Satellite Coverage and Alaska

We recently took our flyaway to Alaska for the first time in recent memory. Operating here presents some challenges due to its location, although at our spot in Anchorage our look angles were not too low, about 18 degrees. This is a good opportunity to discuss satellite beams, or coverage.

Most CONUS satellites cover the lower 48 very well, they only spill a little bit of coverage toward Alaska. Here is a coverage map for Galaxy 17, a popular satellite for newsgathering:

This map shows the beam of the satellite, the circles are the center of the beam, the strongest coverage. Each ring moving out from the “hot spot” gets progressively weaker, although the small differences within the main part of the beam are not noticeable. The satellite is physically located above the equator, where all communications satellites are, at a distance of about 22,000 miles up. This highest orbit allows the satellites to move with the earth, and remain in a fixed position in the sky as viewed from ground, as opposed to satellite networks such as GPS and Iridium which are much lower and constantly move across the sky.

Galaxy 17’s location above the equator is 91 degrees west (or 269 degrees east, depending on where you start from), or basically due south of New Orleans. A dish in New Orleans would look almost due south, at an elevation of 55 degrees.

Going due north of this location would keep the same direction to the satellite, but the elevation would drop to 35 degrees, since the dish is further from the equator:

If the dish was in the Galapagos, directly under the satellite, it would look almost straight up, 88 degrees:

If you then went further south from there into the southern Hemisphere, since the equator is north of you, so would the dish pointing, and the elevation angle would decrease as you continued further south, just like it did going north.

 

A high angle dish covering the earthquake in Ecuador. This satellite is toward the west, otherwise the dish would be even higher.

However, since the satellite has limited power, it has to be focused in “beams” to be effective. So even though you could physically “see” Galaxy 17 from the Galapagos (with a giant telescope!), the radio frequency energy is not directed in that area, so the satellite would not be usable, as you can see in the coverage map above. It would be like a flashlight pointed away from you. You could see the flashlight itself, but not any of the light coming from it. Being a satellite made for the American market, you can see the engineers designed Galaxy 17 to have two “spot beams” (small, focused areas of coverage separate from the main beam) over Hawaii and Puerto Rico. You can see on the coverage map how close the lines are to each other, showing a steep gradient from good coverage to zero coverage. On the western edge of the chart are three lines, showing 10 degrees, 5 degrees, and 0 degrees, the point where the satellite disappears beyond the horizon.

As viewed from Anchorage, Galaxy 17 is only 5 degrees above the horizon, which is not easily usable unless the antenna is mounted on a rooftop without any nearby obstructions. It also has weak coverage, meaning a larger dish and/or more power would be required.

A 1.2 meter flyaway next to a 2.4m flyaway. Or about 100 pounds in two cases vs 1100 pounds in ten cases.

So when operating this far west, we need a satellite that is placed further west along the Equator.
Located due south of Seattle, Galaxy 18 is an ideal satellite for this location:

 

Galaxy 18, located at 123 degrees west, actually has a beam just for Alaska, giving it excellent coverage in Anchorage. And being much closer, the look angle is 17 degrees.

Galaxy 18 is also a unique satellite due to its large coverage area. In Santiago, Cuba where we have operated several times, you might think Galaxy 18 is a poor choice because it is so far west, and a more easterly satellite would be better. But if you look at the map for Galaxy 17, you can see the coverage drops off quickly though central Cuba, with zero coverage in Santiago, even though the satellite would be easily “visible” there. Galaxy 18 is one of the few satellites that has coverage into southeast Cuba, despite its far-west orbital location. Just like a spotlight being directed at a low angle across a floor, the light is “stretched out”, compared to a light that was pointed directly down and more focused. In order for Galaxy 18 to cover Florida, there is some energy that is “spilled” past there, which allows the satellite to be usable in Santiago. You can see the same effect on Galaxy 17 toward Alaska, although due to its northern location, the satellite is too low in the sky to be practical.

In Santiago Galaxy 18 is 32 degrees, much lower than other satellite in that area, due to its location very far west.

