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Is Satellite Still Relevant for Outside Broadcast?

Over the past few years we have undoubtedly been witnessing some massive changes in the media entertainment landscape. We have gone from linear viewing on a TV screen to widespread consumer adoption of multiple over-the-top services, delivering content anywhere, anytime. With this evolution has come a great deal of technological innovation based around IP delivery, which is changing contribution. Some might (and do) say that satellite has had its day.

A New Era for Outside Broadcast

Outside Broadcast (OB) is one area which remains particularly challenging, with the added pressures of consumer demand. There is a continued appetite for instant coverage of breaking news, as well as detailed coverage of live events and sporting matches. As technology develops, some broadcasters are also experimenting with live 360 and VR coverage, delivering an even more immersive experience and adding value for the consumer.

For the traditional broadcaster, competition is fierce as the barriers to entry have reduced, making it easy for anyone to stream live content over the internet at a touch of the button. Just consider that for every broadcast stream from breaking news or live events, there will be several internet streams happening from a variety of providers as well as many consumers turning to their own smartphones to stream amateur footage.

Naturally the other big factor at play here is monetisation. Broadcasters are having to offer better quality and choice otherwise consumers will simply go elsewhere for the same content. There are a number of examples for monetisation that is impacting business models for broadcasters and many are looking to save costs wherever possible. Outside Broadcast is seeing that impact, with most vans now staffed by one person who has to operate the equipment, do the filming, editing, contribution, etc. This is putting huge pressure on those people at the helm and making it even more challenging to get the right content to the right place in a timely matter.

Whilst consumers will expect footage on an amateur’s smartphone to be a little shaky, broadcast content has to be perfect quality, with many even looking for higher resolution content. This is naturally especially true for the paid services where consumers simply will go elsewhere if the quality is not up to scratch.

Satellite Challenges

Traditionally most OB trucks have been fitted with satellite antennas as standard but with other ways to get the feed from the field back to the broadcast centre effectively many are predicting the demise of satcoms.

Of course, satellite does come with a number of challenges, especially when faced with a lack of resources. As mentioned above, quality is key so any loss of signal will simply have consumers switching over to another source of that same coverage. However, without skilled satellite operatives on site, it is all too easy to mis-align or set up the antenna, which can lead to a degradation of the feed or even a total loss of signal.

One of the biggest challenges with Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT), used for OB is getting consistent quality right through the process. This isn’t helped by the fact that the industry has unfortunately been flooded with some poorly made antennas. There are also so many moving parts, aside from the antennas themselves, such as amplifiers, attenuators, block up converters, couplers etc. The slightest error in the manufacture of any of those components, can have massive implications on the quality of the feed. Of course, multiple errors on multiple components is also far too common and that compounds the problem further still.

Satellite is Fighting Back

Just as the broadcast industry has seen many innovations over recent years, so too has the satellite industry and it is not yet ready to lie down.

With auto pointing antennas and technology to make ensuring accuracy easy, there is no longer a need for trained staff to operate equipment in the field and these tools are having a massive impact on quality.

Location and enviromental conditions dictate that satellite links will always be critical to getting video links from sites back to networks and local stations. Evidence of that fact comes most recently from the massive flooding and damage to Houston, TX, U.S. Without sat links, much of the coverage seen by worldwide audiences would not have been possible. (Timeline truck in the production of British reality TV show, Love Island.)

Also, whilst it is true there are far too many poorly made antennas and other satellite equipment, there are also many good ones and it is about finding the manufacturers to trust to ensure you are always getting the best quality. One way to do that is check for accreditation from the Global VSAT Forum (GVF). And if the quality falls short, those suppliers should be accountable for fixing that.

The Satellite Operators themselves are also doing their bit to fix the problem of poor equipment. For example, the major operators recently established the Satellite Operator’s Minimum Antenna Performance Requirements (SOMAP) group to ensure compliance of mobile and fixed antennas with mutually agreed specifications. Editor note: The SOMAP documents can be found at the GVF website on this link.

Why Satellite Still Has a Part to Play

With many of the challenges of satellite solvable with better technology, lower costs and equipment choices, it is obvious that satellite can still deliver for broadcast. However, it is more than that, as although new technology is being developed all the time, satellite remains the method of choice in many OB situations.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, satellite equals coverage anywhere. You don’t have to rely on existing infrastructure in place to ensure a feed and no additional preparation is needed, something crucial in a time-critical industry. As anyone operating in the OB space knows, existing infrastructure is often a massive problem, either because it is totally lacking, or because all the bandwidth is being used. And of course the problem with sharing internet bandwidth in these sort of situations is that the more people using it, the less bandwidth, and thus quality, you each end up with. When it comes to breaking news, in the case of disasters, any existing connection infrastructure is likely to have been impacted. In many of these cases, satellite is therefore the only way to get a reliable connection, and quick.

Being able to arrive on site with a portable Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) terminal ready to go therefore has obvious advantages and can make all the difference in terms of getting up and broadcasting quickly.

The Future is Bright

Satellite clearly still has a part to play for broadcast, especially for OB applications. When it is not the main method of transmitting links, it is very often at the very least the backup. Its reliability and efficiency remains unrivaled but with so much pressure on broadcasters, it is more important than ever to ensure the best quality equipment to ensure the quality remains up to par. As the satellite industry continues to innovate, satellite will keep its place as an important tool for broadcast.

Andrew Bond, Sales and Marketing Director, ETL Systems

Andrew Bond, Sales and Marketing Director, ETL Systems

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