Olympics Below Zero. Interview with Sotiris Salamouris, OBS CTO.
To broadcast the Olympic Winter Games, Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) needs to deploy their technological assets in the context of winter sports and under below zero weather conditions. The extreme cold in Beijing and in the mountains and the distances between the venues where the competitions are held, are among the challenges faced by Sotiris Salamouris, OBS Chief Technology Officer and his entire team. We talked with Sotiris about these difficulties, and he told us that, to overcome these challenges, they heavily rely on the very extensive experience of the OBS technical team, with several Winter Olympic Games already successfully delivered during the last two decades.
What are the main differences between the technological infrastructure deployed in Tokyo and the one you are deploying in Beijing?
The main difference is not a matter of Tokyo and Beijing; the main difference is that we broadcast a Olympic Summer Games and now we will be broadcasting the Olympic Winter Games. The technology and infrastructure can be the same or similar, but how it is deployed in the Winter Olympic context is, by itself, really different. Winter environments need other requirements and face different challenges. It is not necessarily only weather-related, which plays an important factor, but the far longer distances between snow venues and the IBC and also the intricacies of the snow sports by themselves.
In the case of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, we have venues much farther away than the venues we average have during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. This causes many challenges and also forces adaptations when it comes to the technology that we normally use.
You mentioned that the biggest challenge is to adapt the technology you have, because it’s essentially the same, to this environment because of the sports and even the weather. What is the main difference between summer and winter sports? Why do you have this need?
First of all, there are many outdoors sports when it comes to the Olympic Winter Games. Of course, there are also some outdoor sports in the summer environment, but they are in very different conditions.
All the outdoor sports, during winter, are taking place up in the mountains. And that means that they have their very own special broadcast needs.
To operate under winter conditions is not easy for the people that will use these technologies and for the equipment itself. You have to take this into serious consideration. Some of the systems that you would normally use during the summer, you cannot use in winter because of the cold temperatures and the winter environment.
You have to be aware of this when you are deploying new equipment and technology. New technology is not usually tested under extreme environmental conditions, and the use of this equipment in winter is a niche, so companies tend to not prioritize these tests. You need to ensure all these gears will function well in the specific environmental conditions of Beijing.
On the other hand, another element you have to consider is distance, as I said before, distances between the venues with sports happening in the mountains and the IBC is considerable. This also limits you.
Apart from this, which I consider the most significant challenge we face, ice sports such as hockey, figure skating or speed skating, which take place indoors, are more controllable and do not present as many challenges.
How do you transmit the feed that you capture in a mountain to the IBC?
Let’s concentrate on live transmission. Telecommunications infrastructure is different because we implement special technologies that can efficiently transmit signals between much longer distances. So there is a different overall telecommunications architecture that we’re building in the winter environment of the Games.
Another fundamental difference is that we have a secondary broadcast hub. It is different from Olympic Summer Games where we only had the IBC (International Broadcast Centre). In this winter environment, we also have a mountain broadcast centre that, in the case of the Beijing Games, is called ZBC (Zhangjiakou Mountain Broadcast Centre). Zhangjiakou is a region up in the mountains where most snow sports are taking place. The ZBC also acts as a hub of signal contribution. This means that signals that go to the IBC have to pass, first aggregation and then delivery, in that location. Then, they all are transmitted across a very resilient network all the way from the Zhangjiakou area to Beijing.
The distance between the two locations is quite significant, you need almost two and a half hours to travel from one area to the other. Fortunately, there is also a high-speed train that can reduce the travel time to a bit more than one hour and allow us to move more quickly between the two locations.
Of course, the challenges that we had in the Tokyo edition will also happen here because we are going to have our signal production in UHD-HDR format. This format is much more demanding in terms of bandwidth needed and overall signal quantity to be transported. But we have to say that, there is an infrastructure that has already been planned and that would make this happen.
How will the contribution and delivery work in this Olympic Winter Games edition?
