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Satellite’s Play in Global Sporting Events – From our Archive

By Mark Holmes | December 7, 2017

The sporting world is looking forward to a momentous 2018, as Russia will host the FIFA World Cup next year despite being banned from participating in the Winter Olympics in South Korea. Sporting events always offer huge opportunities for the satellite/broadcast industries, particularly as they generate gargantuan global audiences and can be a showcase for new technologies, such as 4K. The demands for satellite capacity always sees a spike during these times. In this article from our archive, we turn the clock back to 2010 to see what broadcasters and satellite players were thinking just before the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Sony 4K camera used to broadcast live sports events. Photo courtesy of Sony

Sony 4K camera used to broadcast live sports events. Photo courtesy of Sony.

The World Cup will take place in Africa for the first time, presenting unique challenges for broadcasters such as ITV, one of the biggest broadcasters in the United Kingdom. “This is a massively complicated world event which means that the technical planning had to start almost before the last tournament has ended,” says Roger Pearce, technical director, sport, ITV Sport. “The major technical challenges are always procuring the means to transmit your program — mainly via satellite and fiber from remote locations — and putting together the technical facilities in the International Broadcast Center (IBC) and venues in a country so far from our base in the United Kingdom. South Africa definitely has its challenges, in particular the potential lack of available ad hoc facilities in the face of huge worldwide demand and the risk factor in building a lot of the technical systems, especially for this tournament.”

Pearce says ITV will have domestic Ku-band capacity in South Africa and roving TES Reporter units (satellite newsgathering units that work with a reporter and cameraman for live and tape feeds) along with C-band and fiber to delivery broadcasts to the United Kingdom. “We have to be careful to keep path latency to a minimum to avoid embarrassing delays in two-way interviews from remote locations, something that is often asked for by sports producers. We, therefore, intend to stay with MPEG-2 compression. Satellite technology is the backbone of sports coverage and will continue to be so as more services can be provided by IP,” he says. In fact, one of Pearce’s main concerns for ITV’s coverage is lack of bandwidth, since it will be in demand by multiple broadcasters. “All suppliers are warning of a bandwidth shortage, but I would like to think that the satellite companies will rise to the challenge and find ways to up the ad hoc capacity available,” he says.

SuperSport is the main African rights holders for the event, and even though the World Cup is on home turf, satellite is central to SuperSport’s thinking in terms of delivering the event. “I think for SuperSport, in terms of broadcasting and beaming the event to the territories it has rights in (sub-Saharan Africa and its adjacent islands), from our platform point of view, we are pretty comfortable in terms of using satellite. Short of unnatural phenomena, our broadcast of all 64 matches live will go out and carry itself to our viewers without a hitch,” says Tex Teixeira, head of production at SuperSport. “I think satellite is the only way to broadcast such an event. Satellite delivery is extremely reliable, however, you can get thunderstorms in a region and this can cause some breakup. The biggest concern for satellite is if you have weather problems at the venue from which you are originating. This happened in one of the semifinals of Euro 2008, where bad weather (a thunderstorm over Vienna created technical difficulties in the International Broadcast Centre, which relayed the feed from the match in Basel, Switzerland) caused the live global audience to miss some of the match. For 2010, FIFA will ensure that all venues have redundancy strategies in place to cope with any possible interference to signal delivery,” he says.

In terms of other potential issues, Teixeira says, “Where I do see a potentially a problem is the sourcing of non-live short format content from the regions and venues outside of Johannesburg. The challenge for us and other broadcasters wanting to use either FTP (file transfer protocol) or 3G connectivity is that most bandwidth available will be allocated for FIFA and Local Organising Committee usage. Where we need content to be delivered instantly and at a set time we will probably go with satellite as an option for delivery,” he says.

Satellite and Fiber

Intelsat has a 40-year heritage of covering major global sporting events, says Tim Jackson, Intelsat’s vice president of media product management. “Intelsat has been distributing the Olympic Games since 1968 and the World Cup since the 70s. Early on, satellite was the only transmission means broadcasters had to get the content from the event location to their viewers back home,” he says. “Broadcasters took a single pool feed that was distributed worldwide and added their local commentary prior to broadcasting the event. Today, transmissions of large-scale events has become more sophisticated. Broadcasters around the world are doing their own unilateral feeds. With the Olympics and the World Cup preparations, our customers are currently finalizing their dedicated capacity plans and routing their broadcast transmission plans from the venues in Vancouver and South Africa back to their home markets,” he says.

