Agile coverage of multi-sports events
2020 is the pinnacle of the four-year sporting cycle. This year sees the world’s largest and most prestigious multi-sport events held in Tokyo this summer. The last time the Summer Games were held in Asia – in Beijing in 2008—they attracted a worldwide television audience of 4.4 billion people (Statista).
The high-profile nature of these sporting events drives a continuing initiative to develop new, more informative and engaging ways to consume live sports. This article investigates how today’s event production teams are implementing the latest mobile transmission technology to capture a diversity of sports at different venues under varying conditions – and, more importantly, examine the connectivity challenges that these sports broadcasters are faced with in getting the live video and commentary back to their broadcast facilities and out to audiences in various locations across the World.
Richer content from challenging locations
The headlines in 2020 shine a light on host broadcaster NHK’s ambitions for Ultra HD and 8K Super Hi-Vision, and the deployment of 5G connectivity, broadcasters are interested in delivering a better experience for viewers; but beyond coverage of the sporting events themselves, viewers want to go behind the scenes, see interviews with the athletes and coaches at training grounds, get live insight from experts or former sporting personalities at the venues, and experience fan reactions in the fan zones.
Much of this behind the scenes live content can only be captured away from the main venues in more remote locations that don’t have the luxury of fibre connectivity and where transmission conditions can be challenging - in particular, the long distant events such as the Rowing at Tokyo’s Sea Forest Waterway and the Triathlon competition at the city’s Odaiba Marine Park.
If, for example, a talent is interviewing a cyclist whilst overlooking Mount Fuji at Tokyo’s mountain bike course in Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, which measures 2,500 m in length, with elevations of up to 85 m (hence no fibre lines); the field crew will need to rely on the cellular network to transmit high quality video back to the broadcast centre. The further away from the main venues and the access to fibre, the more broadcasters are having to depend on cellular connectivity – but how reliable is it? The host broadcaster also has the additional challenge of covering competitions over long distances, where if relying on one network provider, especially whilst on the move, could mean losing connectivity.
Furthermore, weather conditions, like humidity, heavy cloud cover, fog, precipitation, thunder and lightning, temperature inversions, are also known to affect signal reception. Proximity to cellular towers is a key factor and obstructions such as hilly terrain, dense foliage, and large buildings can block signals. Even in urban areas, regional, national, and global roaming coverage varies by network operators and, in addition, the different bands used by different operators for their mobile networks have different characteristics with respect to range, capacity, ability to penetrate buildings and to mitigate the impact of obstacles.
As the events this summer are taking place in Tokyo, one of the world’s biggest and busiest cities, moving conventional television production vehicles around the city in response to breaking stories and developing interests also presents some impracticality.
While it is easy today to create a portable production centre with little more than a camera and a laptop to create high-quality packages and deliver live inserts when required, the challenge is to get the content – whether a live feed or an edited package—from the field location back to the broadcaster’s facilities. The nature of the content means that it is often not practical to work to the schedule of pre-booked satellite slots, and the need to be agile means that large SNG vans are not always viable. A durable, lightweight mobile transmitter that encodes high-quality video, and can be carried in a backpack, or mounted in a vehicle, provides a great, versatile solution.
5G: New tech, same connectivity challenges
While 5G promises to deliver new capabilities including greater bandwidth and lower latencies, it won’t solve the location issues discussed above. The roll-out of 5G networks will take a significant amount of time, similar to the time it took for 4G and 4G LTE to replace 3G networks. There will be limited 5G coverage in some locations and operators won’t necessarily coordinate with each other, resulting in a geographic mix of wireless technologies and operators. So, for applications, such as the Tokyo Summer Games, that require enhanced reliability and managed latency, supporting existing 4G and 4G LTE wireless network technologies from multiple operators that have proven performance and coverage will remain key, in addition to 5G where available.
In terms of coverage with today’s cellular networks, urban areas typically have better coverage than suburban or rural areas. The same can be expected with 5G deployments, which will focus on denser urban areas with more users and greater return on investment initially.
Given these challenges, relying on a single network connection and operator will not deliver the reliability that broadcasters need to cover the world’s most anticipated sporting occasion.
Simultaneous Multiple Networks
The first step in tackling this video transport challenge is to use multiple mobile network operators at the same time, which eliminates the risk of any single operator not being able to sustain the required data throughput. This simultaneous use of multiple networks to achieve connection diversity must be dynamic to deliver the required stability and reliability.
The solution should dynamically adjust to link variability during the duration of the feed, continually adjusting for the most efficient use of all the available links. This should happen automatically, without affecting the feed, or requiring intervention of the camera operator in the field or operator back at the broadcast centre.
Buffer bloat – filling of the packet buffer at any point in the chain – is also dynamically detected and corrected, which is vital to achieve the minimum latency. Connection characteristics – including throughput, latency and packet loss – are measured in real-time. This feedback loop allows the end-to-end service to determine the best link to transmit any individual packet.
In turn, intelligence in the connection blending software means that the signal can be optimized against a set of key performance indicators. Users may want to minimize data costs, for example, or they might want to achieve the lowest possible latency. The signal will be continually rerouted across the available connections to deliver most closely on the broadcaster’s requirements. During large sporting events, the available bandwidth from cellular connections may degrade from congestion as large numbers of journalists compete to get their story home. Of course, there are also large numbers of fans making calls, checking their email, messaging, and sending photos and streaming video to social media from their mobile phones. In scenarios like this, the ability to aggregate bandwidth from multiple providers is critical. Traditional connection aggregation solutions can provide sufficient quality for stationary applications but are less suited to mobile applications. Even while stationary, simple aggregation does not make efficient use of the network resources. In situations where the network is already congested, this is likely to have a negative impact on connection speed, reliability, and efficiency.
