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SNG Technology: What’s New In Newsgathering?

By | April 1, 2003

      By James Careless

      As the storms of war whip across the world, Satellite Newsgathering (SNG) crews are dispatched to cover them. To aid them, Via Satellite contacted some of the top SNG equipment and service providers. Our goal: to alert SNG crews and their managers to the latest in SNG equipment and support. Based on our research, here is how the leading-edge SNG products and services stand today.

      A Link In The SNG Chain

      It is not enough for CBS News to gather SNG reports on site and send them stateside by satellite. The network also has to get the reports to 200-plus stations and affiliates as soon as possible, in a way that doesn’t slow down anyone’s news day.

      Getting the news out is the job of CBS Newspath, the network’s 24-a-hour-a-day digital distribution system. Making Newspath accessible in a Web browser-based format is the task of Bitcentral and its MediaPipe software/server package. Under the name of CBS Newspath Now, MediaPipe allows each authorized CBS user to access the full range of SNG reports online. The stories themselves are transmitted by satellite from New York. At the receiving end, they are stored in broadcast quality MPEG-2 and MPEG-1 for fast access via a Web browser. Then, to see what is happening, a news person just has to click on a video window and presto: the story’s playing on the desktop.

      MediaPipe lets CBS organize stories by category, subject and region. As well, users can create custom pages that automatically include the categories they need. The result is that a producer can see the latest stories available from CBS, and stack them into a newscast without ever resorting to videotape. In fact, they don’t even have to leave their desks, because CBS Newspath Now sets up broadcast versions of the stories in order, for playback to air during newscasts.

      Better yet, Bitcentral has developed a way to edit MPEG-2 Long video without first decoding and then re-encoding it. As a result, not only can a news editor save time by working directly with an MPEG-2 video file, but the edited product is "absolutely lossless," says Fred Fourcher, Bitcentral’s CEO.

      The bottom line: CBS Newspath Now completes the SNG chain from field reporter to actual newscast. It is fast, friendly and a much better use of time than waiting for and taping an analog satellite feed.

      SNG To Go… Anywhere

      The focus on Afghanistan/Iraq notwithstanding, SNG is a global discipline. This is why Crawford Communications continues to add to its fleet of U.S.-based SNG trucks (a.k.a. "transportable earth stations"). These SNG trucks are frequently used by major U.S. networks for news and sports coverage on location. As well, Crawford will arrange to have units booked and shipped for overseas use, as required by their customers.

      "We’ve just rolled out a new 28′ Ku-band ‘city truck,’" says Paul Edwards, Crawford’s transportable operations manager. "Like all of our other trucks, this new unit is digital, DVB-compliant with a full suite of redundant digital compression gear onboard and capable of supporting up to four feeds at once." Next up is a 39’ SNG truck. In today’s busy news environment, Crawford needs all the SNG units it can get.

      What makes Crawford’s SNG service special are its operators, Edwards adds. "We believe we have some of the best engineers in the business," he explains. "These guys are loyal, hardworking, team-oriented and dedicated to their jobs. You can trust them with your life, as well as your SNG uplink."

      Flyaway Made Simple

      It’s a challenge every SNG field operator knows about. You get to your location in the worst of weather–blinding snow or drenching monsoon–and you have to set up a flyaway earth station quickly. In such inhospitable conditions, you do not want to waste time fumbling with equipment connections.

      For these challenges, Gigasat has come up with a new quick-connect SNG flyaway called the MVT. It consists of just two pieces: an outdoor RF head and an indoor control unit, connected by a single triax cable (up to 100-meters in length).

      Inside the environmentally-hardened MVT RF head–no need for a protective shipping case for this unit–is a 180 watt integrated transmitter. It includes 70 MHz to L-band and L- band to Ku-band upconverter stages, plus a TWT amplifier. The MVT RF head is designed to dock directly to Gigasat’s FA series of flyaway antennas: these are available in diameters of 0.9, 1.2, 1.8, 2.4, and 3.7-meters. As well, the MVT RF head is equipped with a conventional waveguide output flange, so that it can connect to other manufacturer’s satellite antennas.

