Digital SNG: Technology Gains Make Journalists Even More Mobile

By | October 1, 2008 | Broadcasting, Feature

Satellite newsgathering technology continues to improve at a rapid rate, allowing larger news organizations to cut the costs of providing reports from locations around the globe and also enabling smaller organizations to expand their operations. What technology advancements are on the horizon and how small and capable can newsgathering equipment become?

 

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Traditional satellite newsgathering (SNG) trucks continue to play an important role in the broadcasting arena, but as the 24-hour news cycle brings more demands for live content from around the globe, small driveaway and man-portable digital SNG (DSNG) units are becoming the must-have tool for news organizations.

Grab-and-Gos and Driveaways

Beginning in the 1990’s, DSNG units slashed the typically required transponder bandwidth by a factor of 4 or more and carrier power requirements by a factor of 8 or more. Today’s improved modulation with DVB-S2 (Digital Video Broadcasting-Satellite-Second Generation) and advanced video compression (AVC), H.264/MPEG-4, more powerful processors, amplifiers, and satellites combined with technologies like GPS and automation are enabling manufacturers to shrink DSNG systems and offer more portability and ease of operation than ever before. RF packages mount on standard vehicle roofs without requiring body work, turning an SUV or minivan into a DSNG truck. Automation points antennas, configures video and uplink transmission parameters, providing the goal of push-button operation by a single non-technical reporter.

Swe-Dish’s IPT Suitcase, used by both military personnel and journalists in Iraq, allows 10 megabits per second (Mbps) IP traffic in a suitcase-sized package. The company’s DA150K Drive-Away looks like a box on top of an SUV or a van until the antenna deploys and automatically points towards the satellite, allowing on-air operation in 10 minutes. A GPS/compass option lets a user press a few buttons and then watch the antenna lock onto the selected satellite and operate high-defintion (HD) MPEG-4, IP streaming or DVB-S2.

ND Satcom’s SkyRay Light IPS system is another example of the growing trend towards one-button touchscreen operation and increased use of VSAT and IP streaming technology. The system employs H.264/MPEG-4 AVC transport over IP for standard-definition or HD and satellite for live video streaming or store-and-forward video from 512 kilobits per second (kbps) to 7 Mbps. "Another advantage for broadcasters is to mix live portions of a story with pre-recorded ones, depending on the desired quality of the content and available bandwidth," says Christian Adolph, director of marketing and communications for ND Satcom. "For instance, the live introduction to the story by a reporter can be streamed with standard-definition resolution, while the main portion is pre-recorded at HD resolution and sent back to the newsroom via video file transfer."

The company’s SkyRay Light antenna system is designed with an aerodynamic carbon fiber casing for quick and easy roof mounting on most van or all-terrain vehicle models and weighs less than 75 kilograms.

Better satellite performance also is a key factor allowing greater portability. A case in point is global mobile satellite operator Inmarsat’s I-4 next-generation satellites. The third I-4 satellite was placed into orbit in August, completing the company’s three-satellite constellation and enabling users to access Inmarsat’s Broadband Global Area Network coverage around the globe. "Inmarsat’s newest I-4 satellite constellation has provided a real step-change in satellite newsgathering capabilities, with lower costs and greatly increased portability," says Frank August, Inmarsat’s director of business development, America. "Compared to Inmarsat’s GAN (Global Area Network) service, BGAN service provides over four times the data speed with 50 percent of the hardware/service cost and 25 percent of the hardware weight."

More capable encoder/decoders and modulator/demodulators packaged in a single box for DSNG yield much higher effective data rates than was practical just a few years ago. Scopus Video Networks’ UE-9818 MPEG-4/AVC DVB-S2 SNG encoder-modulator, "can save operators 65 percent to 70 percent of their current bandwidth expense," says David Shamir, encoder product marketing manager for Scopus.

Solid-state power amplifier (SSPA) technology improvement is another development aiding portability. High-power amplifier manufacturers like Wavestream, Xicom and Anacom, have increased power in their products, helping to make systems more portable. "Because Wavestream SSPAs are about half the size and weight and use one-third less power than conventional Ku-band SSPAs, they are being used in more and more DSNG and portable environments where space, weight and fuel consumption are at a premium and portability is key," says WaveStream’s CEO Chris Branscum. "Multi-hundred watt [traveling wave tube amplifiers] are overkill with today’s satellites at standard video bit rates when a compact SSPAs like our 40- or 80-watt units with internal [block-up converters] can mount directly on the antenna flange and deliver just as much usable linear power."

