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News Broadcasters: Investing in Satellite

By Rachel Scharmann | August 26, 2014
      News broadcasters operate in a fast-paced environment. We live in a world, where real-time reporting is the norm and, in this environment, the use of satellite technology is key. We talk to a number of news broadcasters about how satellite technology is making a difference in their operations.
      Satellite News Gathering Van


      The past 12 months in broadcast journalism have seen high profile events in remote and far-ranging locations: Typhoon Haiyan, which carved a path of destruction through the Philippines and parts of Southeast Asia; the kidnappings of more than 200 girls in a small town in northeastern Nigeria; and the missing Malaysia Airlines flight and subsequent search and rescue efforts in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, to name a few.

      All of these events were prominent news stories that required nearly every major news outlet in the world to send a team to the source. But once the team is on location — especially one that is remote — how do they guarantee distributing the news back to the uplink station in order to break the story to their viewers? This is where the satellite industry and the news-broadcasting sector connect. Satellite provides a guarantee for broadcasters in situations away from the news desk to deliver information when other forms of connectivity are not always available.


      The 24-Hour News Cycle

      The news broadcasting sector has seen a transformation in the past decade with the arrival of what some call the “24-hour news cycle.” Now, with so many technologies available for journalists, the challenges they face have shifted. It is not a matter of how a broadcaster will transmit the story back to the station, but it is more a challenge of which combination of technologies will serve them in the most efficient way.

      For IP communications over satellite, there are many different technologies that broadcasters have to choose from. When little to no connectivity is available in a region, some news teams will use a Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT). However, VSATs can be costly and large, and not as suitable for teams on the move. A more recent technology in the field is a Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) terminal, a laptop-sized terminal that is easy to set up and requires little to no assistance, yet provides lower amounts of bandwidth. At the end of the day, broadcasters must make split-second decisions that take cost and geography into consideration, but certainly the main focus is on getting the story transmitted in a timely manner.

      “We have to make the decision of what resources we can get in, how much it’s going to cost and what’s the best way to get the pictures back to tell the story to our global audience,” says Frank Barnett, VP CNN satellites and transmissions.

      Certainly, BGAN has made a significant impact on the way broadcasters are able to transmit and report the news. It eliminates the need for additional technical personnel on site, as a news team can quite literally take the terminal out of the box and have it running within a few minutes. However, broadcasters must be able to judge whether the bandwidth provided by a BGAN terminal will suffice for the story at hand.

      “You’ve got to make a decision about what sort of kit goes into what environment to make sure that the story is covered in the best way possible and it’s given the attention it deserves,” says Bevan Gibson, CTO at ITN. “If we’re going to send a presentation team, you obviously want slightly higher quality than perhaps if it was just a single correspondent. So, it’s deploying the right sort of equipment to the right job at the right location.”

      There are always cost considerations to make, but the system is becoming increasingly flexible. Many operators offer payment plans that are better suited for media customers that often can’t predict how much bandwidth they will use in a certain area for a certain amount of time. There may be weeks at a time when a broadcaster might not need to use a terminal at all in a remote region, but then the next week could bring with it a period of heavy use due to a particular event.

      “This is an event-driven business, so it is ‘pay as you go,’” says John Huddle, head of media services at Thuraya. “One of the things we did was that we put in place a unique price plan that rewards customers in periods of heavy use by not penalizing them for charges, but then [also] doesn’t penalize them in periods where they’re not using the technology.”


      Citizen Journalism: A Social Media Trend

      With social media applications such as Twitter and Vine competing for content with real-time broadcast news, the demand for content has undoubtedly increased. A rising trend in the past few years has been everyday citizens inserting themselves into the news story, which was notably evidenced during the Arab Spring protests in 2011. The uprisings during this time of political unrest across the Arab world saw some of the first examples of citizens reporting these events to global audiences through blogging, tweeting and posting photos and videos from smart phones.

      Broadcasters now must adapt to this trend of “citizen journalism” and be able to react and incorporate relevant content. In a world where consumers now turn to social media outlets such as Twitter to receive information on breaking news stories, incorporating citizen-created content can give networks a competitive edge by providing ground-level perspectives.

      “Five or 10 years ago, you wouldn’t have thought that a shot of user-generated content or something coming in on Skype would be as newsworthy as it is today, but cell phone video and those types of content that we have to bring in as IP streams, and cross over to the video world and all our digital platforms, are basically critical to our success,” says Barnett.

      In addition to competition from end-user-created content, international news broadcasters are facing growing competition from local news sources that are reporting internationally focused content. National news outlets are now becoming readily available in outside countries, either through streaming over the Internet, applications for smart phones or tablets, or even distributed on dedicated television channels through providers. There are now an increasing number of dedicated international news channels because there is this ease of entrance into the market for national outlets.

