The Evolving Role of Satellite in Modern Newsgathering
We live in an always-on world with an insatiable appetite for news and media. News Broadcasters must cater for this demand, which is placing great strain on their networks. New satellite technology can help, but the question is how much and how quickly?
August 20, 2015
News broadcasters such as CNN, Russia Today, Sky News, and Fox News are key buyers of satellite services and capacity, as they aim to bring the world up-to-date with the latest news — often from very challenging locations, particularly those ravaged from conflict. We talk to a number of key decision-makers within these organizations about their changing needs for satellite.
As everybody that reads Via Satellite knows, we have entered the High Throughput Satellite (HTS) era, but what difference is this making to broadcasters? For Fox News, all of its current leases on satellite space and infrastructure are based on Ku-band technology, so the broadcaster has upgraded all of its Ku trucks with IP satellite modems to give it “HTS Ku” capability. An example of this is that its San Francisco Suburban camera crew vehicle has been turned into a Ku-band IP satellite transmission vehicle that can use LiveU IP bonded cellular with Ku-IP satellite and/or Fujitsu (non-bonded) direct IP transmission to its existing Ku-band satellite space.
“On the L-band side, we have deployed a few BGAN Thrane and Thrane Explorer 710 terminals and have found 650-900Kbps has been an important complement to our LiveU cellular bonding backpacks,” says Ben Ramos, director of field operations at Fox News. “The ability to bond this higher throughput to these backpacks has given us the ability to transmit from virtually anywhere in the world, with even the smallest amount of cellular throughput. The reason this has been our first HTS deployment, is mostly based on the ease of transition from Thrane and Thrane BGAN Explorer 700 to Explorer 710. The terminal and workflows have remained so similar, training has been very minimal.”
Ramos concedes that while Fox News has yet to launch any HTS equipment on its domestic satellite truck fleet, it has had an impact. “The small antennas, IP transmissions have helped push vehicle size below 10,000 pounds and complemented lower-cost cellular bonding with lowest-cost-based-routing and satellite emergency transmission as a back-up,” he says. “All of these factors mean Fox News can more easily deploy an inexpensive transmission vehicle with one operator and reliably transmit pictures from anywhere in the country. This is going to mean more satellite trucks and more/faster/better coverage for Fox News viewers.”
Sky News has embraced HTS. The company has been working closely with Eutelsat to make this happen. Eutelsat lent Sky News a couple of demo modems and Sky deployed those in October 2011 so it could test out working on Ka-Sat. Richard Pattison, deputy head of technology at Sky News, says this gave the company the flexibility to use the same equipment that it might use for encoding over a network link or a bonded cellular link, so it could now use it across a satellite. This meant that Sky could have commonality of equipment.
“We could use satellite to complement the cellular or fixed line IP connectivity. We have built a small fleet of trucks that we call Snipes. They are effectively a Land Rover Discovery with a Ka-band dish on top, and a cellular bonding unit inside, and very little else; they are clean, low-profile vehicles. If cellular bandwidth is available, we can use that. If it is not, or if it is poor, we can use the same equipment and use it across a satellite connection and/or in tandem with any cellular connectivity available. That means we can be always-on anywhere. I think there is a multitude of benefits of that,” Pattison adds.
According to Frank Barnett, VP CNN Satellites and Transmissions, the U.S. news broadcaster has successfully used both consumer and professional Ka-band systems on many deployments in the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) region. He says they were critical to its coverage of the Germanwings crash, the conflict in Ukraine, the shooting down of MH 17, and many other stories. CNN currently has them deployed in Vienna, Athens and Tunisia, uses them for video transmissions in addition to voice and data, and runs them alongside its standard Ku-band systems capable of transmitting multiple higher bandwidth HD video signals.
New technology in the field is enabling broadcasters to bring higher quality newscasts to audiences quicker. “We have a wide deployment of BGAN HDR terminals, and the increased throughput has noticeably improved the video quality,” says Barnett. “The Ka-band systems have also helped provide us with cost-effective transmission for video and data using much smaller and less expensive equipment. When CNN deploys to cover the news, quick decisions need to be made as to what equipment and how much suits the story to meet the coverage needs.”
