are being augmented or in some cases replaced by mobile technology, but the cell network cannot always be relied on. During the London riots of summer 2012, the government turned off Wi-Fi and mobile networks to prevent communication between gangs taking part.
“I’d say satellite is still the only means of communications for high bandwidth data where you can guarantee an uncontended service,” says David Meynell, MD at UK SNG supplier SIS LIVE.
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Lighter, smaller, higher-speed
The criteria for news is speed of deployment and cost. Often, lower quality pictures are justified as an editorial look but this may now be changing.
“Our customers are requesting smaller, lighter SNG kit at the same time as units offering high-speed HD quality data,” says Zarkesh. “That means on the data side we are looking at new modulation techniques such as HEVC H.265 which doubles the data rate on the same bandwidth [or uses the same power to transmit twice the amount of data].” Vislink is working toward introducing SNG products using the codec next year.
There is also growing demand for backpack terminals including units with single button operation (for location of a satellite) which means news organisations could send a single journalist/operator rather than 2-3 people as has been the case thus far.
Vislink recently launched the Mantis-LT, a lightweight quick deploy flyaway antenna working in the Ku band.
Featuring a collapsible design, its 90cm antenna can be stowed in a single backpack-style case and can power transmission of up to 200W for high data rate or HD video.
Earlier this year the company joined with satellite communications supplier ND SatCom to co-develop products. This has seen ND SatCom’s SKYWAN 5G modem packaged with Vislink’s MSAT, described as the world’s smallest and lightest satellite data terminal. Weighing just 12.5kg, the MSAT “is designed for one-man operation in challenging environments or rough terrain, where a full satellite system cannot be deployed but where there is a need for high bandwidth connectivity.”
Inmarsat’s new BGAN high data rate (HDR) service delivers a significantly enhanced streaming rate where the existing communications infrastructure is unreliable or damaged. Building on the heritage of the BGAN platform, launched in 2005 and BGAN X-Stream launched in 2009, BGAN HDR supports four streaming rates and can be used as a back-up solution to cellular bonding should such services fail or become busy.
Its full channel option provides a rate of 650kbps, while Cobham SATCOM’s Explorer 710 – the first terminal to access the HDR service – has a built-in bonding capability, enabling connection speeds above 1Mbps, previously only possible on a VSAT truck. It’s no bigger than a laptop and can be carried as hand luggage.
Another new offer is ND Satcom’s XRACER DSNG. Based on a Volkswagen Amarok this allows dual transmissions through live video uplinks on the move, and has a Skyray Compact antenna for static set ups. Both video data and location coordinates can be transmitted on the move during speeds up to 120-km/h.
A SatCom App allows a crew to operate the XRACER via smart phone. Using ND SatCom’s Media Fleet Manager the vehicle’s transmission capabilities can be remotely controlled from the network hub station, to let the crew concentrate on getting the story.
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Two way control
SNG has typically been about one way uplinking, but IP or cellular transmission is by default two way, meaning that remote control of devices - including remote cameras mounted on vehicles - is simple to implement and cost effective to run.
Taking advantage of this is LiveU which has begun integrating its cloud-based central management system into Panasonic camcorders. “In essence, LiveU Central becomes the hub for video ingestion,” explains LiveU VP Marketing, Ronen Artman. “LiveU Central gives news producers the ability to control LiveU units and satellite contribution through LiveU’s backpacks and hybrid solutions, remotely from any web browser.”
Services include the point-to-multipoint distribution of content and the geo-tracking of all LiveU systems, feeds and apps from anywhere in the world via the LiveU Central management system.
DataBridge is described by Artmen as “a powerful mobile hot-spot that offers resilient mobile broadband connectivity for any device in any location by bonding together multiple cellular and other data connections.”
LiveU’s hybrid solutions include certification of its LU-Lite live video transmission software to work over Inmarsat’s BGAN. This means LU-Lite bonding software for laptops and mobile newsgathering vehicles can transmit live using bonded BGAN HDR devices with claimed latency as low as 1.4 seconds.
