Hurricane Sandy cell tower toll underscores continued importance of ENG, SNG

Hurricane Sandy not only continues to affect millions of people along the East Coast, but the damage done to the region’s cellphone tower infrastructure underscores the vulnerability of IP newsgathering technology to circumstances beyond the control of broadcasters.

In the wake of the superstorm’s path of destruction, 25 percent of cellphone towers in 10 states were knocked out of service and others remained operating on backup generators while utility crews worked to restore power, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The cell tower outages underscore the role IP newsgathering should play as a complement to, but not a replacement for, traditional satellite and electronic newsgathering technology, says Del Parks, VP of engineering and operations for the Sinclair Broadcast Group.

“If cell service goes down, you have a problem,” says Parks, “but LiveU (the brand of bonded IP newsgathering system deployed by Sinclair) as an extension of traditional newsgathering puts you in places you couldn’t be.”

Two Sinclair stations deployed IP newsgathering systems during the storm. “To say they (the IP newsgathering systems) were invaluable would be an understatement,” says Parks. “They expanded our coverage, and put viewer into the storm.”

However, Parks says IP newsgathering has its limits. “A lot of the cell towers went down around New Jersey and New York,” he says. 

Satellite IP connections are also a viable alternative to bonded cellphone circuits. Most IP newsgathering system vendors promote the viability of using highly portable uplinks, such as those supporting Inmarsat’s BGAN constellation, to sidestep cellphone networks and report from nearly anywhere on earth. CNN, a pioneer in using this technology, early on paired IP-based news contribution with small BGAN satellite terminals.

For most local stations still heavily invested in ENG and SNG technology, however, these more traditional approaches will offer a foundation for newsgathering that ensures field contribution even when a disaster makes IP newsgathering impractical. “If you don’t have cell service, you are not discarding normal means of getting live back. You still have ENG and SNG, but systems like LiveU are an important extension of your coverage,” says Parks. “You still have ENG and SNG, but systems like LiveU are an important extension of your coverage.”