For Sky News, using Ka-band has bought added flexibility and manoeuvrability. “We have a small number of Ka fly-away dishes that we use fairly regularly,” Pattison adds. “At the moment I would say it is fairly even-stevens whether we might deploy a Ka-band dish or a bigger Tri-Sat. The Ka-band kit seems to travel lighter and, if we have already sent a cellular bonding unit as an initial reaction to a story, it will integrate nicely with that equipment. If the story is significant or is set to run for some time, then investing in a Tri-sat deployment to take advantage of our leased space may well be the best way to go. Geographical location is obviously important, as available footprints may determine the deployment — ad hoc Ka usage outside of the Newsspotter footprint currently requires a little more thought at the moment but Global Xpress, Iridium Next or OneWeb may change that.”
The question going forward is, with advances in other communications technologies, will broadcasters such as these become more or less reliant on satellite technology going forward? “Satellite distribution has always been an important component of RT’s distribution platform, but it is still just one component, and it is important to balance all the parts to not become over-reliant on just one,” says Alexey Dementiev, deputy director at Russia Today (RT). “Russia Today is present in hundreds of major TV cable networks across all continents, and we are the number one TV news network on YouTube with more than 2.5 billion views, highlighting the importance of Internet and mobile content delivery.”
For Sky News, Pattison says the broadcaster will rely less on satellite going forward. “I am not anti-satellite,” he explains, “But if you can send a small IP-encoder and get some connectivity from Wi-Fi/4G, which is becoming increasingly available, it is an awful lot cheaper to deploy and, depending on available leased space, potentially cheaper to run too. It just makes sense financially, and the concept that the end product is always of lesser quality is simply not true anymore.”
However, Pattison thinks the way satellite is used will evolve. “I see a change of use for satellite. I think just providing a video uplink is no longer acceptable. You can’t tweet across that; you can’t email across that, blog or vlog across that. These are all things that news teams need to be able to do these days, and delivering IP connectivity allows you to do all of them. The big advantage of satellite technology is that, providing you have a line-of-sight to the sky, you can use it anywhere. So, being able to deliver the connectivity we crave, anywhere, should be the real focus of where we go with satellite over the next five to 10 years,” he says.
Ramos also says that Fox News is becoming less reliant on satellite technology, but that will continue to play a critical role. “Every photographer has recently been issued a hand-held satellite phone for communications virtually anywhere in the world, at anytime. Additionally, this year we will issue a BGAN to every photographer that will allow them the same capability, but with video. Also, for a long while, every Fox bureau has had satellite capability ready to deploy when a massive news event occurs. There really is no replacement for a satellite transmission, so Fox News is always prepared to transmit via satellite,” he says.
All major news broadcasters have challenges in terms of implementing next generation technology. Russia Today, for example, is implementing equipment that allows transmitting the signal from the camera in real time, through GSM or the Internet. The company uses such modems in Russia, Europe and North America, and it has been experimenting with them in the Middle East. “This means that we are bringing the stories that matter as they happen to TV and computer screens all around the world,” says Dementiev. CNN has been doing live and File Transfer Protocol (FTP) video transmission from the field via IP. This is done over various Internet connections, dedicated paths, or BGAN. Barnett admits that one challenge CNN has faced is troubleshooting issues for video transmissions via various IP paths and over the open Internet. “We have very smart people internally and with the providers we use, but it is much different than chasing problems on more standard satellite and fiber transmissions,” he says.
Pattison says that right now news broadcasters are “in the vanguard” when it comes to new technology. Cellular bonding has grown in importance for Sky News, he says, but not without challenges. “Since the advent of 4G, we have really picked up the ball and run with it. We have encountered several problems associated with adopting this technology, but we have overcome many of them and are moving into a more mature phase now — it’s now more about tweaking and polishing. So, I think we are in quite a good place at the moment, but I’d like to see to IP-based technology rolled out across the newsgathering ecosystem, affording us commonality of equipment and greater flexibility. However, I think the challenge, particularly in terms of satellite technology, will be implementing the change of use,” says Pattison. “Traditional SNG infrastructure is established and reliable. Moving away from that and looking to satellite to provide an Internet or a network connection is new territory for many and will no doubt be perceived as a risk.”