      “From our side, there are two main changes,” says David Couret, director of technical solutions, distribution, at France 24. “If we are talking about what is going on over in Thailand, there are some Thai channels that are [now] accessible globally either through the Internet or even through broadcasted distribution, so there are more local news channels talking about the different parts of the globe. There are also more and more international news channels … so there is more competition in international news and there are more people in the market.”

      Thus, it is becoming ever more important for news providers to address local audiences in a way that will resonate with them.

      “Anywhere in the world, news is kind of niche, especially international news,” says Arnaud Verlhac, director of worldwide distribution at Euronews. “We are directly in competition with local news service programming … we are trying to get local and to acquire local content to bring onto the linear channel to fit the grid, to make sure we can speak locally to the local people that we want to reach.”

      As a result, journalists and news broadcasters face more numerous pressures in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. There is greater competition, a constantly changing technological sphere and an unquenchable thirst for content as consumers want to stay up-to-date in real-time. Yet, there are innovations in satellite in the past decade that make much of this possible, and ease some of these pressures that journalists face.

      Operators are increasingly modifying the way that they do business with media broadcasters to better suit the needs of these customers. As well as to pay-as-you-go plans, operators have implemented new methods for adapting to the fluctuations in bandwidth on a day-to-day basis that accompany the fluctuations in a daily news cycle.

      “You can take capacity from one certain spec beam and you can add it in to a specific area where there’s a big story happening,” says Martin Turner, director of media business at Inmarsat, adding that this was Inmarsat’s approach to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. “We’re able to add capacity to support the requirements of journalists there, and we do that on a day-to-day basis… this is a system that they depend on, so it does have to work when a big story happens.”

      Along with flexible bandwidth measures, operators are beginning to offer broadcasters control of their allocated bandwidth with online booking. This process assists in speeding up the booking process and saves time in tight situations.

      “If they’ve got a feed in five minutes, they can go online and book that and that’s a comfort that will all be set up and ready when they actually call,” says Richard Lamb, senior director of occasional use operations at SES.

      Even with this reduced time between booking and space allotment, the nature of broadcast journalism will continue to see tight deadlines and technologies pushed to their limits.

      “The biggest challenge in a breaking news story [is] when they want something now,” says Lamb. “We regularly have either a phone call or an email or an online booking made three to four minutes before they want to go live with it … and that is achievable and that is doable. We do it, but it requires quite a number of resources and people standing by waiting for that call, or the booking system to be online waiting for it, right through to our access center integrated with our scheduling system to know that that [particular] space is available to allocate the right one.”

      Often, when news broadcasters push these limits or find innovative uses for new technologies, it can actually bring about an entirely new application for the products beyond the original intention.


      Future Technologies

      Looking five or 10 years down the road, there are many trends and new technologies in broadcasting that could further push these limits — for example, broadcasting in Ultra-High Definition. However, the high bandwidth requirements and initial cost to upgrade from HD to Ultra-HD may not be realistic for news broadcasters just yet.

      In addition to lower cost cameras and equipment, advances in compression technologies will need to accompany the move to 4K to make the upgrade process economically feasible. It will really need to be a joint effort from all of the major players in the market, from operators offering flexible bandwidth plans, to encoding equipment manufacturers producing encoders up to the newest standards, to even television manufacturers selling 4K television sets at better prices. “I would imagine that as the technology improves and other protocols become available, more efficient compression of that data will be possible, changing the way that our teams will operate in the field as they become comfortable with using more IP-based services in remote locations,” says Gibson.

      On the device side, there are several developments in equipment and wearable technologies that are promising for news broadcasters in the near future. Flat panel antennas provide very high gain in a thin and compact packaging, suitable for the news broadcasting industry as they can operate in rugged and remote territories. This new antenna technology could mirror the acceptance of compact terminals such as BGANs in that they may start to be adopted by news teams on a widespread scale and become the new norm.


      Moving Forward

      Gone are the days in which consumers solely rely on nightly news broadcasts to receive the day’s major news stories. Now, it is becoming ever more pressing for broadcasters to adapt to new platforms and make sure that their content is available whenever consumers want it. Although it remains to be seen whether some of these forward-facing technologies, such as Google Glass or Sony’s SmartWatch, will be fully adapted by news broadcasters, it is safe to say that the broadcasters are constantly testing these new platforms and pushing the technologies to their limits.

      “The really interesting thing is that the media will take those [technologies] and they’ll do things with them that we’ve never dreamt of,” says Turner. “Somebody on a story on a particular day will take [the technology] and they’ll solve a particular problem, and we’ll all stand back and think, ‘Wow, how did they think of that?’ They thought of it because they wanted to get the story on air. That’s why news is such a crucial part of the satellite business, because they really do take things forward.” VS

      by Rachel Scharmann