DCI Flyaway in Santiago, Cuba on Galaxy 18 (note- this dish, like most small satellite terminals, has an offset, meaning the physical dish is much lower than where its looking, due to the energy being focused away from the center. Different focal configurations is a blog post for another day!)

Operating a flyaway uplink system in far-flung locations presents some unique challenges dealing with satellite coverage, and DCI always performs a link budget before doing a broadcast at a new location. A link budget takes multiple factors into account- antenna size, transmitter power, desired bitrate and bandwidth, and determines how well the link will perform. Running a link budget is an important part to a successful flyaway broadcast.

 

DCI Yahoo Shoot

DCI camera crews recently shot this two camera exclusive interview with Yahoo Global Anchor Katie Couric and minority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer.  While shooting standup liveshots are an everyday job for our crews, they are also skilled in the art of shooting a long form, multi-camera interview.  And of course, great lighting!

 

 

Ecuador Earthquake

Our team in Pedernales

On April 17, a powerful 7.8 earthquake struck off the coast of Ecuador.  DCI’s airline baggage flyaway was dispatched several hours later to cover the damage and recovery efforts.  The flight into Quito went without issue, and after all our equipment arrived we visited a supermarket to stock up on supplies, since once arriving in the disaster area there would be no option for food or shelter.  We bought packaged foods, a propane camp stove (for heating water) and tents.

The drive from Quito to Pedernales typically would take about 5 hours but due to the many landslides along the route, the trip took closer to 7.   After arriving in the main square in Pedernales, we espatblished a standup location and begain broadcasting, less than 2 hours after arrival.  We used the Eutelsat 113W (Satmex 6) satellite to single-hop the signal back to the United States.

Due to limited satellite capacity, we utilized advanced DVB-S2X 16APSK modulation to fit two muxed 9 megabit HD signals in a signal 6MHz slot.  This technology not only saves money on space segment, but also allows feeds to be done when satellite space is limited, as normally happens during large events.  The 16-phase modulation chosen for this broadcast works well with the medium-sized (5 meter) antennas that are common at broadcast facilities.  The next step up, 32APSK modulation often requires much larger antennas for acceptable bit error rates.

We transmitted live standups and tape feeds all day, for European clients, ABC’s Good Morning America, and several stations from Latin America. Occasionally the search teams would request we shut down out generators so they could listen with microphones lowered in the rubble pile.  Unfortunately there were no rescues while we were on site.

On the morning of the 20th, we had a magnitude 6.1 aftershock, which caused some alarm in the town but there was no additional collapses we knew of.

The following day we packed up our equipment and drove back to Quito for a flight the following day.

DCI provides White House pool in Havana

When the White House announced an historic visit by President Obama to Havana, DCI was chosen to provide the official US TV travel pool coverage of the event.  As the most experienced American satellite uplink company operating in Cuba covering 5 different events in the past 3 years, DCI was the clear choice to provide this important pool feed service.  We sent two flyaways to Cuba for Obama’s trip- one for the US TV pool and another working for the Eurovision feeds.  Each dish provided 4 path HD feeds in a mux back to the states.

 

 

 

Pope Francis in Cuba 2015

When the Vatican announced Pope Francis would visit Cuba and the United States for the first time in September 2015, we knew it would be a busy time for us.  DCI covered Francis’ election from Buenos Aires a few years earlier, and as the first pope from Latin American the Cuba visit would be big.

Having just returned from doing pool coverage of the US Embassy opening 3 weeks before, the flyaway kits were turned back around to head for Cuba.

The 1.2m Patriot system was setup as a 24/7 feed point at the Nacional Hotel in Havana, where we had 4 paths supporting live standup positions and tape feeds.

Setup went pretty smoothly, except for one transmitter that would turn on but not respond to any of the front panel buttons.  After being told by the manufacturer they would not help us because of export control regulations with Cuba, we had to fix it ourselves!  The problem ended up being a connector that came loose in shipping, a common problem when shipping sensitive electronics as baggage on airliners.  If you have ever watched a baggage handler throw your bag on the conveyor and cringed, it’s much worse when its a heavy and sensitive piece of satcom equipment!  Of course we always travel with 2 of everything for spares, so we had another working unit but after some minor surgery inside the amp we fixed the loose connector and were back online with a redundant set of transmitters.

