13th January 2018
The moments before a live on a BGAN connection drag endlessly. The countdown to the reporter stretches to hours, as the data rate inevitably on my screen drops,climbs and wavers.
Running off batteries, i’m keeping a constant eye on how much power we have left – laptop, the camera, the lights, the bgan are all depleting at an alarming rate. The reporter is at this point focused and steely eyed down the lens. I check that we have enough bandwidth and that the reporters IFB (the line which allows the reporter to hear the studio) is still connencted. The second we go live, I know I’ve earnt your money for the day; against the odds, you’ve got the news on air.
Live reporting in the news industry is the biggest bugbear of news shooters. Cameramen want to be “doing their job” at key points in the story and capturing strong pictures, whilst editors want their reporters live around breaking news. Reporting in hostile environments tend to provide some relief from this treadmill, revealing a reporter’s location can often comprimise a crew’s security by exposing the team to the risk of getting snatched or targeted. Our time in Yemen was no different, with a week long hiatus from lives and all social media activity. But as we prepared to leave Aden we decided to break our radio silence, and go live from somewhere that few people get to see and even fewer can claim a live dateline from.
Our hotel’s roof seemed like a good option for our live. It would allow us to set up out kit in advance without the usual concerns about theft or security, and allowed us to test our connection in advance. We would be broadcasting around sunset, and hoped to catch the maghreb evening prayer as an atmospheric sound background and more importantly we would be able to shoot long into the cranes around the Aden port basin. This was significant firstly because the location would be difficult to pinpoint for anyone keen to kidnap or attack us in a hurry; it would be obvious we were reporting from somewhere in the Ma’ala district, but difficult to identify from where exactly we were shooting. The hotel’s roof also had a lift shaft to hide us behind, and we would not be visible to others in the neighbourhood enjoying the evening breeze or trying to spot a rare foreign news crew reporting live on the network’s main Middle East program! Sadly Aden suffers from an almost constant black out, so we wouldn’t have the luxury of mains power for our broadcast.
With little internet available to us, and next to no 3G signal in Yemen, we had to resort to using our BGAN for transmission. A BGAN or Broadband Global Area Network is a small portable satellite modem, both loathed and loved in equal measures by field teams, for the ability to trasmit from remote locations and sometimes tempermental nature! Modern BGAN’s themselves are reliable enough and always work well from the comfort of home, offering data rates of 600-1400 kb/s which is typically ample for a live from somewhere dusty and dangerous! But dusty and dangerous places don’t always offer as kind conditions as those back home, with atmospheric conditions, satellite position and also interfernce from military or security infrastructure (which uses the same technology for communication and weopens systems) having a huge impact on the ability of an operator to get up.
The domination of HEVC live video transmission products such as Live Vu have in the last few years diminished the skill needed by news crews to get themselves live (as well as taken a huge strain both in terms of kit and stress from crews). The new technology allows operators to plug in directly to a HEVC unit and go live at the push of a button. This is great when it works, but a lack of bandwidth more or less ends any attempt at going live. The operator is left with little or not wiggle room, and beyond moving to a better location can do little to improve his reporter’s lot. On the other hand the skilled cameraman or engineer is an asset when dancing the precarious BGAN tight-rope, with the modems settings, location, setup completely critical to whether the reporter gets live and more importantly whether he stays live through his report, without break up or dropping off. Power management becomes the most important concern of the shooter. These skills only comes with experience, learning the quirks and tricks needed to do the BGAN dance.
As we shut off out lights, we raised a big cheer and hugged . We had managed to go live from a difficult place, and also fast turn an exclusive segment we had shot with the Yemeni Prime Minister just hours before (…also on the satellite connection). It’s rare I get a real kick of going live, but as the sun dropped behind Aden’s mountains I felt both exhausted and triumphant.
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