The Long Copper Marathon Nears its End

Monday, November 12, 2012

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Legend has it that Pheidippides, a Greek courier in 490 BC, ran 25 miles to Athens from a battlefield near the town of Marathon to bring news of a victory over invading Persians. Pheidippides, it is said, delivered his news, gasped and fell dead....I reckon he was carrying coax!

News and sport are often intertwined. Just ask anyone covering recent revelations in professional cycling. Jim Hurwitz of Telecast Fiber Systems explores what news, sports and fibre have in common an inherent drama and immediacy that resonates most when experienced in the moment. 

The legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow may not have foreseen that the title of his 1950s news and documentary program, See it Now, would become a literal requirement for those charged with covering news and sport. The competitive pressures to be first-to-air have never been greater, exacerbated by the advent of social media, which only adds to the need for speed and immediacy.

Fortunately, many technology developers and manufacturers have, for the most part, risen to the task to provide new and compelling means of getting information where it needs to be, when it needs to be there, including over multiple platforms. Contemporary technologies exist that can give news and sport crews a demonstrable competitive advantage, and for our part, it’s an elegant one. Here, in a single example, is what I mean.

Imagine two sprinters of equal ability lined up for a gold medal race - but the competition has been amended. The goal is not just to be first across the finish line, but to deploy 400 feet (approximately 122 metres for our European friends) of cable along the way for the benefit of their respective broadcast sponsors. On a coin toss, one is given a 400-foot reel of copper coax, the other, 400 feet of fiber optic cable. The copper cable, excluding reel, weighs ninety-three pounds. The fiber cable weighs six.

Let’s not get silly. We know who finishes first, but there’s more. The coax sprinter will reach the finish line utterly spent. Done. Unable to take another step. The fiber sprinter, on the other hand, could happily carry on - without losing speed or even breaking a sweat - for another 12 miles (nearly 20 kilometres).

What I’m saying is that for those who need that extra step, that extra speed, the ability to get closer to the action than ever before and cover a story now at far greater distances than had ever been thought possible, there’s simply no competition between copper and fiber. We ought to know. At Telecast Fiber Systems, now, happily, part of the Miranda family, we have been pioneering the development and deployment of fiber cable for the best part of 20 years.

Not only is fiber easier to deploy, its throughput is much, much faster. Moreover, despite being much smaller than coax, it’s a much fatter pipe, able to carry far more bandwidth and bilateral communications of any type. 

Those practical advantages aside (for the moment) the overwhelming trend in newsgathering and sports applications today is to be able to move uncompressed HD from the camera to the truck without being limited by distance. Fiber allows this, enabling personnel to get a far more intimate story and deliver the video and audio information they capture with levels of reliability and quality that copper cable can never hope to match.

Fiber, despite a wholly false perception of fragility by its inclusion of glass strands, is much, much tougher than copper coax. In fact, fiber cable was originally developed to meet military communication requirements and durability standards. It is, in effect, “battle hardened”. With Telecast tactical fiber you can run over the cable with a truck or slam it in a door and it will retain its integrity. There’s an inherent dependability in fiber that is simply unmatched, except by what else it can do.

For example, the number of copper cables required for a typical ENG shot is six. To achieve the same result, you only need one thin fiber cable. Copper is also subject to disruptions from electrical and RF interference, which are often prevalent in newsgathering situations. In the same conditions, fiber doesn’t even flinch. It is impermeable to noise or other electromagnetic interferences.

And because of its inherently robust nature, fiber requires far less maintenance. It’s almost as simple as making sure the cable doesn’t have mud or dirt obscuring either end of the strand.

I’ve already mentioned that fiber is thinner and lighter than copper cable, but let’s look a bit further at the practicalities of those basics. Fiber is much easier to store, deploy and transport. Who doesn’t want to drive a smaller, lighter truck or van to achieve the same result? Saves a bundle on fuel costs. And put your hand up if you prefer physically lugging around heavy spools of coax. Health care costs are rising for news crews too you know.

While weight is an issue, space is, too. Many broadcasters have operated within the same physical infrastructure they’ve occupied for decades, much of which is densely laced with heavy strands of bulky copper cable, often strung floor-to-floor, top-to-bottom, throughout. When they need to make a technology change, or upgrade existing equipment, where do they start? Which wires do you cut? Some will be live. Some will have been there for decades doing nothing, but the engineer who installed them 20 years ago has retired, so how do you know? It’s simply impractical to rip out and replace the old cable, and much of the infrastructure, without risking a wholesale calamity. What many have found is that it’s much, much easier and far more cost-effective — especially as they gear up to carry 3Gbps signals — to thread through a thin fiber optic cable that delivers everything and more that a broadcaster could want and still be operating flawlessly when the next generation of engineers takes over.

And let’s not forget sports stadiums and complexes, both existing and new. The need to be as close as possible to the action, on every play, has driven substantial technical developments that simply wouldn’t be practical with copper coax. For example, over the past ten years we’ve increasingly enjoyed the implementation of Skycams, suspended over fields of play throughout the world. It’s almost inconceivable that these could have developed to their modern potential without the use of fiber optics for control, image capture and delivery. The stadium complexes themselves are often so vast that there is no other practical way to deliver HD signals, in particular, to multiple destinations within the stadium, let alone to a remote site, without fiber. Which is why most of them are in the process of retrofitting, or in the case of new venues, specifying fiber from the outset.

The trend toward fiber is not just a manufacturers’ initiative. It has been heavily influenced by high-end broadcasters throughout the world, which has driven development by companies like Telecast in tandem. For example, our well-known, widely adopted CopperHead Camera Transceiver system, first introduced a little over 10 years ago, was initially a trunk that needed to be carted around. It has now been reduced to a small device that snaps directly onto the battery plate of a camera.

Last year we introduced a version of CopperHead specifically designed for newsgathering requirements, which provides a robust fiber optic link between a camcorder and the ENG or SNG news vehicle. The system simultaneously transports both digital (SDI or HD/SDI) and analog (NTSC or PAL) program video, plus audio, IFB, and intercom signals on a single, lightweight fiber optic cable between the camera and the system’s base station. 

To maintain a competitive edge with the ability to capture and transmit multiple live images each and every day, CopperHead enables the user to get live shots or video productions done fast, right, on time and on budget, which tracks with the both the need to get on air fast, but the need to do it economically. Many of the world’s largest and fastest growing news organisations have now standardised on a range of specialized CopperHead variations for just those reasons.

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the fact that Miranda has also championed the use of fiber and provides fiber connectivity and efficiencies right across its range, from routers to multiviewers and its many modular products. More specifically, Miranda recently launched LUMO, a new high-density fiber converter series that provides 36 I/Os in a 1RU frame, which is a tremendous benefit to broadcasters as well as systems integrators. The integration of Miranda and Telecast genuinely presents customers with a true glass-to-glass fiber solution.

As I said at the beginning, news and sport are inextricably linked and have held mankind rapt for centuries. In fact, the origin of the modern marathon has its roots in the delivery of news.

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