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The future of satellite news gathering

The 9066 iSNG carry-on antenna system from AvL Technologies interfaces with all types of RF electronics and satellite services. It features Roto-Lok cable drive for reliable positioning.

This year's NAB saw the launch of several services and products that continue the trend of making satellite news gathering (SNG) uplinking easier. This is achieved with lower-cost equipment and, more importantly, by making the workflow process less dependent upon skilled operatives.

Up until the beginning of the decade, there was only one way to use SNG — spend money on expensive boxes, and prepare to spend an even greater amount of money over time transporting the equipment around and buying satellite capacity. But the situation is changing quickly; advances have made sending material back from the field not the expensive black magic that SNG once seemed.

In the last few years, we've seen an increase in the range of SNG systems that are both compact and designed to be operated by someone other than an experienced uplink engineer. Systems such as the SWE-DISH IPT Suitcase are not low-cost, but they are designed to be operated by a journalist, who, after a morning's training, can jump on a plane in the afternoon, off to do his first live shot or file transfer.

Offerings such as BT Satnet and PanAmSat QuickSpot enable a station to lease or buy a compact system (vehicle-based or flyaway), and have a service bundled with it that allows easy access to uplink capacity. The user can either make a booking at the scene (in the case of BT Satnet), or simply automatically be allocated a channel as soon as connection with the satellite has been established (as with PanAmSat Quick-Spot). These forms of bundled equipment/service packages offer both new entrants to SNG and mature news gatherers a convenient solution without a great deal of back-office effort, particularly where the operation is vehicle-based and the user simply has to drive to the site.

Holkirk Communications’ LMT1200 is a portable, high-power uplink system for video and data transmissions. It is designed for quick set-up and includes a compact test and measurement package for handling baseband video and audio, as well as satellite acquisition and tracking.

This compact and easy-to-operate technology, which is available from several manufacturers and systems integrators, offers single-button auto-deploy and auto-locate capabilities to get over the trickiest part of operating an SNG uplink — locating the satellite. Once you've found the (correct) satellite, the rest should be a breeze.

These developments are due to several factors:

  • The increased power of satellites which results in smaller antennas and amplifiers.
  • The use of carbon-fibre reducing antenna weight.
  • Advances in GPS and electronic compass units.
  • Low-cost, single-chip DVB satellite receivers, which can be used to pick out specific PIDs to identify the satellite.
  • Compact antenna motorization packages.

Now auto-deployment, auto-location of the satellite and even auto-tracking for inclined orbit capacity has become easier to implement in smaller equipment packages and at a relatively lower cost.

Combine this with sophisticated software that can either be embedded on a dedicated hardware controller or run on a laptop, providing the correct settings to the encoder, modulator, upconverter and power amplifier, and you've taken the rest of the burden from the user. This allows him to concentrate on the story.

Well, that's the theory. In the real world, it's important to recognize that the number of times a live feed can be done with only basic facilities is limited principally to simple metropolitan stories. For significant news events, most broadcasters need an extension of facilities found in the newsroom, such as access to the newsroom computer system, phone connections, on-site editing and so on. While a journalist, cameraman or field producer working on his own can indeed use the latest type of system to set up a simple live, he is limited in what else he can do. While he's doing technical stuff, he's not covering what could be a fast-breaking story.


The latest generation of flyaway systems enables fewer boxes to be shipped and smaller vehicles to be used with compact, roof-mounted uplinks. A number of the vehicle-based systems no longer require a vehicle to be specifically constructed for the purpose. It is even possible to fly to a location with a vehicle-based system in a flight case, rent an SUV or people-carrier, and install the system on the vehicle roof bars without having to pay the rental company for damage when you return the vehicle.

Looking down the road over the next few years, the adoption of MPEG-4 AVC compression, combined with the use of DVB-S2 modulation, is going to enable acceptable-quality pictures to be sent at lower data rates. The channel size for a 6Mb/s MPEG-2 signal will shrink to around a third for a 2Mb/s MPEG-4 AVC/DVB-S2 signal. Channel rates of 2Mb/s in 2MHz bandwidth will be regarded as perfectly adequate for broadcast-quality pieces. With the adoption of DVB-S2, the use of higher-order modulation schemes will become more common in SNG, which has by and large up until now stuck to QPSK.

Payload technology

It seems likely at this stage that MPEG-4 AVC, rather than WM-9/VC-1, will be the compression scheme of choice for SNG. Obviously, some organizations will use WM-9/VC-1 as a house standard, but there are already MPEG-4 SNG products on the market being used by broadcasters.

Developments in the payload technology on-board the satellite will also lead to further improvements. Satellites have traditionally been ‘bent pipe’ devices — in other words, what goes up comes down. New-generation regenerative satellites allow for a degree of onboard processing, increasing capacity and capability, and requiring less uplink power.

3G cell phones

Even now, instead of needing 150W of uplink power, you can get away with using only 25W on many satellites — provided the data rates are below 5Mb/s. At NAB, several small 25W to 50W solid-state power amplifiers (SSPAs) were exhibited, which are perfectly adequate to access satellites with high-gain beams over substantial areas of the world's land masses.

Finally, just as the Inmarsat video-phone filled a gap in the news gathering armoury, deployed on stories and in areas where traditional broadcast SNG was not feasible for either logistical or political reasons, 3G cell phones are starting to be used by broadcasters for true hand-held news gathering.

This is the ultimate news gathering tool — an everyday device, inconspicuous, easy to use, and cheap to buy and operate. 3G operators are keen to develop this B2B market, which offers the potential of selling a significant number of phones and thousands of minutes of air-time. Broadcasters were always seen as content providers, but now news broadcasters are using 3G phones for contribution.

In the future

However, while some broadcasters are embracing 3G for news gathering, others are cold-shouldering it because of the low bandwidth limitations. But when the videophone was first launched, it took exclusive coverage of just one big news story to make it overnight the must-have in the news gathering toy box.

On the horizon is 4G, which will offer true DSL broadband speeds and IPv6. There's a lot of activity with a number of 4G systems in test in the lab, and 4G licences will be offered in the next year in some countries.

While news reports from difficult remote locations remain the preserve of SNG, a high percentage of live news output comes from metropolitan areas. It is likely that by the end of the decade, we probably will have the Holy Grail of TV news editors — the low-cost high-bandwidth hand-held news gathering videophone, but not working via satellite.

In the meantime, the outlook for SNG is bright, demonstrated by both new entrants with new ideas coming into the market, and new products from existing manufacturers who are determined to offer a breadth of solutions to the broadcaster.

Jonathan Higgins runs BeaconSeek, an independent UK satellite communications consultancy. He also is the author of “Satellite Newsgathering,” currently being revised for a second edition.