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Battling with networks

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:15 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010

Berlin: Every now and then I like to give you a glimpse behind the scenes in the chaotic life of a technology journalist who often struggles with his own technology. In Berlin for the last couple of days the battle between me and my gadgets has been particularly intense.

Andrew Webb

To cover the IFA Consumer Electronics show I brought with me the following: one laptop, one iPad, a Kindle (both to shoot rather than use in broadcasting), a digital audio recorder, two microphones, a smartphone, a blackberry, and my new friend Comrex. This, I should explain, is a piece of broadcasting kit which allows you to do live radio via either a wireless network or using a 3G card.

More importantly, I brought Andrew Webb, a multi-skilled cameraman/editor whose main job is to film pieces for the web - he knows he only got the job because of his name. As well as shooting material for this site, I asked Andrew to help me film reports for network news, always a high pressure assignment.

First I had to make my new radio kit work, something I've struggled with in the past. I needed to do some live broadcasting early in the morning from my hotel room - and immediately hit a hitch when the Comrex was unable to join the hotel's wi-fi network because instead of just a password it needed a complex log-in.

I turned instead to the wi-fi produced by a mobile 3G dongle, or MiFi. Network coverage looked a bit thin, but once I'd put the MiFi on the window sill, we were up and running - and speaking to the world.

Our first television report seemed to be going equally smoothly. Having raced around the IFA show we made our way to the BBC Berlin bureau to hand over the digital files to an editor. We had booked a line to feed the story to London at 1730, well in time for the Six O'Clock News. As we fed our material London told us they could see the pictures, but the audio was not coming through.

With minutes to go, the fault on the line somewhere between Berlin and London - nobody could agree where - was endangering our report. But Andrew realised he could extract the sound track and send it over the Internet by FTP to London, where an editor managed to paste it onto the pictures just in time. Phew.

Today we were asked quite late in the day to file another piece for the One O'Clock News. With no time to get to the BBC bureau we had to try to feed that over the wireless network in the IFA media room, packed with the world's techie journalists. it turned out to be painfully slow - so again we found a window, fired up the trusty MiFi, and got our one and a half minute report across to London in about 40 minutes, just about hitting our deadline.

I filmed some of the process on my phone to make a shockingly poor web video which does at least give you a flavour of our day.

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What lessons do I take away? Networks, whether they be wireless, 3G, or a fibre line from Berlin to London, can always let you down. In which case you need smart human beings to get you out of a hole.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    OK, I'm sure there's a reason why it made sense to use a Comrex linked via WiFi to a MiFi with a 3G connection to the internet, but it strikes me that there's an easier way to get an audio connection over a phone network.

    Why is this better than just ringing the Beeb?

  • Comment number 2.

    Ewan, the reason is that via Comrex we ended up with something approaching studio quality audio rather than a crackly phone call.

  • Comment number 3.

    Rory,

    In the real World, crowded with real people and a finite radio spectrum you will always find these problems (and they will never go away with the latest technology). (Aside: Why did you not also try a BBC issue satellite phone?)

    You were sending a 90 second report, in HD (presumably) compressed as AVCHD(pro or similar) or under 200 MB of datafile - probably far too big for any G3 phone network (in the real World as you found out!) but about 5 mins or so over the internet. Let that be a lesson to you - the wonderful gadgets you tell us about do not actually work in the real World! This mobile computing stuff is vastly oversold! You are a victim of the desperation of the mobile phone industry desperately trying to get some recompense for the huge sums of money they invested (wasted!) on 3G licences.

  • Comment number 4.

    I don't quite understand why everytime Rory posts on here, he is met with a barrage of negativity, seriously why do people continually winge at every opportunity!

    Thanks Rory and Andrew for this nice little behind the scenes piece.
    It's quite nice to see what goes on behind the scenes at the Beeb :)

  • Comment number 5.

    Bob, I don't it finding suprising at all the negative responsed Rory gets, whether this is his just lack of experiance with technology being used in the real world or people just do the technical stuff for him, either way a report like of this of struggling with getting a Video report back to HQ and relying on someone else, doesn't say a lot for a technology correspondant.

    Rory is a good reporter, I just don't understand why he is in this role. A man with a backround in Business and Industry, with no previous education or experiance with anything technical. The worst characteristic for me, is the man is absolute cynic....his prediction on Spotify was great.

    Take Spencer Kelly, I understand why he is in that role and is brilliant at it, for both technical and non techy people.

    The BBC is one the last places I read for technology, it just happens to have links from the other areas of the site. The number of times I have seen something on case modding, or VPN's for remote working like it is something new astounds me at the best of times.

    I still haven't seen a report that he doesn't start with the word "So..."

  • Comment number 6.

    Agree with Bob

    Rory's story represents my real world situation, I don't have a desk of regular internet connection in my job, I often have to rely on my laptop and various types of wireless / 3G connection to get my work done.

    The more these issues get highlighted, the sooner they get solved.

  • Comment number 7.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    "More importantly, I brought Andrew Webb, a multi-skilled cameraman/editor ... smart human beings to get you out of a hole."

    would it be safe to say his renumeration does not reflect his value? :-)

  • Comment number 8.

    Absolutely the right sentiment - the idea that Cloud services will reliably provide synchronous, always-on access to streaming media is pie in the sky: especially over mobile networks.

    Any prudent user will always cache a local copy of content if access to it is mission critical.

  • Comment number 9.

    I don't quite understand why everytime Rory posts on here, he is met with a barrage of negativity, seriously why do people continually winge at every opportunity!

