Venues vary; some broadcasters lay their own
With the growing number of broadcasters carrying HDTV sports- including HDNet, ESPN, CBS, ABC, and soon Comcast SportsNet - there is now mounting pressure on stadiums and arenas to install permanent fiber-optic cable infrastructures. These costly facility upgrades support the broadcasters' need to transmit high-definition video from multiple HD cameras plus audio, camera control data, intercom and other signals from around the venue out to the production trucks during live telecasts.
With the uncompressed HD signal moving at a substantial 1.5 Gbps, experts say that only fiber-optic cable can provide the quality and reliability that HD signals demand. But with the upfront cost of fiber-optic cable about $50,000 per venue, this is an upgrade that most stadiums are not anxious to implement - even when they can pass those costs on to broadcasters in the form of connection and power fees.
Also, many stadiums have been able to dodge this expense. When broadcasters find that a venue is not "pre-fibered," many have chosen to lay their own cable prior to an event, and then roll it back up afterwards. So, prior to the current push toward HDTV, there hasn't been much incentive for stadiums to lay permanent fiber infrastructures.
FIBERING IS UNDERWAY
"There are a few forward-thinking venues that have upgraded to a fiber-optic cable infrastructure in anticipation of HDTV," says Mike Janes, director of engineering for Blazers Broadcasting and Action Sports and Entertainment Mobile Television (ASEM), which offers a (1080/24p-1080/60i) HDTV mobile unit, in Portland, Ore. "But most of the nation's venues are in various states of transition - from incomplete fiber installations, to fiber that's there but in very poor condition, to no fiber in place at all,"
Janes is in a unique position because he understands this issue as both a broadcaster and as part of the management team at the Rose Garden Arena, home to the NBA's Portland Trailblazers.
"At the Rose Garden, we do have a fiber installation that broadcasters can use," he says. "Besides wanting to support the broadcast community, we also feel that by pre-fibering our venue, we could maintain control over how it has been handled. When a broadcaster runs their own cable, if the job is not done neatly and carefully, this can result in fire hazards and other public safety concerns."
When he brings a mobile unit to a venue, however, Janes (or another staff member) flies out to that venue in advance to survey the site to determine what facilities are there and what's going to be needed, as well as the best camera positions and angles.
"When we find a venue that's not pre-fibered, we generally work with the house electrician or facility coordinator to determine what the proper cable runs are and the safest, fastest, easiest paths to put the cable in and take it out," says Janes. "That means that we incur the labor costs associated with one or two days of fibering the place, but if we will be broadcasting from there often, we can break out that expense over a large number of events.
"With the permission of the house, we can leave our fiber cable there. But with costs running about $1,200 per 500 feet of fiber cable, that's expensive too. And when we're not using it, other broadcasters can just use our cable run often without compensating us. It's not really fair, but it's been a very common scenario for broadcasters, especially the major networks."
At HDNet, a Dallas-based channel delivering HDTV sports and entertainment via DirecTV (and soon cable systems), co-founder and technical operations manager Philip Garvin says that if a stadium is not pre-fibered, his crew has to run its own cable prior to the event.
"We have permanently installed fiber in 26 arenas and stadiums around the USA," says Garvin, who is based in the network's technical operations center in Denver. "These installations are only for five to six camera positions [which is all we need]. But typically there are about a dozen positions. So even in these 26 venues, it is still necessary to go back and complete the installation."
In terms of the transition of stadiums to pre-fibered installations, Garvin calls the situation "not very good right now."
"Fibering stadiums is still in its infancy," says Rich Cerny, president of Telecast Fiber Systems Inc. in Worcester, Mass. "And truthfully, most venue operators have been blindsided by this. But there are many reasons causing venues to move in this direction - especially expansive venues like raceways and golf courses - where it's almost impossible to handle an HDTV broadcast without fiber because of the long distances involved. Nobody wants to have to run all that fiber before an event because it's very costly and time-consuming."
Ideally, Cerny says, broadcasters want to pull up and plug into a pre-fibered network. And many production trucks carry an assortment of Telecast Fiber products to help interface camera connections to fiber cable and control panels.
Telecast's SHED (SMPTE Hybrid Elimination Devices), which are used extensively by ASEM, allow those HD cameras that require hybrid optical fiber/wire interfaces (or bulky, expensive hybrid wire/fiber cables) to interface with lighter-weight conventional single mode fiber cable - the type most commonly run throughout stadiums to support broadcast applications.
"If stadiums have an outdated infrastructure, they won't be that attractive to broadcasters or events producers if they fail to implement fiber optic cabling," Cerny says, adding that that fiber-optic cabling in stadiums is becoming "the fourth utility," equal in importance to the water, electricity, and HVAC.
Cerny says fiber-optic cabling is now also being run to support venues' own in-house operations, including security and public address systems, closed-circuit TV control rooms and large-screen displays. If there's sufficient capacity on the house fiber, broadcasters could utilize those pipes for their signals. However, in most cases, venues tend to run a separate fiber layer exclusively for their own in-house use.
Venues vary; some broadcasters lay their own