While the feed point dish was humming along, the “travel dish”, our modified Norsat system, set out across town for the live shots during the mass in Revolution Plaza.

There was a large compliment of uplink antennas here, from CNN’s 2.4m, 4-port monster down to a 1.2m Swedish fly-n-drive system belonging to Overon.  AP was in town from London with a nice 1.8m C/Ku Advent dish, and Reuters had a custom-made 1.0m system.

CNN’s 2.4m Ku antenna was running 6 paths plus comms, on both polarities of the satellite (4-port feed), very uncommon to see on a flyaway dish.  

 Since our setup was all L band, we mounted the dish on one side of the compound and instead of putting up a tent, our equipment lived under the press riser with two cables running to the dish- the transmit L band and the satellite return + IP signal for running the amps.  This system had 2 paths online.  We had a huge downpour of rain during setup day but for the mass the weather was perfect, and the pope drove right past our setup.

Take Cover! Rain on setup day.

 The difference between this mass and the one 3 years ago was very noticeable.  Pope Benedict said the mass at the base of the large monument and the general public was kept across the street, about 200 yards away.  This time the mass was said right in the middle of the plaza with the general public all around, and the pope spent almost an hour greeting people before and after.  

When we arrived at 3AM, the plaza was already packed.

Unlike the previous mass with Pope Benedict in 2012, Francis did not separate himself from the public.

When we were finished here, we packed the dish and camera equipment up into vans for its overnight drive to Santiago.

We were supposed to fly out on a 5:30 AM flight, however it kept being delayed.  To make it worse, the terminal was freezing and there was nothing more than some small snacks available.  The bathrooms were not even properly supplied!

The flight was pushed back to 10:30, but that time came and went, and so did a 11AM flight to the same location, which really made everyone upset.  Our plane finally left around around 1:30 PM, about 8 hours late!  We had live shots that afternoon so we went directly to the feed point in Santiago and were on the air less than an hour later, which is pretty fast for a flyaway setup.  Our van drivers/technicians did help by running the fiber and unpacking everything they felt comfortable doing, so that helped a lot.

Continental 1.8m C band (left) and our Norsat 1.0m Ku looking far west to Galaxy 18.

The dish was setup on the roof and too far to run L band cables to the control point inside the hotel so we tried a new technique- we used an available fiber to run ethernet control of everything upstairs like we were sitting up there, including the video router.  On another open fiber we ran the output of our multiviewer back down to the control point so we could see the quad split on the monitor.

  
At the control point we had the quad viewer sent from the roof, plus full monitor and control of the router and uplink chain from the laptop.  We used a Fiber Media Converter to get ethernet control between the two points and a standard SDI video link to get the multiviewer back downstairs.  

During the two days in Santiago we had two large rain downpours, but because when they happened we had only 1 SD path to do, we changed the modulation down to S2 QPSK 1/2 and even though we had a completely flat spectrum on return, they had a 11 dB margin back in DC!  This quick thinking saved the day during the rain storms.

Rain storm moving into Santiago from the mountains north of town.

After we packed up the next day was spent visiting some of the sights around Santiago- El Castillo (a fortress overlooking the entrance to the harbor), the cemetery where many prominent Cubans are buried including Jose Marti and Emilio Bacardi (and most likely Fidel Castro will be buried here too) and the shrine at El Cobre, where the pope said mass the day before.  The flight back to Havana was later that day and the next we flew back to Miami and on to DC.

US Embassy in Havana


Workers add the “Embassy of the United States  of America” signage to the front of the building in the early morning before the opening ceremony.  

When the United States Department Of State reopened their embassy in Havana, there was a lot of interest from broadcasters around the world.  Many setup live positions at the balconies surrounding the building, however with the limited space on the embassy grounds, the State Department came to Washington’s premiere satellite company for two shared uplink systems that would be made available to broadcasters.   