“Until recently, the original BGAN was mostly used for file transfer in remote locations,” explains LiveU co-founder Avi Cohen. “With the additional bandwidth on HDR, and the low latency and encoding power of LU-Lite, broadcasters can now take [the solution] to any breaking news location for live shots, even if local cellular or other data infrastructure isn’t sufficient.”
This year SIS LIVE renewed deals with ITV and ITN for supply of SNG services until 2021 and has a new four year contract with Sky Sports News for SNG. These broadcasters and news organisations do not take such huge operational decisions lightly and would have factored in advances and costs of delivery by IP or wireless.
“There’s a time and place for a mix of technology including fibre, IP, satellite and 3G/4G bonded networks,” says Meynell.
Each of ITV/ITN’s new 18-vehicle fleet has redundant transmit chains and features a generator with battery-powered UPS backup. An enhanced dual modem system ensures the most efficient and reliable use of bandwidth for IP over satellite.
Meynell believes that the satellite mobile uplink has a good few years of life yet as the primary means of getting news and live events back: “Where a customer needs bandwidth in any location at relatively short notice then satellite leads the way by some margin.”
SIS LIVE’s products range from compact 60cm VSAT terminals with no removable parts to larger, fully-automated 1.8m vehicle mount antennas. Its new ManPak range are tripod antennas featuring manual satellite acquisition; an attachable motorised pointing system; and a range of optional extras including an integrated COFDM receiver for mobile camera connectivity and a Wi-Fi router for secure satellite internet network.
Innovation from Eutelsat in this area is a partnership with German-based network operator Media Broadcast to market NewsSpotter+, a satellite-based IP broadcast solution. The pact links Eutelsat’s NewsSpotter service, which operates in the Ka-band, and offers two-way bandwidth scalable between 512 kbps and 10 Mbps, with terrestrial signal contribution via Media Broadcast’s Next Generation Network.
“NewsSpotter+ is something new in the broadcast and media industries,” explained Bernd Meinl, Head of Broadcast Satellite Services Media Broadcast.
“By linking Broadcast Network Services to this satellite-based, mobile IP broadcast solution for portable news gathering, we are closing a gap in the digital production chain. We also meet the demand for cost-efficient, fast and flexible two-way solutions for signal contribution compared to Ku-band solutions. This will push the market for file-based IP broadcast solutions as the importance of IP streaming within the digital production process continues to increase.”
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Cellular only ENG
Booking satellite space remains expensive, which is why some broadcasters have chosen to base their entire ENG operation on cellular.
These include Noticias MundoFOX a Spanish-language TV network in the US. It has deployed Dejero’s LIVE+ 20/20 Transmitters for mobile news teams to encode and transmit live or pre-recorded video using combinations of 3G/4G/LTE, Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or satellite links.
“Budget is always a large consideration for a start-up news network,” explains Armando Acevedo, director of operations. “The ability to cover live, breaking news from the source is a critical differentiator, but can also be a major expense area, especially if the station has to maintain costly satellite vehicles.”
He points out that the LIVE+ 20/20 Transmitters can go places trucks can’t — on a rooftop, inside a hotel, or next to a beach, for instance.
“The versatility of using portable satellite, bonded cellular, and Ethernet connections means that our lean news departments can be mobile and travel to where the news is breaking,” he adds. “This brings a whole new level of excitement and immediacy to our newscasts that simply isn’t possible with traditional ENG trucks.”
Ka-band to the rescue
The opening up of the Ka-band was supposed to usher in a new age of SNG, since it would allow more data to be transmitted on smaller footprint terminals.
“It’s beginning to start but not even its biggest supporters would claim it’s taken off as quickly as they expected,” says Zarkesh. “My personal opinion is that it’s got to happen. So many billions of pounds have been spent on Ka band on satellite launches to ground infrastructure that it cannot afford not to work.”
He believes Ku-band still has enough bandwidth that many users have yet to move across to Ka, though he expect this will happen increasingly over the next five years.
- 1958 The year the first ENG news helicopter was used
- 1937 BBC changes UK news reporting with its first OB truck