CNN Often Switches to VSATs for Ongoing News Stories

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NEW YORK U.S television news broadcaster CNN, which says it uses a “gargantuan” amount of mobile satellite capacity compared with other television networks, typically switches out of mobile services and onto larger VSATs if its news crews will be in a given zone for more than four or five days, said Arnie Christianson, CNN’s operations manager for satellites and transmissions.

Beyond that length of time, he said, booking capacity on a telecommunications satellite and setting up a VSAT, or very small aperture terminal, system becomes more cost effective.

Addressing the Satcon conference here Oct. 13, Christianson said CNN is happy with the Inmarsat BGAN broadband mobile service, which advertises transmission speeds of nearly 500 kilobits per second but is more often clocked at 350 to 400 kilobits per second.

Christianson showed three television broadcasts — one with a 1-megabit link on a VSAT, a second with a 500-kilobit link over a smaller VSAT, and a third at 256 kilobits from a BGAN terminal. While the BGAN transmission featured some distortions, CNN regularly uses it in places where no other system is available.

But when a news story — such as the recent successful effort to rescue trapped Chilean miners — is likely to force a presence for extended periods, CNN transports a VSAT system and reduces its BGAN use.

“You are talking about $15 or $16 per minute for a live transmission with BGAN,” Christianson said. “We could be doing 10 hours per day of streaming. We can get a [VSAT] satellite lease for $4,500 a day, so the economics are pretty clear. After four or five days we spend less with the VSAT.

John Stoltz, director of commercial sales at mobile and remote satellite services provider GMPCS, a division of Network Innovations of Calgary, Canada, said sending a VSAT into a crisis zone often means sending an engineer to operate it, which complicates the cost comparison. But he agreed that after three or four days of constant use, a VSAT system is more cost effective.