satellite

Radio is Fastest

If you wanted to know what was happening in Moscow as fast as possible last night, your best bet was the radio.

I’ve mentioned before that when a big fixture goes to penalties, I always listen on the radio, because I get the news first. More regularly, if there’s a match that’s both being covered by Five Live and Sky TV, I might have the TV switched on in my lounge, but the radio on in my kitchen. If I hear a goal described on the radio, I know that I can take my time strolling into my lounge to see the goal scored.

This was beautifully illustrated in a Tweet that showed some Brazilian fans watching a game on a big screen, with one fan listening to the radio:

During the England semi-final, at a point of tension, I decided to see what got me news from Russia fastest. Here are my non-scientific findings in order:

Fastest to Slowest

BBC Radio Five Live AM

— ~0.2 seconds ahead of —

BBC Radio Five Live DAB

— ~5 seconds ahead of —

ITV Freeview SD
ITV Freeview HD
ITV Sky HD

(All TV roughly the same)

I didn’t bother with streams because they introduce too many variables based on the technology I’m using, the internet speeds I have, and so on. But I do know that UHD is especially slower than other streaming options. I also noted earlier in the tournament that BBC’s VR experiment delivered video faster than regular iPlayer! (I was, however, completely underwhelmed by the VR experience)

Note that I can’t accurately measure the time because I comparing things I can see myself with things that are being described by a commentator. In other words, radio is perhaps even further ahead than I’m estimating here, since the radio commentator has had to see and describe something before I hear it. On TV, I can simply see the net bulge with a goal.

What’s more, I’m told that AM is deliberately delayed by about a second – perhaps to keep it closer in sync with DAB.

I suspect that the overall delay is closer to 10 seconds for events happening in a stadium and me seeing them on a television. There will be uplinks and downlinks from the venue to the broadcast centre, then more from the broadcast centre to the UK broadcaster’s playout systems. Then that signal too is probably propagated by satellite to many transmitters and direct-to-home satellites. Each satellite “hop” might take 250 milliseconds, and then there encoding and decoding delays to account for. Finally a broadcaster may deliberately introduce a delay to ensure that they can cut the picture in case something happens that they don’t want to show (the equivalent of the “dump” button in many radio studios).

All of this shows that if you want to know what’s happening fastest, radio gets there first.

Come on News TV – Use a Satellite!

A couple of years ago, I moaned on this blog about the growth of streaming video in place of satellite links in news programmes.

In short, as services like Skype have grown, news desks are getting their correspondents to utilise broadband or 4G and smartphones instead of sending camera crews and satellite trucks.

Now this is completely excusable in situations where a story is breaking unexpectedly, or somewhere so remote and hard to reach that satellite communications wouldn’t be useable.

I’d previously put this down to cheapness. Satellite communications cost money, whereas mobile IP is often effectively free. But I think there are two other things at work here:

1) We must have visuals! News channels are more and more using IP to conduct interviews with experts in their homes. Where once they might have sent a taxi to drive a guest to their nearest BBC local TV studio, or just use a phone, today we see an unending stream of interviewees sat in various home offices, mostly poorly lit, using the cameras in their phones or laptops pointing at them at unnatural and unattractive angles. The sound quality can be poor too, and of course nobody can be certain that their domestic router will hold onto enough bandwidth for the duration of the interview.

2) The programme is after a certain “edgier” look! They somehow believe that the poor quality of a mobile phone conveys a certain urgency. It would be like telling news camera crews to ditch the tripod and go for the Jason Bourne shaky-cam look! I’ve read the story that the Victoria Derbyshire Programme asked one guest to speak to them via Skype even though camera crews with satellite link-ups were on hand, because they preferred the fuzzy picture for somehow giving them immediacy. The same programme only today linked to its reporter at the Nobel Peace Prize (skip to 1:02), where he was holding up a smartphone seemingly on a selfie stick, and using a white ear-bud to hear studio questions to contribute to a two-way. This was a nonsense. The Nobel Peace Prize will have been in editorial diaries for months, and reporters allocated. There were agency feeds of the announcement in HD, and facilities for lots of broadcasters to “go live” from the event. If you’re sending a reporter anyway, then why not also send a camera person – or at least hire one locally? You could see the other “pro” crews in the background, while the B-roll was all HD agency footage. In the UK we heard digitally gurgling audio.

I understand that technology is marching on, and with increased bandwidth and better cameras in smartphones, at some point we perhaps won’t be able to tell the difference. But there’s a reason most of the cameras news crews use cost thousands, and they’re not just replaced with smartphones costing hundreds; it’s because there’s a very clear quality gap.

Radio is less of a problem, because audio is easier to send than HD video and audio. But you still need a decent microphone at the other end, and have to hope that your internet connection holds up.