Satellite News Gathering: Users Seeking Smaller, Easier Equipment
Broadcasters around the globe are covering more live events, sports and spot news in order to respond to the needs of their customers. At the same time, the owners and stockholders of these companies are squeezing the broadcasters for more profits. To balance these competing demands, satellite news gathering (SNG) organizations are seeking help from equipment manufacturers and service providers, looking for new technology that will make it easier and more efficient to deliver video from the field.
New technology such as high-definition (HD) broadcasting and Internet Protocol (IP)-enabled communications are making this transition easier, but "in general, broadcasters are very conservative," says Stefan Jucken, vice president of business development and marketing for ND Satcom. "They do not necessarily want to change, but they are being forced to become more efficient. … They have been pushed to go to HD, but that doesn’t bring in additional revenue. They have to become leaner and more efficient on the operational side, so they are asking for solutions to help them get there," he says.
The demand for advanced SNG solutions first took off in Europe but now broadcasters around the globe are seeking advanced technology, with business picking up in the United States and the Middle East and starting to grow in China in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics, says Jucken.
ND Satcom’s SmartSNG system is designed to streamline and automate operations and reduce the number of personnel in the truck, Jucken says. The system can perform operations such as the planning and booking of resources at remote and mobile sites, booking of uplink equipment and satellite transponder capacity, and control of all equipment online. In August, ND Satcom received a contract from an unnamed U.S. broadcaster for 10 SmartSNG units and to link the customer’s 10 TV stations with the vehicles. The contract also carries options for up to 100 more vehicles within the next five years.
"What broadcasters are looking for is more automated SNGs that are easy to operate, cut operations cost and in the race to stay competitive, be on the air with a minimal amount of personnel in trucks," Jucken says. "They are looking for SNGs that are easy to operate, have a high level of automation and operate with a single-button push by a single person. In the truck, they want a satellite person, a journalist and a cameraman."
Along with ease of setup, broadcast customers also want to see more of the production work done in the field, which will help eliminate some of the cost at headquarters, says Dirk Breynaert, CTO and co-founder of Newtec. "It used to be they just wanted transmission equipment and GSM phones. Now they want computers and Internet access and access to reservations from the truck, which requires interactivity via satellite. They also want to search something, do processing of video, add voice and search over the Internet. They want to replace raw video with ready-to-go video and be interactive with headquarters," he adds.
"They are looking for the trucks that have a very good communication infrastructure," Jucken says. "At the studios, they have IP infrastructure and server-based content. They are moving away from tape handling, and editors want to try and push the corporate [local area network] into the field and making trucks part of the network. They want to start editing in the field."
The advances in SNG technology also are making it easier for more organizations to broadcast their events, says Paul Edwards, vice president of transportables for Crawford Communications, an Atlanta-based company that operates nine C-band and 21 Ku-band SNG trucks. "Just over the last two to three years, more people have come to us for smaller production units — two, three or four cameras for corporate business events, conferences and smaller sporting events," he says. "More regional cable headends are televising smaller events such as high school sports. Those small trucks handle that kind of venue quite nicely versus bringing in bigger trucks and an uplink truck."
Smaller equipment is driving the growth in the market, Edwards says. "The encoder used to be a three-rack unit; now its down to one," he says. "IRDs (integrated receivers and decoders) used to be on two racks. Now manufacturers are making them more compact, all-in-one units. That allows us to put more equipment on board with the same amount of rack space. Other new technologies also are driving customer demands. All uplinks have to be HD-capable. We’ve taken the plunge with six sets of encoders — two in flypack configurations we can get out with an operator to any of the trucks and others on our C-band trucks that do events like large sports."
As operations are simplified, new broadcasters are able to enter the broadcasting field, officials say. "Because some users are not very technical, it is important to be able to provide them with wizard type of software interface so they can use the units and troubleshoot it on their own," says Pervez Siddiqui, vice president of marketing for Norsat International Inc. "One of the bigger challenges is acquiring the satellite. That has all been automated so anyone can use it."
The size of portable SNG units also is shrinking, driven in part by new airline demands, says Chris Lay, managing director of Gigasat. "Checked baggage regulations plus health and safety concerns mean news gatherers want the lightest possible flyaway terminals so they can get to a breaking news story on the next available flight," he says. Gigasat has repackaged its uplink subsystems, including antenna controllers, beacon receivers, upconverters, modems and video encoders, to fit into a smaller rack . This allows Gigasat to provide flyaway systems together with carbon fiber flight cases that are lighter and easier to transport, he says.
"As airlines drive down the maximum baggage size and weights that they will carry, we are seeing a knock-on effect in the desire to make smaller and lighter flyaway systems," says Mark Lambert, managing director of Advantech AMT. "System integrators are asking if we can supply solutions as cards, instead of full boxes, and we have been able to do this for a number of projects."