      When packaged with an FA 1.2-meter antenna, the MVT system only comprises three units to carry. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the MVT RF head does not need a hardened traveling case. Neither does the MVT indoor control unit.

      "Basically, this innovation takes the integration of system components to the next level," comments Gary Moore, Gigasat’s director of sales. "In addition, the MVT RF head’s display provides the user with full control of the unit’s power output and frequency. You can also access these functions using the indoor control unit from up to 100-meters away. In war situations, having this kind of distance matters."

      Beyond the MVT, Gigasat is seeing a lot of demand for 2.4-meter flyaway SNG units. "The reason is bandwidth demand," Moore says. "News organizations want multiple channel feeds out of areas like Afghanistan where they’re staying put for a long time. In such situations, a lot of power is required for uplinking. There is no substitute for antenna gain in this regard, which is why larger antennas are now back in vogue." Gigasat’s 2.4-meter antenna, which breaks down into three boxes, weighs about 220 pounds, or about the same as an older 1.5-meter model. Soon to hit the market is a 3.7-meter flyaway antenna.

      Connecting SNG From Afghanistan And Iraq

      Since 1993, Loral Skynet has been providing satellite backhaul services for SNG. "We began with Telstar 401, when the SNG business was primarily analog," says Rich Currier, Loral Skynet’s executive vice president of engineering and technical operations. "Since then, we’ve worked hard to help our customers and SNG equipment suppliers make a smooth transition to digital."

      From an SNG standpoint, today’s high demand areas are Afghanistan and Iraq. Naturally, getting video out of either country is no small feat: it is even harder during times of conflict.

      Fortunately, Loral Skynet has Afghanistan and Iraq covered. "We have two satellites providing coverage in that part of the world," Currier says, "Telstar 12 and Telstar 10/Apstar 2R."

      For SNG in the Middle East region, Telstar 12 is the preferred choice. The reason: sited at 15 degrees W (which puts it slightly west of Portugal), Telstar 12 covers the Middle East with 31 Ku-band transponders. Each transponder is 54 MHz wide and uses a 125 watt TWT as its final amplifier.

      In contrast, Telstar 10/Apstar 2R’s location at 76.5 degrees E (above the southern point of India) means that it can only access Afghanistan/Iraq with its 28 C-band transponders. Being a C-/Ku-band hybrid, Telstar 10/Apstar 2R is equipped with 16 Ku-band transponders. However, these are aimed at China and Southeast Asia.

      Beyond providing satellite coverage, Loral Skynet also coordinates SNG uplink schedules for its customers. "We work very closely with broadcasters sending SNG crews into this region," Currier says. "Our engineers help them set up a frequency plan, provide link analysis if requested, and ensure that, once they’re onsite, their backhaul out of the region is as reliable as possible."

      Given the current pace of world events, the coming months should see opportunity for service on Telstars 12 and 10 to the SNG crews providing coverage of activities in the Middle East.

      Saving Space

      Anyone who has ever worked inside an SNG van knows how cramped they can be. Even the most spacious vans are prone to space shrinkage, as new equipment is added.

      In response to this problem, Tandberg Television has come up with a space-saving L-band converter. What makes it different is that this encoder is an add-on card designed to fit Tandberg Television’s DSNG (digital SNG) transmission units, like the D5740.

      "We developed this card to save customers both the expense and extra space required for a standalone L-band converter," says Lisa Hobbs, Tandberg’s director of marketing. "By putting it inside the main transmitter case, we can save customers one to two rack units of space. When you’re talking about a van environment, every spare inch counts."

      These SNG Options Are Worth Considering

      There is no reason for any SNG crew to hit the road with a 20 year-old analog rig, given the advances in DSNG technology now available. Similarly, there is no reason for news organizations not to back their crews with the best in service/support, and to serve their affiliates with fast distribution and delivery of hot stories. To paraphrase Fox Mulder of the defunct "X-Files," ‘the right SNG stuff is out there.’

      James Careless is the senior contributing editor to Via Satellite.

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