The State Department chartered a flight from Baltimore to Havana and we loaded two flyaway systems along with all the government’s equipment for the opening ceremony.  Each dish was setup for 4 HD paths, for a total of 8 paths coming out of Havana.  Like usual, we used muxes, DVB-S2, and H.264 encoding.

The State Department worked with both Eurovision and Associated Press to make 4 live shot positions (2 each) available to media worldwide.

 During the ceremony, two of those paths carried the official switched feed of the program and a cuts camera, which was made available and carried live on many outlets worldwide.    DCI Teleport downlinked the official feeds for the State Department and fed them live via fiber for further distribution and webcasting.

Some might say the Cubans “out-flagged” us.  Most of the US networks had live positions on these balconies and dishes on the roof.   Some used microwave to shoot from the media riser at the embassy.

Live shot going to Europe on the EBU network via the DCI dish.  

Crowd of Cubans watching the event across the street, and a camera platform for Cuban TV.

Secretary Kerry applauds as a cheering crowd looks on.  The 3 men facing the color guard are the US Marines who lowered the flag the last time, in 1961. They vowed they would return to raise it.  

The second dish was setup at the Ambassador’s residence, which served as a feed point and interview spot where 2 paths were used by the State Department to feed B roll of various diplomatic events around Havana, and the other 2 paths were used by the US networks to feed video from their sit-down interviews with Secretary Kerry.

Ambassador’s Residence in Havana (known as Chief of Mission when the embassy was an Interest Section)

After a busy day for both uplinks, we packed up and headed back to DC the next day, another flawless field transmission in the books.

Contact DCI to see how we can put our expertise to work for your challenging satellite needs!

More photos of this event can be seen here.  

2014 in Review

2014 was another busy year at DCI, here are some of our highlights:

Janurary: Ambit Baltimore production
We kicked the year off with a large production and uplink as part of a corporate event held in Baltimore.  DCI provided the transmission, along with the switcher, graphics, cameras and audio in the conference room, including a jib camera. 

February:  Russian Ambassador’s Olympic Party

The Sochi Olympics opening ceremony took place late morning DC time, and was not available live in the United States.  We were asked to receive a feed of the event brought in from Russian TV (encrypted, of course, to keep NBC happy).  We parked our compact satellite truck outside of the gilded former Russian Embassy down the street from the White House, which now serves as the Ambassador’s residence.  The Ambassador was hosting a party for VIPs to watch the opening ceremony on monitors spread out throughout the reception rooms.  The embassy staff brought Black Sea caviar and tea out to the satellite truck. 



DCI and BoxLine Box produced the first-ever 3D surgery broadcast at the AUA convention in San Diego in 2013, for Intuitive Surgical.  The 2013 show was so successful we were asked back to produce all the live surgery at the 2014 convention in Orlando.  After the AUA show, we took the sat truck down to Miami, and did our own downlink using our old 1.2m flyaway and a remote-controlled receiver for an AUA-related event at the Eden Roc in Miami Beach with the truck transmitting from Miami General Hospital.  Read more about the 3D surgery here. 

July:  Havana and Santiago, Cuba
We took two flyaway systems to Cuba for the second time in as many years. This trip was to cover the state visit of Xi Jinping, President of China, to Cuba.  We set up one system outside the Nacional Hotel in Havana before driving 8 hours across the island to the port city of Santiago for live coverage for Chinese TV.
More from the 2014 Cuba trip.

August:  US-Africa Leaders’ Summit
In August 2014, President Obama hosted the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit, which was the most heads of state in Washington ever.  With so many VIP’s in the city, logistics were difficult, and both of our satellite trucks were present to be the pool feed for host broadcaster Bloomberg TV.  Our HD1 uplink truck provided six muxed HD paths with multiple audio languages, while our compact SNG truck stood as backup.

September:  First ESPN backhaul
A year after finishing our qualification for ESPN in Bristol, we snagged our first job for the network, a college football game in Cincinnati (held in the Brown’s stadium) for ESPN-2. including a full 16 channels of audio.

