Zero Tolerance for Outage in the Digital Age? Even With Fiber, Expert Jury Is Out

By Carolyn Braff

Fiber networks have revolutionized the way broadcast centers communicate with sports venues, and the way those venues communicate with each other. But at SVG’s second-annual Sports Transmission Forum, held May 19 at the HBO Theater in New York City, it was clear that there are some clouds hanging over the revolution.

“Fat pipes are in, and we should have zero tolerance for outage and impairment,” explained Richard Wolf, SVP of telecommunications & network origination services for ABC. “More important, it’s about seamless recovery. Eleven years into HD, we should be much further along than we are in terms of reliability. Is zero tolerance for outage and impairment possible in the digital age? I’m not so convinced.”

Wolf acknowledged that finding high-quality, reliable service that is seamlessly corrected when failure occurs is not cheap. However, he noted that the biggest problem with fiber connectivity comes down to the facility itself.

“Our impediment to doing business often has nothing to do with the power of your network; it’s the limitations of our building,” he said. “It’s not the last mile; it’s the last foot into the building that’s the problem. We’ve got to find a way to reconcile that, or we’re not going to get anywhere.”

John Rourke, EVP/COO of HTN” which has installed broadcast transmission facilities in every MLB, NHL, and NBA venue in the U.S. and Canada” explained that, on the venue side, he has been able to eliminate those last-mile issues.

“We have a convergence device sitting at the venue and a convergence device at the building,” he said. “Essentially, we do all the cabling on either side of that box to get into the decoders, so we haven’t had those last-mile issues that have been troublesome over the years.”

Ryan Korte, principal network architect for Level 3 Communications, agreed that fiber lines need to be built into the broadcast centers but, as more-efficient encoders are developed, the bandwidth required for access will most likely begin to decrease.

“We’re still going to need fiber access in those venues, so the question is, do we have the right flexible, scalable, economic solution in there to deliver whatever is needed, from intercom systems to real-time video,” he said. “We need to build a network that’s flexible enough to support the broadcaster.”

Working a fee on transport reliability into the standard venue rate card may not be far off, added Mark Haden, VP of engineering and IT for the MLB Network. With such a fee in place” and the added security that comes with it” turning more B- and C-level productions into home-run remotes switched from the broadcast center becomes more feasible.

“That’s something that anybody in our area of engineering, IT, and operations has got to keep an eye on,” Haden said. “There are several MLB ballparks where the control room for their home feeds is not at the park.” Using dark fiber, video signals are routed from the ballpark to a remote control-room location, where every home game is produced.

When the season includes 162 games per year, being able to take feeds from other stadiums adds up to a significant savings in travel dollars for any production team.

“The technology is robust enough to compress and transport the signals cost-effectively enough that the A’s may only have to travel their folks to four or five ballparks and can run everything else home to the stadium,” Haden said. “It’s a big initial investment, but, when you amortize it over multiple years, it could be a very sound business decision.”

Such a decision would certainly change the industry” living on the road would no longer be a requirement for a talented audio technician or camera operator” but there is a limit to the size of the event that can be produced remotely.

“There are going to be those kinds of events where taking six feeds back to a broadcast center and switching them is going to become the norm,” Wolf explained. “But there’s a scale that makes sense. Home-running 10 or 12 cameras and having each audio track come back in a frame-accurate way is a science project at best. We have to determine what events are we open to having operate in that mode and what events we aren’t.”

Haden opined, “I think proxy is here to stay. We just need to choose how to use it.”

The SVG Sports Transmission Forum was sponsored by title sponsor Intelsat, gold sponsors Harris and SES Americom, and silver sponsors Linear Acoustic and Origin Digital.

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