"Mobile satellite IP terminals are still relatively expensive to own and operate, regardless of their portability, but are still vastly less expensive than buying a satellite truck or flyaway."

— Barnett, CNN

Revolutionizing How News Packages are Filed

While improvements in conventional fixed satellite service DSNG have been substantial, the impact of consumer video and IP products combined with mobile satellite technology also has been very significant. CNN’s digital newsgathering operations developed a portable kit that lets journalists report, edit and produce news packages or go live from nearly anywhere on the globe. "CNN’s digital newsgathering system has revolutionized the way we file recorded packages and do live broadcasts while cutting transmission costs dramatically," says CNN’s Frank Barnett, vice president of CNN Newsbeam. "With a Mac laptop and an Internet connection (DSL, broadband, BGAN, satellite, Wi-Fi, wireless card) we can go live and file reports from almost anywhere in the world. This capability has been especially beneficial internationally, as the equipment is extremely small, lightweight and can run off car, truck or camera batteries as well as AC. Also, since some IP transmissions can be done via the Internet there is little or no incremental cost."

Hughes Network Systems’ 9201 mobile satellite IP terminal is part of the CNN satellite newsgathering solution and operates over the Inmarsat BGAN system. The 9201 BGAN mobile terminal enables reporters to deliver streaming news and is packaged in a small backpack including video encode/decode equipment and battery power. CNN’s solution includes a portable encoder from StreamBox, which encodes and decodes video footage in real time, providing high video quality at low data rates.

In January, CNN and its technology team received a Technology and Engineering Emmy from the U.S. National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for "development and implementation of an integrated and portable IP-based live, edit, and store-and-forward digital newsgathering system." The Technology and Engineering Emmy Awards honor excellence in advances in the use, creativity and adaptation of technology that enhances or improves the consumer experience with media across multiple platforms. CNN’s newsgathering system previously was recognized by the International Broadcasting Convention, receiving awards for Content Creation and the select Judges Prize for the top entry of the year.

Technology’s Impact

What do these technology advancements mean for the news companies? "In the past, an organization has had to plug a tape into a machine at some dedicated fiber or satellite uplink location," says Dick Tauber, vice president of Transmission Systems and New Technology for the CNN News Group. "Now we can use portable laptops and compression to send packaged video over the Internet. Portability, obviously, has been a large part of this. It is much easier to get a laptop and small satellite IP device into remote areas than it is to drive a truck or fly in a dish."

Will the new smaller units open this technique up to more users? Inmarsat BGAN terminals capable of IP streaming are available from Hughes Network Systems and Thrane & Thrane and can cost $3,000. Terminals can also be rented from $17 per day or less from distributors. Within five minutes, a user can establish an IP data connection streaming at the maximum 256 kbps data rate and begin accruing airtime minutes at rates that can start at $16.99 per minute. A StreamBox ACT-L3TM encoder can be deployed on a laptop with proprietary video compression, which allows two 256 kbps channels to be "bonded" into a single half-megabit upload path. "Anyone who has a laptop and an Internet connection can take advantage of this technology. Mobile satellite IP terminals are still relatively expensive to own and operate, regardless of their portability, but are still vastly less expensive than buying a satellite truck or flyaway," says Barnett.

CNN is by no means the only broadcaster to use this technology. ABS-CBN, the largest television network in the Philippines, uses a similar solution for delivering live and file-based video over low data rate connections such as BGAN, 3G networks and other IP networks. The system includes a StreamBox portable encoder, an IFB server and a decoder for live and file-based reporting. Other StreamBox broadcast and news customers include Fox News Channel, Belo Broadcasting, CNN, DHS, Pappas Telecasting, SABC and Time Warner. "In a country of more than 7,000 islands, news logistics are a challenge," says Maria Ressa, senior vice president for ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs. "The StreamBox newsgathering solution enables us to deploy smaller teams to cover breaking news and deliver stories faster." As a substitute for the cost of C-/Ku-band full-resolution standard satellite transmission, ABS-CBN camera operators and reporters are trained to capture video, edit and transmit the video via broadband, HSDPA (broadband cellphone) and Inmarsat BGAN networks. The technology helps the broadcasters deliver "high quality news quickly, reliably and at a lower cost."

