Advanced broadcasting technology is helping the BBC World Service deliver news more quickly to an ever-growing audience
The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January 2010 sent media communication networks into chaos. With hundreds of thousands of people affected and the country’s infrastructure crippled, getting information to the rest of the world was critical.
As one of the first organisations to arrive on the scene, the BBC World Service had a difficult task on its hands. A year earlier, it had constructed the Network Operations Centre (NOC) with engineering firm Babcock to boost its transmission capabilities. Without the NOC, Neale Bateman, head of customer operations at Babcock’s communications division, believes the group would have struggled.
’The old system was fine if you had a planned change,’ he said. ’If you knew you wanted to transmit an extra programme tomorrow, there were no problems with that at all. But to respond to breaking news that was really moving quickly, you couldn’t guarantee that it would work through the system. We were making changes literally minute by minute following the Haiti earthquake and we needed a flexible operation in place.’
Around 20 per cent of the BBC’s monthly news activity is pre-booked into the system, with the other 80 per cent dependent on the news agenda of the day. Major events during the start of 2010, including the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War and the terrorist attack on the Togo team bus at the African Cup of Nations, saw a surge in demand for transmission services, leaving the NOC operating at close to full capacity.
During the four weeks up to 23 February 2010, the NOC handled a total of 1,434 news segments (or contribution circuits) for live transmission or recordings, with a peak of 109 a day following the Haiti crisis. This compares with a typical month, when the NOC deals with around 800 circuits. According to Jonathan Robertshaw, BBC technology manager, the trend in getting news out faster and to a wider audience will increase with the popularity of multimedia mobile technology.
’There is a real push towards mobile platforms,’ he said. ’The NOC has built-in flexibility to operate in an increasingly multimedia world. We are expanding our automation system and we will be doing more online and video work. There is likely to be an increase in alternative streams being monitored, such as web-based or web-to-mobile-based streams.’
The NOC uses a network called the Satellite Media Distribution Service (SMDS), provided by BT. As well as offering multiple channels, it prevents gaps in transmission by overseeing the whole process of content production and scheduling. It does this automatically for 56 active networks that are routed to more than 200 different paths using SMDS as the delivery medium to Babcock’s global network of short- and medium-wave transmitter sites, as well as to the BBC’s FM partners and re-broadcasters. Satellite receivers in more than 150 countries are remotely programmed to decode different programme streams and provide content tailored to the region.
Until recently, the distribution went through the BBC’s control room at Bush House. The process relied on an analogue programme-switching system, causing changes to the schedule to be difficult and time consuming. ’The real benefit of the NOC is that it has given the operations team complete visibility and control of the entire programme chain, from studio to transmitter site,’ said Bateman. ’We have moved from analogue switching systems to virtually everything now being in the digital domain.’
The SMDS signal can be received by off-the-shelf Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) equipment, allowing satellite viewers to tune into programme streams in different languages. The network, distribution and transmission schedules are linked together in the NOC, with the capability to identify specific programmes for streaming via the internet. The interlinked nature of the system means that, during a crisis or major news event, content can instantaneously be added and transmitted to the right place.
In 2012, the NOC will be re-housed from Bush House to the BBC’s Broadcasting House in Portland Place. The logistical challenges of doing this without going off air will be huge. Parallel running of programmes will be undertaken during the change and the team plans to use a newer version of the automation system so that it can control systems in both buildings. Already, the short-term benefits of the NOC have become apparent, and Bateman and Robertshaw are excited about its potential.
In the rush towards new technologies, there needs to be a sanity check on what happens when the batteries run out
Neale Bateman, Babcock
But, while newer technologies are coming onboard, the BBC claims that the main advantage of the NOC is its ability to combine these systems with older forms of communication. Its flexibility means that it can serve as a operating centre for multimedia platforms while also controlling traditional methods of transmission, such as broadcasts in short- and medium-wave. In the aftermath of a natural disaster such as the earthquake in Haiti, Robertshaw believes that sometimes it’s the older forms of transmission that prove to be more effective.
’I think very reliable high-frequency shortwave broadcasting in some parts of the world will remain in place for many years to come,’ he said.
When you look at the early reaction to the Haiti earthquake, where you had a massive collapse of infrastructure, by using external transmitters it meant that World Service could respond very quickly.’ Bateman agrees that, while newer forms of communication such as Skype and Twitter are becoming increasingly popular, short- and medium-wave transmissions will continue to play a crucial role. ’If the infrastructure you’re using is highly dependent on IP networks, which are more vulnerable to geographic, political or natural changes, then traditional analogue broadcasting remains very important,’ he said. ’In the rush towards new technologies, there needs to be a sanity check on what happens “when the batteries run out”. We need the right platform, at the right time, in the right place – that requires flexibility.’
Technology can sometimes fail and backup systems need to be in place during crises that can damage infrastructure. Broadcasting’s future may lie in podcasts, internet radio and handheld devices, but more traditional shortwave transmissions will remain a key feature of news distribution. Being prepared to simultaneously handle all of these systems effectively in places such as the NOC is set to be the real test of future communications networks.
Babcock network management centre provides backup for BBC
A separate distribution centre available to the BBC has been developed by Babcock at its Southwark headquarters in London. Known as the Media Management Centre (MMC), the system is available to around 40 different international broadcasters and also offers the BBC some redundancy in the event of a failure with the SMDS or the satellites that carry it. The MMC uses Babcock’s Global Media Network (GMN), provided by Cable and Wireless. It manages more than 12,000 hours of customer content every month using a Global MPLS (Multi-Protocol Label Switching), high-performance, IP-based network. According to Babcock, using an IP foundation for its global distribution network means that it is able to offer numerous additional services, such as archiving, on-demand delivery and re-purposing for multiple platforms.