Technically speaking, the news coverage following the Boston Marathon bombings has been excellent. I'm not commenting on the accuracy of the reporting or the editorial and other newsroom decisions, just the technical aspects of the live coverage.
This seems like a good time to talk about a new product that is making live news reporting much more portable and immediate. It uses traditional cell phone signals to transmit broadcast-quality HD video and is revolutionary in the news gathering world.
This is not a wonky diary, I'm not an engineer, just a layperson's overview of how live news makes it on the air from outside the TV station.
Even in Boston this week, the traditional methods of live reporting were still the most common: Satellite trucks and microwave trucks. These are the trucks that are seen swarming to all major news events. These kinds of transmissions have been in use for decades, and other than going digital over the last 10-20 years, the technology is pretty much the same.
Satellite trucks are the larger trucks with the fold-down satellite dishes on top. In the age of digital equipment and digital transmissions streams, these can now be fit onto the top of traditional van-sized news gathering vehicles as well. Or in some cases, even "fly packs" that can assembled on the ground or in the back of a pickup truck. Satellite trucks require a line of site to satellites in geostationary orbit above the earth. In North American this means dishes mostly have to point south/southwest. On the East Coast they can probably pick off some European satellites so they could be pointing south/southeast.
Satellite signals can penetrate some light obstructions like utility wires and in some cases trees without dense leaves, but generally speaking they need a clear shot to the satellite in outer space. Clouds don't normally present a problem but heavy rain clouds can block the signal. In the industry, this is referred to as "rain fade." On the receiving end, there also has to be a satellite dish (in this case a downlink dish) pointing at the same satellite and with the same restrictions regarding line-of-sight. The downlink, or receive site, can be anywhere that has a line-of-sight to the satellite in use.
Microwave trucks are the most common local news vehicle. The trucks with the station logo on the side and the telescoping pole with the very small dish on top. Many stations now combine microwave and satellite transmissions into a single truck - so the trucks may have both kinds of dishes on the top.
Microwave is terrestrial line-of-site, meaning the dish has to be pointing directly at the receive dish, no satellite involved. The antenna telescopes up from the truck and points directly to the receive dish, which is usually on top of a tall building or a hilltop. From there the signal from remote is cabled to the TV station. If line-of-sight is impossible because of obstructions, it is sometimes possible to bounce the signal off of buildings, like a billiards ball, until it hits the receive dish.
Along with practical considerations of having to have line-of-sight and of having to have a vehicle, both of the traditional methods above can have considerable setup time.
The new technology that is becoming more common does not have these same limitations. It involves sending HD video over traditional cell phone signals. This is not like iPhone streaming or other consumer products, this is broadcast quality HD video.
The necessary equipment fits in a backpack or a suitcase and runs on battery power. One person with a camera and a backpack can broadcast live almost immediately anywhere there is good cellphone signal from a variety of carriers. The receive site can be anywhere, and from there it can be distributed worldwide via traditional fiber optic and satellite delivery.
This is old news for anyone who works in or around the industry, but I don't think the news consumer is very aware of this revolution in news gathering.
Today it is most commonly seen in local news. Reporters driving around reporting live on snowstorms or on other weather incidents, reporters being able to change positions quickly, without having to coil up many cables, relocate a truck, uncoil cables, establish signal again, etc.
It is also very useful in covering events outside of cities. Microwave vehicles are very limited in how far they can transmit (20 miles or so? I'm not sure) so if a major news event happens outside a city, normally a satellite truck would have to arrive before there could be live broadcast-quality pictures. These days, there only has to be cell phone service.
The system works by dividing up a signal on multiple cell carriers and then combining them back together into one signal at the receive site. They're built with cards and service with the three or more major cell carriers in a given area. They detect and use the strongest signals available at any location. These signals are received by an associated piece of equipment at the TV station, which puts them back together into one.
Systems can also be setup to use I.P. in addition to cell phone signals. Either plug-in, wired internet, or WIFI.
The system has two major limitations. The most obvious one is cell signal strength; very rural locations or even urban locations deep inside solid structures. The second issue is latency. Taking the signal apart and putting it back together takes time. The higher quality desired, the more time it takes. It can be as little as one second or as much as eleven or twelve seconds. Full, broadcast-quality HD takes the longest time.
Everyone is familiar with the delay of satellite news stories, when there is a long pause between a question from a studio-based person and the answer from the person on site. This is because the signal has to go all the way to outer space and back, and the processing on both ends. The delay with this new technology can be much greater than that. Watching the reporting on Boston, I could tell when they were using this kind of transmission because they keep the interaction between studio anchors and reporters to a minimum.
On the other hand, news teams can select the lowest quality and have minimum delay. I noticed this too, when there was a big break in the story and they wanted the immediacy. These pictures will generally look ok if there is not much movement on screen. But once someone moves, or even if a car drives by in the background, there will be pixelation, or a freezing and/or stuttering of the image. It's a quality that much more closely resembles that of consumer-level products.
The two most common brands I've seen out there in the field are LiveU and Dejero Live.
While not cheap, these products are far, far less expensive than satellite and microwave trucks which can run $500,000 to $1,000,000. They will allow, for better or worse, much more live reporting and from a larger variety of locations. However, traditional satellite and microwave trucks are more reliable and offer production facilities that can't be fit into a backpack, and will remain the most desirable method of transmission.