In 2010, the broadcasting industry was engaged in a transition in which traditional technology was complemented with new IP-based solutions. The installed MPEG-2 based broadcasting infrastructure is being challenged by new IT developments at every part of the broadcasting chain, from content acquisition and contribution through to distribution.
Besides uncertainty about future technology standards, this also brings opportunities. One interesting area is satellite newsgathering (SNG), where new IP-based technology is being used to enhance newscasts at regional and local TV stations.
Until recently, SNG was affordable only for national or international events. However, developments in satellite, video and IP technology allowed a new generation of IP-SNG to emerge that brings live newsgathering within the reach of every regional and local TV station.
A compelling European example of the opportunities presented by IP-SNG comes from Swedish broadcaster SVT. It wanted an easy to use SNG system without making any compromises to video quality, and it also wanted to add more live reports to its regional TV news programs. The broadcaster also needed the system to be cost-effective. Now, after two years, it seems time to explore if the broadcaster achieved its goals of producing high-quality live regional news television cost-effectively.
SVT took a pioneering position in Europe by using the IP-SNG systems to gather live news for its regional TV station newscasts. Two years ago, it purchased a complete newsgathering infrastructure for its network of regional TV stations. This included a fleet of six IP-SNG vehicles and two Ku-band downlink stations in Karlstad and Stockholm that connect to the core SVT video network for distribution of the live video feeds to SVT studios. The downlink station is a receive-only satellite system with antenna, demodulator and video decoders that supports up to eight simultaneous connections from uplink vehicles.
The IP-SNG units are used to provide live video links on a daily basis of regional news and events directly into the news programs of the five regional TV stations, and when appropriate, also into the national news shows. Before the IP-SNG network was introduced, the broadcaster was using an average of one hour of satellite transmissions per day using a traditional MPEG-2 based SNG van. By the end of 2009, the IP-SNG network had already been used for more than 750 live transmissions, with a typical use per unit of five to 20 minutes per day.
How is the IP-SNG network used?
Typically, a journalist and camera operator drive the uplink unit to the news location by car. They park the car, making sure they have a line of sight to the south. On powering the system, the antenna automatically finds the satellite. The crew calls the studio to say it is ready, and it connects the camera. After confirmation from the studio technician that the connection is established, the crew can stream video live to the studio.
There is some variation in the use of the IP-SNG between the different regional SVT stations, in particular between urban and rural areas of Sweden. In urban areas, the crew uses more short transmissions of up to five minutes, mostly for straight newsgathering. The IP-SNG is used here to quickly drive to a breaking news location and cover the event live. The ease of use and quick setup of the new IP-SNG system has dramatically increased SVT's ability to be the first to cover news events.
From the rural areas in Sweden, the crew sees longer transmissions. The IP-SNG is used more for live coverage of regional events and festivals. In some cases, the IP-SNG has been set up by the regional TV station as a local production facility, including camera, editing and uplink facilities at the event location from where the crew is able to provide live video contributions to the different SVT regional and national TV shows covering the event.
Over the last two years and with more than 1000 deployments of the IP-SNG system, SVT has gained vast experience with the system and has turned it into a reliable and stable newsgathering tool. It is extremely rare for a planned live coverage to fail for technical reasons. Proper training of the newsgathering teams and good preparation have been the keys to success.
IP-SNG system's impact
Using an IP-SNG system has resulted in several benefits for SVT:
Production and financial aspects
Live coverage brings more drama to the news item. News crews are able to spend more time producing high- quality content, selecting a good location and rehearsing movements, and not worrying about the time taken to deliver video material back to the studio for the deadline.
First to the news is another main advantage of the system. Regional TV stations can now report breaking news stories with live TV reports.
SVT is getting closer to the audience. Viewers relate to the regional news program when it is broadcast directly from sites they recognize.
The broadcaster has introduced interactivity for its TV news feeds. It was already using a hybrid distribution model both of TV and the Internet for its programs. The IP-SNG video feeds are used live in the TV broadcast but are also put online, offering full interactivity to complement the TV transmissions.
SVT's two goals were to increase the quality of its regional TV programs with the IP-SNG and to drive down production costs for its regional news programs. The new system needed to be a more cost-effective production tool when compared with live studio shows or with the old way of working in which the news crew drove to and from the news location, brought the video material back to the studio and aired the prerecorded news items in the news show.
To meet this requirement, the IP-SNG system was challenged in three areas: the capital cost for the system, the operational costs and the satellite capacity needed to operate the system.
When looking at the capital costs, the IP-SNG is dramatically lower in price than traditional SNG solutions because it uses off-the-shelf VSAT equipment. VSAT equipment has proven its reliability in industries like oil, mining and construction. Because it is produced in high numbers, the cost per unit is much lower than traditional broadcast equipment.
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To drive down operational costs, the main challenge was to eliminate the need for a dedicated satcom engineer or operators both at the uplink unit at the news location or in the studio. Traditional MPEG-2-based SNG systems, like the Stockholm-based SVT SNG, can be operated only by a highly trained and specialized crew. For this one unit alone, SVT has a team of four or five SNG operator engineers on standby.
To meet this challenge, the IP-SNG platform has an advanced control system that eliminates the need for additional satcom engineers. One part of the system is the use of an auto-pointing antenna. The control system enables full control not only over the RF transmission, but also over the encoding platform. The IP-SNG downlink system is operated by a studio technician, eliminating the need for additional human resources.
Bringing down satellite capacity costs was tackled by using an MPEG-4 encoding platform. This resulted in lower bandwidth costs for the IP-SNG when compared with traditional MPEG-2-based SNG systems. Using MPEG-4 encoding with a 4.5MHz satellite slot results in broadcast-quality video, but also 2.5MHz slots result in high video quality. As a result, satellite costs were effectively half of those of traditional SNG systems. Another advantage is that the costs are also variable and on a pay-as-you-use basis.
SVT has used the M2sat SNGstreamer for two years now. The IP-SNG system has radically changed the way national, regional and local TV stations and programs in Sweden bring news to their audiences.
Hub Urlings is a satellite communications expert and co-founder of M2sat.