Such traditional aggregation solutions work around these technical hurdles by keeping each flow, or data stream, “sticky” to a single connection. This defeats the primary goal of achieving consistent high-quality broadcast video links at minimum cost. In this scenario, smart, intelligent connection blending and specialized hybrid encoding approaches are the key to success. It means that individual flows can achieve significantly higher utilization of the maximum aggregated bandwidth of all the links. When discussing the crowded airwaves of major multi-sport events, the available bandwidth may be continually varying on each mobile network, so this flexibility is vital.
This is where Dejero’s Smart Blending Technology is interesting. Smart Blending Technology aggregates multiple network technologies from multiple operators, to create a virtual “network of networks” to enhance reliability and increase speed. The technology dynamically and intelligently manages fluctuating bandwidth, packet loss, and latency differences in real-time.
The result is increased reliability, expanded availability from connection diversity, and higher bandwidth when and where it is needed. Working alongside Dejero’s hybrid hardware/software encoding technology, a tightly integrated system is formed, which responds in real time to changes in network quality and video content. This has helped transform how broadcasters contribute live content from the field using cellular networks, andwill provide field crews in Tokyo with greater flexibilityin terms of the location from where they can transmit alive shot – at a fraction of the cost of conventional uplink technology.
For the demanding nature of multi-sports and fan-based engagement coverage, it is imperative to have mobile network operator diversity, and support adiversity of cellular technologies (3G/4G/5G). The 4G and 4G LTE infrastructure, and even 3G infrastructure will still be relied on for many years to achieve the bandwidth required for broadcast quality video, broader availability of cellular signals (since individual operators have coverage gaps), low latency, and the high reliability that broadcasters need.
In Tokyo, Dejero customers will have the comfort of renting mobile broadcast and general-purpose connectivity equipment that is optimized to work with the mobile networks in the region.
However, one of the potential hassles of using multiple transmission paths is the need to provision enterprisegrade SIMs from multiple cellular providers that operate in Japan (or any other country where a broadcast originates from).
Broadcast teams in Tokyo this summer, should also be seeking mobile transmitters with modems that are optimized for use in the region and are specifically certified to operate in Japan. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) in Japan grants market approval for radio products that conform to the Japanese Radio Law. Equipment providers should be able to show evidence of conformation. Equipment with cellular modems from other parts of the world may not operate with Japanese networks.
In Tokyo, Dejero is taking a simplified approach, by provisioning a complete solution including hardware and software, as well as connectivity services that include enterprise-grade SIMs from multiple mobile network operators. By negotiating contracts with local operators, Dejero is able to offer data plans that provide unlimited dat a during the event, providing broadcasters with peace of mind for the duration of their coverage. Dejero will also be providing onsite technical support, backed up by 24/7 phone/email to all of its customers going to Tokyo for the Summer Games.
An often overlooked aspect of coordinating such a large and multi-facetted event as we will see in Tokyo, is also managing the multiple bills that account for the various transmission costs. This is time consuming and is likely to be complex, whether the broadcaster is a major multinational or a solo freelance video professional.
Dejero aggregates the billing from the various network providers into a unified connectivity service and provides detailed usage reports through their portal. This greatly simplifies international projects such as the Summer Games. A European broadcaster, for example, could arrive in Tokyo this summer and either rent a complete turnkey package that includes everything that’s needed to cover the event, or they could use their existing equipment if it’s suitable to operate in Japan, and procure connectivity services from Dejero that include the appropriate SIMs from multiple mobile network operators. This would eliminate the hassle of acquiring SIMs, any concerns about acquiring the correct types of SIMs, and ensures the broadcaster can get on-air quickly when they arrive.
Field crews need real time visual cues
Production teams in the field including talent, camera operators and onsite producers need to keep in sync with production teams back at the central production facility to ensure a smooth production. To assist with this, often return video (the on-air broadcast) and teleprompting feeds are sent from the central location to the teams in the field. In this scenario, low latency is key, regardless of the network conditions. Dejero’s return video server, for example, sends a return video feed and teleprompting feeds from the broadcast centre so it can be seen by the talent, camera operators, directors and other onsite staff on monitors or on as many as 8 mobile devices such as phones or tablets at the location. With this, camera operators can confirm that the remote feed is on air and adjust their camera framing to account for graphics, overlays, and split screens. This also helps with talent cueing, and supports live updates to teleprompting feeds as storylines change. Low latency is key for this vital synchronization of the remote and central production teams. The Dejero solution distributes the feeds with as little as 250 milliseconds of latency, which is sure to keep central production and remote teams synchronized across Tokyo.
Being able to share live content with network affiliates, group stations, or other broadcasters, is imperative for global sporting events. To do this, broadcasters can deploy a cloud-based solution that leverages Internet infrastructure to simplify global distribution and features adaptive bitrate encoding technology to minimize bandwidth requirements. In doing so, the simultaneous distribution of live content from any location, to any location, at any time, can be achieved quickly and cost-effectively.
It provides broadcasters with the ability to share acquisition resources and crews in a pool feed to expand their overall coverage, better utilize their resources, and save costs. The broadcasters sharing the content can preview the available feeds and immediately incorporate any desired content into their own local programming. Investing in a scalable cloud-based solution, if only temporary (monthly, annual or event-specific plans exist) greatly simplifies the complex task of sending content to wherever it needs to go.
Be smart this summer
Smart Blending Technology and turnkey services is what broadcasters should be looking to take advantage of in Japan this year as they seek to stay ahead of the competition. It’s all about reliably delivering the best content in the fastest manner, no matter what the network conditions are.