November:  Ferguson, MO
Our HD1 uplink truck travelled to the St. Louis area to cover the rioting in Furgeson.  This was actually the first of two last-minute trips we made for this story, the second was a month later when the grand jury results were announced.  We provided multiple HD and SD uplinks to Europe during this job.

November:  Live Surgery in Vancouver, BC
We provided transportable downlink services in Vancouver, British Columbia for the annual meeting of the AAGL organization.  We arranged the transmission facilities at two hospitals in the United States and performed quality control on the live feeds.  This location was a challenge because tall buildings limited us to edge of the arc satellites, low on the horizon. This resulted in some adjacent satellite interference because of the 1.1m portable antenna, which is more suited for transmitting than receiving.  But we had expected this and planned ahead- purchasing more bandwidth than would normally be used so we could switch to lower-complexity modulation and overcome the noise issues.  The Ateme receivers we brought provided a real-time signal quality graph which assisted in aiming the dish beyond the limits of the portable spectrum analyzer to get optimum signal quality.  The location itself was great- in the shadow of the Vancouver Olympic Torch on one side, and seaplanes landing and taking off on the other side.  Thankfully, Vancouver’s persistent rainy weather held off for our event.  More.

December:  COP20 in Lima, Peru
We returned to Lima, Peru for the first time in over 20 years to cover the UN COP20, an annual followup to the Kyoto Protocol climate change meetings.  This is our second COP event, having covered one held in Cancun a few years before.  This was also the second deployment for our new flyaway dish, and it worked flawlessly.  The biggest difficulty was the setup and breakdown, after the event staff tried to cement our cables into place and laid a brick walkway over them. More here.

December 31
We finished up the year with some more live TV, using our camera-back microwave system to cover a New Year’s Eve party at DC’s famous Howard Theater.  A HD microwave receiver with diversity antennas spread around back stage allowed our camera to roam freely throughout the venue, even go live from the street outside of the theater- all completely wireless to the uplink truck!

We are looking forward to another great year in 2015! 

Cuba 2014

 

Working in Cuba is always an adventure!  When the Chinese president planned a visit to Cuba after the BRICS summit in Brazil, national broadcaster CCTV planned a large operation.  The president planned two stops- Havana, just 90 miles from Key West, and Santiago, about 500 miles away on the south-east coast.

CCTV insisted on full path diversity at both locations, that means two uplinks at each location, two different satellites, and  two discrete routes to China from the two receive sites US, using both fiber and satellite. 

Operating an uplink in Cuba requires copious amounts of paperwork and licenses, and two flyaways makes it twice as much!  After an eight hour wait to clear customs, we loaded our gear up on a 1934 Ford truck to carry it to the Nacional hotel in Havana.
 
The first kit used our first generation airline flyaway, a 1.1m Patriot connected to Xicom 400w transmitters in a 1:1 configuration.  The transmission plan called for SD MPEG-2 video broadcast a very high quality 16mbps with 4:2:2 compression using 8PSK modulation in a 9MHz slot.

Setup and testing went smooth, however CCTV requested a second path for live shots, which we able to support by combining a smaller 4.5 MHz signal on the uplink chain.  That path utilized H.264 compression and DVB-S2 QPSK modulation at 6 mbps.

At this time a second engineer arrived to take over operation of the Havana flyaway while the second system traveled 11 hours across the country to Santiago de Cuba.

The countryside has some of the best, freshest food in the country, and much cheaper than the cities. 

Upon arriving in Santiago we found a spot where we could get a shot (the only satellites covering Santiago are very far to the west, resulting in look angles much lower than you would expect for being so far south)


The Santiago flyaway was our new modified Norsat system, connected to a pair of linearized 400w BUCs, allowing us to locate the encoders far away under shelter.  After one day of feeding, we packed up and drove the 11 hours back to Havana, and hopped a cargo charter to Miami the next day.

Need a flyaway uplink in a difficult location, or just a SNG truck around town in DC?  Give DCI a call!









Buenos Aires Pope Party

When Argentinian archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected the new leader of the Catholic church, there was lots of interest in covering the story from Rome.  However, as the first pope from the Americas, many broadcasters also wanted to find out more about Pope Fransisco’s background in his hometown of Buenos Aires.  DCI’s flyaway, fresh off a quick 3 day trip to Caracas, immediately deployed to the capitol city of Argentina.