How Big A Niche?

How big can this market be for the manufacturers? In a 2008 first quarter investor presentation, Norsat International Inc. identified a $150 million market growth opportunity for portable terminals and set a goal to grow its market share, which stands between 4 percent and 8 percent, with expanded SNG and other portable terminal sales. Norsat targets what the company calls the ultra-portable SNG segment — flyaways that transport in small helicopters, planes and cars — with its GlobeTrekker SNG family of products. Fitting in three 50-pound, 60-inch wheelable cases meeting new airline checked baggage rules, the product employs automated pointing, encoder/receiver configuration, auto power from an AC source or 12-volt DC car battery and easy operation features for DVB-S MPEG-2 rates to 4 Mbps.

Graham Avis, vice president and general manager, mobile satellite terminals, Hughes Network Systems, says of the BGAN terminal market. "That’s hard to predict for the DNG segment alone given the potential for spontaneous reporters. We might be pleasantly surprised and get orders for tens of thousands of units annually. The growth story is really in the service business generated by using this equipment," he says. From a service provider perspective, Avis sees opportunities "With the cost of entry into satellite news gathering declining, additional users are developing from within the affiliates of the major networks and from the independent networks as well on a global basis."

But will the projected growth of this market be curtailed by the state of the overall economy in which news organizations seem to be looking for ways to cut back? Avis does not seem worried. "The new [digital newsgathering] systems can save new organizations money by reducing the capital and operational expenditures of field work. Combined with the ability to scoop the competition, this technology will continue to be very compelling," he says. Arnie Christianson, operations manager for CNN’s satellites and transmissions, has a similar view of the impact of broad economic trends. "The use of IP-based devices is much cheaper than maintaining fiber or satellite networks. As belts tighten, news companies will look for less expensive techniques to do their job. This highly mobile gear fits the bill," he says.

Looking Ahead

While the advancements in the past few years have been impressive, users already are looking for the next-generation systems that will be even more capable and more cost-effective. What technology is next in the pipeline? "Today’s portable satellite gear delivers video streams in the 256 to 384kbps range, with demand for.5 to 1Mbps clearly evident," says Avis. "Some customers are already bonding terminals together to achieve that, so it’s clearly within today’s technology capabilities."

According to Christianson, "Handheld devices can already do video, GPS, and photography and the handheld device will become the ‘multi-tool’ of the next 10 years. I think we will see desktop computers being replaced by laptop computers or laptop tablets, and we will see field use of laptops disappear and be replaced by handheld devices," he says.

StreamBox Chairman and CEO Bob Hildeman says broadcast news customers will want a flexible technology that enables them to stream over a variety of low-data rate networks such as Wi-Max, Evolution-Data Optimized and Wi-Fi as well as satellite networks like BGAN and VSAT and also be able to switch seamlessly to the least-cost network option available. With that in mind, key technical challenges that IP video solutions must better address include "reliability and error free video delivery without hiccups and jitter. Especially over problematic network connections, advanced networking features such as forward error correction help manage, control and mitigate packet loss," he says.

With regard to BGAN-type services, "the next hurdle will be to deliver HD quality video from a portable unit in real-time, which requires about a 10- to 20-fold increase in bandwidth performance over today’s products," says Avis. "This level of performance will take a significant business investment and require considerable frequency spectrum to support — factors that put portable HD [digital newsgathering] capability at least several years into the future."

But for now "one of the major points about this compact, mobile technology is in most cases these advancements have meant a huge reduction in newsgathering cost," says Barnett. "Conventional uplink providers have lowered costs in most cases or offered more Internet-via-satellite connectivity on their systems. This isn’t to say that conventional satellite systems are in danger. There will always be a need for dedicated, high-quality live transmission capabilities, but for breaking news, costs and portability have definitely changed the game."

That is good news for newsgathering, where the ability to move and respond fast and acquire news almost instantly from anywhere it happens is the name of the game.

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