We need to deploy several networks for the Olympic Games to take place. The most straightforward distinction, between the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, is that we establish a resilient contribution telecom trunk between different locations, in this case, between the IBC and the ZBC.
The contribution network is a network that is built to support the collection of all signals originating in the venues. Quite often, it also supports content delivery from the IBC back to the venues. Therefore, the collection of all content feeds from our production units in the venues, where the actual production takes place, to these centres, the IBC and the ZBC, is the prime function of the contribution network of the Games. And then, of course once the content is available in the IBC, we subsequently distribute it to the Rights Holding Broadcasters (RHBs).
An important recent development, compared to the past Games is, that although several RHBs are in these two hubs, and they can collect the content locally, many more now work remotely. That is why we are also doing international distribution of our content too and we have different ways of doing this.
We are building an international distribution network also managed by OBS. It is global and it connects the IBC to several global POPs (Points of Presence) over resilient international fibre lines. We have them in cities like New York, Frankfurt, London, Hong Kong, or Tokyo. Of course, Beijing is a hub too. These are places where the networks actually terminate and where broadcasters can pick up the signals, go the last mile and get it to their own headquarters in their own territory, wherever they are.
Apart from the full fibre based international connectivity, we also offer to the RHBs the option to pick up our content over satellite. Satellite distribution is still a quite viable option for massive, multilateral, content delivery, like in the case of the Olympics. We utilize three different satellite systems, one for Asia, one for Europe and one more for the Americas. One additional benefit of the satellite distribution is of course the fact that an RHB can connect to receive signals with very little need for establishing a “local mile” connection solution by themselves; this fact makes satellite still quite a relevant reception option, especially for the smaller RHBs.
Are you trying more than you tested in Tokyo in terms of distribution?
Yes, we are, of course. We are extending the use of all the new technology deployed in Tokyo. We are leaning heavily, for example, on IP because we have converted our old signal contribution and distribution core for UHD-HDR and IP signals, and so on.
In Tokyo, we used 5G to cover part of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. And for Beijing we are doing a much wider distribution of 5G technology. This time we are also using 5G for part of our live coverage. These cameras are provided to us by our partner Intel. For example, certain of or our wide view cameras are 5G-connected. These cameras are placed in locations where they will capture iconic content from different venues, and they all will contribute back to their respective venue and/or the IBC via 5G.
We are also using 5G as a way to replace some of our wireless cameras. Normally, for such wireless cameras we would have used legacy RF technology, but for these Games, and for the first time, we can rely on 5G. This change is going to happen in a number of sports like curling and cross-country, alpine and others. We think that 5G is here to stay, but we also think that not all the elements that are necessary for a broadcast workflow are available yet. We are in a kind of transition, but this time our 5G use will be much wider than ever before. We started using 5G for the first time in the PyeongChang Games, then increased a bit in Tokyo but in Beijing it is the first time that we are almost “going mainstream”. We will be deploying more than 25 5G enabled camera systems in these Games.
You also have to take into account that the availability of 5G technology in China is bigger than what we have had so far. Our telecommunication partner, China Unicom, is probably the most advanced telecommunications company at this time in the world in terms of 5G deployments. Every sport venue of the Olympic Winter Games already has full 5G coverage.
So, is there an effort by China Unicom and Intel to create this 5G infrastructure or did it exist before?
The overall deployment of 5G in China is a country initiative. China Unicom is one of the two main telecommunication companies in China, they have a huge installed base, and they are moving fast to establish more and more 5G coverage in the whole territory. They have prioritized Olympic venues, of course, and by now they are all 5G-covered.
It is true that this infrastructure is a public 5G infrastructure. This means that it is oriented to the use by the general user, which is normally the main interest of telecommunications operators. I mean this is where they are all interested in entering, because this is where the biggest market is.
When it comes to broadcast we are in a different mode of operation. But we also can get a benefit from the 5G technology. The technology may be the same, but the deployment configuration is different because broadcasting is more interested in “uploading” content than in downloading it.
