ESPN Kicks Up Fiber For Cup

ESPN is pulling out the stops for its on-site coverage of the 2010 World Cup. The global sports giant is expanding its private fiber-optic network to create the same level of connectivity with Johannesburg, South Africa, that it enjoys between its multiple U.S. studios.

The programmer has already installed two-way fiber links between its Bristol, Conn., home base and its new L.A. Live facility in Los Angeles, as well as with ABC studios in New York and ESPNU/ESPN Regional TV in Charlotte, N.C. In 2010, it will use fiber to support two real-time video links from Johannesburg, one running to New York and the other to Los Angeles.

ESPN has also already established full-time fiber links to soccer-mad London, Argentina and Brazil, where it launched its latest HD network, ESPN Brazil, in April. That two-way connectivity will support 65 hours of coverage originating from two sets in and around Johannesburg, as well as three camera crews there.

It is the first time ESPN will produce the entirety of its World Cup studio programming on-site. This will include SportsCenter segments, nightly World Cup Live updates, and pre-, halftime and post-match shows, with additional studio programming and World Cup-branded segments. The matches themselves — which will use the feed from host broadcaster Host Broadcast Services, augmented by ESPN cameras — will be telecast on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC.

“We're doing so much from everywhere to everywhere production-wise these days, that having a backbone acquisition and distribution network was essential,” said ESPN vice president of digital technology Rob Hunter.

Like other large programmers, ESPN has been steadily shifting its contribution links from satellite to fiber over the past five years. The cost of leasing fiber has steadily come down as the amount of available throughput has increased. One of the big advantages of fiber for live production, Hunter noted, is that it reduces signal latency compared to satellite. ESPN only had a latency of about 240 milliseconds for standard-definition fiber feeds from the 2007 women's World Cup in Shanghai, China, and expects the delay from South Africa to be only slightly more with HD.

“You still can't overcome the 44,000-foot turnaround [with satellite] when you're doing live-to-live,” Hunter said.

He noted that ESPN now produces a unique segment in SportsCenter where the talent in Bristol is speaking to talent standing in front of a greenscreen in Los Angeles. “The viewer has no idea, because there is no latency,” he said. “They have no idea they're 3,000 miles away.”

The twin 10-Gigabit-per-second fiber links between Bristol and Los Angeles also allow the facilities to seamlessly pass content back and forth between Quantel servers as if they were side-by-side editing rooms at one location. ESPN will have some of the same capability for the World Cup, though it will use EVS servers in Johannesburg to produce highlights on-site.

Due to the cost of trans-Atlantic links, ESPN won't have quite that big a pipe for the World Cup to link to its facilities within the International Broadcast Center in Johannesburg. The network is considering connectivity at either OC-3 (155 Megabits per second) or OC-12 (622 Mbps), with terminal equipment provided by Net Insight. It is leaning toward OC-12, which is the speed of its new pipe to London.

One undersea route will travel from the west of South Africa up to Portugal and on to New York via trans-Atlantic cables, running approximately 9,420 miles. The other undersea route will run from the east side of South Africa through Penang, Malaysia; Hong Kong; and into New York via Los Angeles. That route is considerably longer at 14,750 miles.

Due to the global nature of the World Cup and the tremendous popularity of soccer in South America and Europe, ESPN will be making heavy use of its fiber connections to those markets as well, according to Hunter, both leading up to and during the matches. “We'll be bringing feeds from Argentina and Brazil into the coverage from South Africa, and we expect to take advantage of our circuit into London, too,” he said. “We'll also have collection points from Germany and France. We will be able to build a worldwide community, both on-air and online, for months.”

Format-conversion technology will be crucial for handling the feeds, as the World Cup matches are being produced in the European 1080-line-interlace/50 hertz format and will need to be converted to ESPN's 720-line progressive/60 frames-per-second format. The feeds, which will be compressed in MPEG-2 using Tandberg encoders, will also need to be converted to 1080i/60 for ESPN's new HD facility in Brazil, which has adopted the same format used by Brazilian broadcast giant TV Globo.

ESPN currently uses Snell's Alchemist Ph.C format-conversion product, but will also be evaluating technology from other vendors between now and next spring.

Since ESPN will also be transferring a huge amount of edited packages as files across the network, it will employ bandwidth-optimization technology from firms like Aspera, which specializes in speeding the delivery of large video files, and Riverbed, whose products are more suited to applications like e-mail.

According to ESPN lead engineer for transport and special projects Emory Strilkauskas, data-acceleration software is essential when using file-transfer protocol technology over long distances to get the full throughput of the bandwidth you're paying for.

“Those protocols are designed for short-distance, LAN [local-area network] applications,” Strilkauskas said. “So the application thinks the data packets are not received, because the echo back is taking longer than the application was designed for. So the file transfer slows down to a mere trickle.”

He cites a test that ESPN conducted sending an HD file from L.A. to Bristol over the network's 10-Gb link. Without acceleration software, it took eight minutes to transfer the file; using the software, it took 15 seconds.