However, times change, and in terms of delivery of the live event, fiber and satellite will be used together. This will be the third World Cup that Host Broadcast Services (HBS) will work alongside FIFA to ensure the broadcasts do not have problems, but it will be a complex challenge, says Daniel Wlochovski, HBS’s director of marketing. “Satellite has some significant advantages in terms of reliability and ease-of-use to deploy, say compared to fiber-based circuits,” he says. “Satellite is very reliable. Fiber is reliable, but if something goes, experience shows that it is more difficult to identify where the problem is. So satellite is very reliable and easy to deploy. Establishing a fiber circuit is a longer story. For us, satellite is the only means suitable for distribution and contribution to the national programs all over the world.” But with this being the first time the World Cup is taking place in Africa, there are unique challenges, says Wlochovski. “What is a little bit more difficult in South Africa is that you can’t go further south in Africa. It is cut off from many other regions of the world. We have to address that, not just for telecoms but for the organization of the World Cup. There are tremendous logistical challenges. It is difficult to extract the signals out of South Africa because it is remote. It is at the end of a huge continent. There are low-density countries in between South Africa and the rest of the world with low-density telecommunications, so we rely on either satellite solutions or we rely on a limited number of undersea cables, so this is quite unique,” he says.

While satellite is a proven reliable technology for delivering global events, fiber solutions also are now compelling, particularly given the bandwidth demands of broadcasters around the world. “Only fiber-based solutions may today provide the kind of data rates HD television requires for its contribution circuits, ranging from STM-1 (155 megabits per second) to STM-16 (1.5 gigabits per second) while providing negligible time delays,” Wlochovski says. Undersea fiber cables will play a vital role. “In terms of international fiber connectivity, South Africa is entirely relying on three undersea cables, shared with other countries (one in the Atlantic and two in the Indian Ocean), traveling northwards. Even if bandwidth is not anymore an issue, alternative options are limited, and access to satellite transmissions, whether for main or for backup purposes, is of paramount importance.”

Aidan Baigrie, business development executive, Seacom, believes the World Cup will demonstrate the way broadcasters can combine satellite and fiber delivery. “We get asked a lot if satellite is dead now that fiber has come into the country. The answer to that is that in a continent with such a diverse geographical layout, there is always a market for satellite, because laying fiber is a very expensive and challenging task. I think what South Africa is doing quite cleverly for the World Cup is using those two in harmony. Fiber will be the core network providing the broadband infrastructure, but a satellite infrastructure has also been set-up to provide a fully redundant solution. We have got 10 stadiums in nine host cities, and each one of those will be provided with satellite equipment.”

Baigrie believes the telecoms infrastructure available to cover the event will more than handle the job. “Our infrastructure here is world class, state-of-the-art infrastructure. We have been held back historically on the fiber side, but we are sitting in a situation now where a year ago, we had 120 gigabits per second of capacity coming into the country. We are looking at maybe 10 terabits per second in the next few years. The fiber portion is really getting sorted out. As far as the terrestrial network, Telkom has a pretty sophisticated network in place throughout the country. I think the infrastructure we have set up for the World Cup is really world-leading,” he says. In terms of meeting capacity demands, “We have a world-class pipe right now that is capable of providing over a terabit of capacity into the country. South Africa’s stadiums will transfer up to 40 gigabits per second of redundant capacity to the IBC for each game. Although Seacom has sold a significant portion of our capacity, the reality is we have ample space to support FIFA’s requirements to ensure a seamless event. ”

While fiber is becoming a more important piece of the broadcast equation, this does not diminish the role of satellite at major events. “Even though broadcasters are increasing their use of fiber for video transmissions, they are not omitting satellite from their distribution chain,” Jackson says. Quite the contrary, satellite’s reliability still exceeds that of fiber and remains a paramount factor for broadcasters as they finalize transmission services for their programming, especially when it comes to high-profile events such as an Olympics or World Cup. One can only imagine the ramifications a broadcaster would face if the football matches in South Africa watched around the world suddenly were interrupted due to a fiber cut. There is no restoration potential for moments lost from a live event,” he says.