If you are a general-purpose consumer and you use your cell phone, you are most interested in getting content to your own device. The focus is then placed on the downstream bandwidth from the base station to the devices. Whereas when you’re interested in using 5G as a broadcaster, you’re interested in using it to bring content into the network.
China Unicom, however, was willing to make this kind of adaptation in order to support our broadcast requirements. That is because they are also interested in exploring this secondary market, and there are several things that we could do when it comes to optimising the network for uplink use.
When we need quality of service, an adjustment is made to prioritise the service we need. That way we avoid congestion problems. This is the first level. The second, which is even better, is splitting the network and giving the broadcast more parts. This technique is known as slicing. Of course, the third option is that you can even have a dedicated network. In our case, we will have China Unicom did the slicing for us to have our piece of a secure and reliable network. It is very interesting to see how it ends up working in these Games.
Changing the subject, I wanted to ask you about the tests you do to test your technological equipment. Can you explain to us what they consist of?
Yes, of course. We perform a combination of tests. First of all, we test equipment itself; we check if it can withstand environmental conditions such as deployment at very low temperatures. This is the easiest part because the manufacturer has already conducted their own testing. Manufacturers will need to experiment if their gear can work at 20/30 degrees below zero. Of course, they will do it, and of course, they are responsible for that.
The trickiest part comes when you have to prove your own systems. Because it’s not just about using standard equipment, it’s about interconnecting equipment and having equipment deployed that is a combination of various systems along with our cabling, along with the levels of operation, etc. The only way to really test it is to put them in similar environments and see how they work. And that’s not all. It is one thing to go yourself and set everything up, but it is another thing to worry about how our staff will handle this equipment in these conditions. And that’s a necessity because they have to be able to handle it, no matter what. We do it ourselves through different tests in different situations. Today we can certify that the tests are done and that our equipment works.
If I may, I would like to add something else that is different from the Summer Olympics and that has to do with the operability of the technology. Because it’s not all about deploying technology, of course, technology must be operated.
And you have to be aware that the Winter Games has a much more dynamic schedule than the Summer Games. The content creation schedule can be modified by many unforeseen surprises.
Normally, when you are planning the total coverage of a sport, you know the complete schedule. You know when you’re going to start, you know when you’re going to finish and you align everything according to this schedule. You align your personnel, the procedures, the line-ups, the checking, the testing, everything. But in a winter sport, you cannot do this. It is very common, mostly due to winter conditions, to experience a highly dynamic schedule. Many things could happen in the field, which can lead to postponements, cancellations, delays, all these kinds of things. All of this creates an additional layer of complexity because all of our operations are generally very well-orchestrated, so this is not just a matter of; “OK, well, I can delay a little bit longer and have my systems reprogrammed to do something else.” Yes, but that particular system or these particular people are going to be required to, maybe, later on, do something else. Well, then you have sort of a domino effect that you have to be prepared for.
So the complexity of the venue technical operations and resulting automation required, as well as the technical workflows of the Winter Games, can make the operation quite a bit more complex than the Summer Games. However, the scope is smaller because there are fewer venues. There are approximately 10 to 15 venues compared to the 30-40 of a typical Summer Games. The complexity is sometimes far greater and requires more detailed planning.
Maybe you can tell us something about the next edition of the Olympic Games. Are you developing any technology related to broadcasting that will surprise everyone?
Yes, but the surprise, of course, has to be kept as a kind of secret. I will tell you, first of all, that Games are three years in the future. And nowadays, technology related, three years are almost a century. So many things will happen during that period.
It is clear that the trend, which we have already discussed, that has been strong in Tokyo and also in Beijing is going to continue. It involves creating a general technical infrastructure, and here technology, like IP and cloud help enormously. Many broadcasters are trying to be as flexible as possible in their own operations, which also means that there will be a tendency to create and to need more remote solutions.
We will leverage it. We will also try to create new content because this need is always there, ever since the beginning of television coverage.
There will be many surprises at the next Olympic Games, but we must be patient and, in a couple of years, we may be able to discuss them in an interview like this one.