Temix, a telecommunications company based in Sicily, Italy, also sees broadcasters changing their requirements as they pertain to flyaway and SNG equipment. "Many broadcasters need to have a compact flyaway system to quickly transmit news and events from anywhere in the world," says Armando Caravella, general manager of Temix. "We are seeing tremendous growth in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. One market demand that we are addressing centers on the creation of smaller equipment with an integrated antenna."
There is a limit to how far manufacturers may shrink the equipment, officials say. "The smaller you make the antenna, the more you have to compensate by insuring the structure is extremely stable," says Siddiqui. "At the same time, we are trying to minimize and contain the weight. There are a lot of trade-offs there. It’s going to come to the point where it will not pay to make it much smaller. Making smaller just for sake of making smaller is not helpful. There are serious performance considerations that preclude us from going on certain points and still enabling the broadcast community to realize the quality of the links they need."
Some broadcasters also still require larger trucks and equipment, says Lay. "As the story matures or for planned events such as sports, they want the biggest possible EIRP (effective isotropic radiated power — a measure of the strength of the transmission signal), possibly from a flyaway or more often from an SNG vehicle so they can handle multiple channels of video or more recently HD transmissions," Lay says. "The SNG vehicle systems we have supplied for both CNN and Al Jazeera in recent months have all been multiple, video-capable, HD-ready with relatively large 1.8-meter antennas and in the case of CNN, 400 watt phase combined Ku-band amplifiers. Two years ago most news gatherers were happy with 1.5-meter antennas and 200 watt amplifiers."
But for all the advancements in equipment, the key to cutting costs even further "hinges on the video compression," Lay says. "H.264, MPEG-4 and DVB-S2 modulation can allow significant bandwidth reduction for picture quality comparable with MPEG-2 DVB-S so this allows us to minimize both the antenna size and the HPA power, bringing down the overall packed size and weight of a system. However, put HD into the equation and in terms of EIRP requirement you’re right back to where we started, almost to the good old analog video days."
In addition to size, flexibility also seems to be the key. "The very latest high-end encoders provide MPEG-4 [standard-definition] and HD encoding allowing both minimum bandwidth or best quality depending on the requirement that day, but they also have to include MPEG-2, 4:2:0 and 4:2:2 encoding. This is particularly important for independent companies who must be able to transmit to a wide range of customers." The improved bandwidth efficiency and reduced weight mean cheaper transmission costs and cheaper transportation costs," but MPEG-4 and particularly HD is still pretty new commanding premium prices," he says.
The use of IP to transport the content is seen as a big advantage in terms of cutting costs, "because it is such a well established technology and makes for very simple routing of the content streams through both the remote SNG site and the broadcast center," Lambert says.
The advancements in IP over satellite also will provide enhanced service to SNG trucks such as e-mail, Internet and Voice-over-IP, Jucken says. "Unfortunately, with all the natural disasters that have occurred, broadcasters have figured out that they normally need one IP line in the truck and one telephone lines, but if something happens, the truck needs to become a real communications center. It needs to be scalable and have good communication capabilities."
IP delivery also is bringing in new competitors to the SNG market. Shin Satellite, which provides traditional broadcasting services via its Thaicom satellites, unveiled in June a mobile vehicle that broadcasts via the company’s IPStar broadband satellite. "Our primary market is still providing total broadband satellite solution," says Patompop Suwansiri, head of marketing at Shin Satellite. "SNG is a bit of a niche market, but because IPStar is quite an efficient satellite, in particular in the return link, we decided to do was develop own SNG mobile vehicle. … We also developed software which can automatically track the antenna within five minutes, so for the broadcasters, they don’t need a qualified technician to operate the system."
Using IPStar, Shin Satellite can offer uplink speeds of up to 2 megabits per second, and the use of IP transmissions means operations costs will be less than using high-powered [block-up converters] needed for traditional broadcasting, Suwansiri says. "Some of our customers are SNG customers in the normal, traditional SNG service. IPStar has really enhanced this. The satellite is so sensitive that don’t need a big dish to get good quality back." IPStar also has plenty of available capacity to serve Shin’s target broadband Internet market as well as the SNG market, he says.
Shin Satellite is targeting its current SNG customers in China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Australia and New Zealand with the vehicle but hopes to expand the offering across Asia and to new customers, Suwansiri says. "We have a lot of TV broadcast customers, and will be able to cross sell the product."
Many officials in the SNG industry believe the move toward IP will be the key driver for the industry in the coming years. "That is the future, but it already has begun," Jucken says. "That kind of solution allows a lot of new service products offered by individual service providers that operate individual satellite news gathering vehicles or by operators. So for them, IP will be very attractive to offer that kind of solution to the customers."