The use of fiber at other such global events is on the increase. “I think the biggest evolution we have seen is the increased use of fiber. Our core business has always been satellite, but for these major events, more and more fiber is being requested as it provides more flexibility and is often more cost efficient, says Graham Smith, sales director, global contribution services, GlobeCast. “For major broadcasters covering events like these, fiber is used as their principal delivery method as they are able to send high-bitrate feeds as well as interactive services, two-way communications, etc. For us, that has been a huge learning curve in the last five years as our level of expertise on fiber used to be fairly minimal, but now it is very strong.” Despite the growth of fiber, broadcasters will still need plenty of satellite bandwidth. “Even though fiber is being laid out to the coastal areas of Africa, satellite remains the most secure means of distribution — in many cases the only means — to countries throughout the continent. Even across oceans, say from Johannesburg to London or New York, broadcasters will most likely use satellite as well. Fiber cuts disrupting transmissions is not a viable option. That is why satellite will always be a resilient compliment to fiber for regional and global transmissions of video,“ he says.

Smith says it is not a question of either/or in terms of satellite and fiber. “I think satellite is still incredibly important. I don’t think it will ever be completely usurped by fiber. If you look at an event like the World Cup in South Africa, there is a need for broadcasters to deliver content from all sorts of locations in South Africa, team hotels, training camps, safari, etc., and that usually has to be done via satellite as you are not likely to be near a fiber connection in most locations,” he says.

Technology Vendors

For technology vendors, events such as the Winter Olympics and the World Cup offer unique opportunities to display their latest and greatest technologies. HaiVision, an encoder provider, will be present at both events. “To address many media vehicles, HaiVision’s products are designed to take a single HD input, encode that input to multiple resolutions/bandwidths and distribute the resulting IP streams to multiple destinations concurrently,” says Miroslav Wicha, HaiVision’s CEO. “This means that a single source can feed HD campus distribution, HD backhaul, HD to streaming server, SD to streaming server, streaming to iPhone, etc. In fact, HaiVision is already participating in the 2010 Winter Olympics with CTV. They are using our Makito encoders for return feeds from the live events, back to the journalists in the field.”

Media Broadcast of Germany also will have a significant presence at both the Winter Olympics and the World Cup. “There is a trend towards an enormously increased volume of data, particularly due to the increasing numbers of HD transmissions,” says Helmet Egenbauer, CEO of Media Broadcast, which has provided broadcast services for events such as NATO and G8 Summits. “Nowadays, this volume is increasingly being handled via IP. IP technology offers significantly greater flexibility. Offering broadcast services via IP is a major competitive factor and a requirement which our customers have increasingly been insisting upon.” Media Broadcast’s customers receive the latest and most secure option available for their transmissions, Egenbauer says. “Depending on the infrastructure available at event locations, we will utilize either satellite or cable setups. We find that most major events will have a well-developed cable infrastructure. This is, therefore, what we use as the transmission platform. We use satellite to provide stand-by channels and backup connections or for short-time transmissions to enable flexible reporting,” he says.

Harris Broadcast Services aims to provider broadcasters with a key infrastructure to enable operations to run smoothly. “Broadcasting a high-profile event using temporary facilities (often spanning multiple sites) is a major undertaking. Harris helps broadcasters by providing a backbone infrastructure for HD outside broadcasting and by delivering high-quality pre- and post-event services and support. Harris has a strong portfolio of 3-gigabits-per-second technology that provides a end-to-end infrastructure: core processing, routing, distribution, multiviewers, fiber, test and measurement, monitoring and control, and real-time on-air graphics,” says Richard Scott, vice president, Harris Broadcast Communications, Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Bottom Line

There is little doubt that the Winter Olympics and the World Cup will see huge global audiences, and with HD content being delivered to a variety of platforms, the demands for bandwidth have never been higher. Broadcasters realize because of the huge audiences these events attract, revenue opportunities are huge, but they need their coverage to be flawless and innovative.