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Is ‘BNG’ in your future?

First there was ENG, then SNG, followed by D-SNG. But now it appears there may be “BNG” in your future. (OK, I know TV news was shot in the field first on film, but I’m talking about “electronic” flavors of newsgathering.)

“What’s ‘BNG’?” you ask. Simple, “balloon news gathering.”

Last week, news broke about a pilot project being conducted by Google and Raven Industries to use high-tech, high-altitude balloons along with sophisticated positioning software to provide wireless Internet service to remote, rural areas. Think of these balloons as nearer-earth, less costly alternatives to satellites and taller, more far-reaching alternatives to cellular towers.

For the trial, part of Google’s Project Loon, the companies have deployed 30 balloons into the stratosphere over New Zealand to deliver wireless Internet service to an area that’s about 3900sq mi. Each balloon is 60ft tall and flies at an altitude of 66,000ft. By moving the balloons up and down in the stratosphere, they can be positioned to sail on the wind in the right direction and speed, says Raven Industries, the company providing the balloons and expertise to put the wireless Internet service aloft.

According to Raven Industries, the ability to position and direct the balloons is a significant step in turning balloons into a viable platform for providing Internet access to rural and remote areas.”

To be sure, this initial effort is simply a test. If, when and where stratospheric balloons are deployed to provide wireless Internet service, is currently unknown. However, if a fleet of these balloons is deployed to expand wireless Internet service, the impact could be as significant in the news gathering arena as it will be to the general public.

First, having an alternative to — or augmentation of — cellular newsgathering contribution could further extend the reach and performance of IP-based cellular newsgathering systems. Second, a new competitive service in the contribution arena may impact the pricing of services offered by traditional players. Third, airborne Internet wireless coverage potentially could relieve some of the network congestion that crushes cellular service at big events, such as stadium sports, and make IP-based newsgathering from those venues easier. Finally, perhaps the availability of such balloons might make it possible for station groups and broadcast networks to deploy their own balloon or balloons for contribution of news from the field and special events.

Twenty-five or more years ago when I was editing Television Broadcast magazine, one of our authors, Phil Keirstead, would write about a coming day when news crews in the field would be able to file their video news stories and go live over telephone lines. I just couldn’t envision at that time how a reporter would access those phone circuits in the field and send analog signals back to the station. Fast forward to today, and that’s what’s happening every day in the industry. Sure the notions of phone wires and analog video aren’t a part of it, but IP-based cellular newsgathering is in essence what Keirstead wrote about so long ago.

Perhaps the same sort of thing will happen with BNG. It’s impossible to know the specifics today or predict exactly how it will all play out. But it sure seems like there’s something here that could be important for television newsgathering. And before you say the idea of contributing news from the field via balloon-delivered wireless Internet service is full of hot air, remember this: these balloons use helium.