Buenos Aires is the second largest city in South America, and many of its residents- including the new pope- trace their ancestors back to Italy.  And just like in Italy, restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8:00pm, and its not uncommon for people to be there well after midnight, enjoying the large steaks Argentina is famous for.  Buenos Aires also has a large number of Italian restaurants and pizza shops. 

Our setup was right on the sidewalk around Plaza de Mayo, the large square in front of the “Rose House”, the Argentinean presidential residence and other government buildings.



 Across the street was the new pope’s old church, and the backgroup of our shot. We took over from a local Ku uplink truck which had a previously-booked job to go cover.  Using a small SUV as an equipment shelter and 5500 watt portable generator for power, we started doing our live shots.

Since this setup was on a public street, not a secured area like our previous job in Caracas, that meant having to break down and setup the antenna and live position every day of the event, a process that took about 45 minutes each time.  The antenna breaks down into six segments for shipping, although we were able to take the entire assembled reflector off the tripod and put it into the back of our SUV, along with the rather heavy generator, and go park it in our hotel’s garage.

There was some time one day to visit the neighborhood of Palermo and visit the Recoleta cemetery and its hundreds of ornate mausoleums.

The event cumulated with a live broadcast on four large screens in Plaza de Mayo of Bergoglio being installed as pope, around 5AM local time, however people gathered from about 9PM to watch a series of live concerts and music.

A few hours after the Plaza de Mayo event, the uplink was back on a plane heading home.

Quick in and out events are a hallmark of an airline checkable uplink.  Contact DCI to see how economical this small and powerful flyaway system really is. 

3 Days in Venezuela

When Venezuelan president-for-life Hugo Chavez died, DCI’s airline checkable flyaway was the perfect solution to provide 3 paths of transmission to cover the event.  As mentioned in a previous blog post, having an airline checkable flyaway greatly reduces our response time.  We can deploy faster to breaking news situations and still provide the redundancy and high bandwidth transmission networks expect from larger flyaway systems.




New on this job was DCI’s newest equipment acquisition, a linear 210 watt traveling wave tube amplifier.  There will be a blog post about this technology in the future, but in short this is the perfection of the TWT amplifier, a technology that has been around for decades.  It is smaller, lighter, and more efficient than our existing flyaway amplifier with similar performance.

  The next day after getting the call the system was ready to transmit from the Intercontinental Hotel in Caracas, where several live shot positions were already setup with a local C-band dish. 


We did a quick site survey at the funeral location, near a military compound, looking for a rooftop position.  Even though it was the day before the funeral, the area was mobbed with Chavistas, most of whom dislike the foreign media.  The Chavistas have a reputation among the 45% of the country who oppose them to be bullies and thugs, and in a city with 3844 murders in 2012 (compared to 414 in larger New York), they are part of the reason Caracas is one of the most violent cities in the world.  People in Caracas live behind bars in the own homes, even windows and balconies ten stories up are covered, while the outside of the buildings look like fortresses with 12′ walls topped with high voltage fences.

Building owners and landlords are a group of people the socialist Chavistas disapprove of, and none of them wanted to be seen working with the foreign media, even though we offered them good money for access.  The only other option was to setup right on the sidewalk, but without reliable phone lines for communication and the uncertain security situation of doing live TV  in the middle of the Chaves crowd , we decided to give up on that idea and continue live shots at the secure hotel location.  While not offering the gritty “on site” backdrop of the funeral crowd, the hotel did have dramatic views of the mountains running through the capitol district.

We transmitted a 3 path mux signal in 9MHz on the SatMex 5 satellite, as well as used our receiver on a the local C band dish to downlink the pool feed of the funeral for recording.  After 14 hours of live shots, we packed up and headed to the airport the next morning.

While this was the quickest, busiest flyaway job we have done, it was a great demonstration of the versatility and capability of this unique uplink.  Contact DCI to find our more about our satellite solutions.