Ramos says that, while the technology advances are impressive, he finds reason for caution. “While it seems you can do anything with technology these days, I’ve found the most recent technical challenges have been related to the integrations of new technology with existing equipment and workflows. You can deploy the coolest thing-a-ma-bob that yields 100 Mbps from Bora Bora to New York, but if there is a snag somewhere downstream of our NY Tech Center and there is no impact on Fox News Channel’s TV screen, then who cares about your fancy technology?” he says.
One Journalist’s Story from the Front Line
“I know there are people out there who want to kill me.”
This is not the traditional start to a Via Satellite story, but then Jenan Moussa is not your traditional journalist. Moussa works for Al Aan TV and regularly reports from hotspots such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya. She uses Thuraya equipment to report from locations frequented by war and bloodshed. In these volatile environments, satellite is her connection to the world. She uses the SatSleeve on her iPhone, as well as other Thuraya wireless equipment to deliver news.
Moussa first started using the equipment in Libya during the fall of the Gadaffi regime in 2011, and she immediately realized how powerful satellite connectivity was for her reporting. “I remember driving with the rebels during the fall of the Colonel Gadaffi regime and I was tweeting and reporting second by second everything I was seeing,” Moussa says. “I was reporting how groups were shooting at one another; I was reporting how we were sleeping inside a hospital; I was reporting how people were flocking to a shop in Zawiya near Tripoli to get a loaf of bread because they had not had bread for weeks, and then all of a sudden, a shop was open and selling bread.”
Moussa regularly reports from Syria and Iraq — easily two of the most dangerous places on Earth for a journalist right now. She has brought some amazing stories from the region over the last two years using satellite mobile technology. Moussa recalls using the Thuraya equipment in Syria.
“I was reporting how people were reacting, how kids were screaming — it was chilling. But to share that with the audience, and be the eyes and ears of the people, and tell the audience second by second what is happening — it was amazing,” she says. “I was able to report from inside a basement; I was tweeting from Jarjanaz, a town in Idleb province of North Syria; I was stuck with civilians there; There were hundreds of kids there crying, they were praying — some were just screaming. The whole building was shaking [and] I was just sitting there telling the world what was going on.”
Reporting from unstable nation-states is highly dangerous. However, in these difficult and unsettling places, the use of satellite technology can make a huge difference to peoples’ lives. As Moussa is constantly connected to her audience, she is able to get help in somewhat unusual circumstances. “There was one time, I was in refugee camp and I was talking to this family, and they had five kids that were physically disabled and they needed to have wheelchairs. What I did was that I turned my satellite equipment on, tweeted 'I am with this family and they have five kids and they don’t have any wheelchairs,' and I said 'if any of you can help, I can put you in direct contact with those families.' Within seconds, we were able to not only five wheelchairs, but 20 wheelchairs to give to this family,” she says.
However, the fact that she is constantly connected can be a double-edged sword. Being security conscious when out in the field is now a priority. Moussa recalls an incident where she tweeted a picture, and people who, to put it lightly, don’t like her, were able to figure out her exact location because of the picture she tweeted. It was a wake-up call that, while tweeting from war zones is incredibly powerful, being cautious is key. Every trip to Syria now has to undergo painstaking planning to ensure it is not her last.
“I remember the last time I went to Syria. I went to Itlib and then to Hama City, or close to Hama City. I was driving in a convoy of rebel vehicles; there were up to 10 rebel vehicles. If somebody was watching, they probably thought a warlord was passing, but in fact, it was just me — it was extremely dangerous. I had to go in with a huge armed convoy just to report on it. It takes a lot of planning to make the right decisions,” she says.
When asked about her wishlist when it comes to technology, Moussa says, “You see how they are parading journalists in front of the cameras and killing them in Syria. There are other regimes in the region that don’t want to see journalists’ doing their jobs. So, security is so important to me. So far, nothing has happened to me, but in the back of my mind, I hope this machine is safe enough, and that no one can trace me and find my position. I have asked Thuraya about it, and they have assured me that it is safe. I have to keep thinking about that and to keep on telling myself that these groups and regimes don’t have the technology to trace me. This is one of the main worries. I always think of my safety and hope the machines are safe enough.” VS