    I don't know if that was at all aimed at me, but for the record I wasn't trying to be negative, it was a genuine question, and I welcome Rory's answer. I am rather amazed that it was possible to get a live link at "something approaching studio quality" over the connection described; in my experience (no doubt rather more limited than Rory's) VOIP over low bandwidth links is really quite poor, certainly when compared with a good landline phone.

  • Comment number 10.

    In the old days we used to send journalists out with a tape machine (Nagra or the nasty Uher, in the case of the Beeb), a razor blade, chinagraph pencil, edit block, splicing tape, a mic and a lead that ended in two crocodile clips.

    Once they recorded their broadcast, and edited with the razor blade (trust me, an expert could edit at lightning speed) they would find the nearest payphone, unscrew the cap covering the telephone mic, and clip on the croc clips.

    They could then dial up the studio and send their report - it wasn't the highest quality, but it was better than speaking directly down the phone and as long as you got through, it worked. Distracting breaths and "umms" and "ahhs" were removed and the final product was crisp, informative and highly broadcast-able.

    We over engineer everything now. I dread to think of the cost of your Comrex Bric (over three grand?) and the portable edit gear with its broadcast interfaces and I wonder if you are better served than you were when you filmed on betacam, and bunged the tape to the nearest courier to take back, or dropped it in for editing when you got home.

  • Comment number 11.

    Rory Cellan-Jones wrote:

    Ewan, the reason is that via Comrex we ended up with something approaching studio quality audio rather than a crackly phone call.

    ###

    Rory, what happened to just putting up an MP3 of your report onto an FTP server somewhere?

    We used to get great quality (well, good enough) from the landlines that linked everywhere and terminated at the PO Tower (oops, BT tower). We would simply phone up Raj at "museum" and ask him to patch us through to the BBC. (Hey, and I didn't even work for the Beeb and it worked fine.)

    We could even get a distribution of the live Big Ben chimes that way.

    The BBC always had an office in Berlin that could be linked at very short notice and would not have cost you a penny before John Birt brought in the strangulating internal economy into the BBC.

    Ooh, heady days!

  • Comment number 12.

    11. At 10:04am on 06 Sep 2010, Hastings wrote:
    ....the strangulating internal economy into the BBC.
    ---------------------------------------
    This is the real problem for the licence payer and getting real value from the BBC.
    My partner works for a wholly owned subsiduary of the BBC. How this "works"
    financially may indicate why some things that should be so simple in a large organisation are not in fact so, which is on topic to this article as it shows another example of over complexity as a way to a "better" future.
    In her job she has four or five layers of management between her and the MD of the subsidiary. These are almost universally spreadsheet examiners. Rarely is any decision made, even on day to day matters, without referral some way up the chain. Most of these decisions are to make sure that the correct amount of money is charged to the BBC (as the client) and that money left at the end is sent back to the BBC (as owner).
    There will be equivalent accountants in BBC finance ensuring the correct amounts are going and coming.
    Therefore you have circular monies with rafts of bureaucracy pushing it around.
    The answer for Rory is less bureaucracy releasing more funds for user friendly and better than "almost studio quality" equipment.

  • Comment number 13.

    "Almost" is often pretty good going - it is all down to bandwidth and you should see how it all gets squashed on the output of Radio One anyway. (Worse on commercial radio)

    I remember before Birt a producer would have a programme idea, get it approved and then go and book a BBC studio to record it in. It was that simple. The main obstacle was if a lot of other people were booking, but that is hardly a major or unusual situation!

    Then Birt came in and Producers would now have to "buy" studio time, and that included using the studios in broadcasting house. If they overan their time they were billed for the overun and it would come out of their production budget - this made life very limiting and we soon saw some of the creativity being dropped because it was too time consuming.

    We had an independent studio a stone's throw from BH and some of the producers started using us instead. Our studios were larger, relaxed and we would be flexible on overuns if budgets were tight and there wasn't another client in hard on their heels.

    In contrast, independent companies such as Unique had their own studios (though they used us for some of the initial recordings - and I recorded and mixed the amazing Bits From Last Weeks Radio* sketch segments, which really should be repeated!!! Hint Hint). Unique were not so idiotic as to charge their in house producers for using their own facilities and so were actually being able to undercut the BBC quite dramatically. Although I am not in that side of the business these days, I believe this is still the case.

    To make things worse, many journalists started editing their own programmes on their work stations - this may have been economically a good idea, but to be honest, their editing was terrible ... IS terrible. To be fair, they are journalists, not sound engineers, so it is not surprising. I remember one journalist recording something at our studio for a Media Training session (yep, the same journalists that grilled the politicians on news programmes also gave politicians and union leaders lessons on how to survive such grillings for nice fat fees!) He was amazed watching me edit. Firstly, he did not realise someone could edit that fast and secondly I was removing noise, putting in breaths to help edits and so on that he never had thought of - the result was a report that was "comfortable" to listen to, clearer and so on.

    Although the BBC of the old days was sometimes sluggish, was very slow to take up new technology and could be incredibly arrogant, it worked and worked well. Whether a programme was good or bad was in the hands of the production team, not the budget, and standards were kept high throughout the network.

    Those days have gone to a greater extent, eroded by new-wave working practices and a competitive working environment that simply does not reflect what radio should be all about.

    The change started many years ago and was summed up by a BBC Studio Manager (what they call their sound engineers) when he heard the realistic mixes we had done for Bits From Last Weeks Radio. He praised the programmed and loved the soundscapes we had created. He then added, "we could not have done that here for that price."


    * Bits From Last Weeks Radio was a programme mixing music and selected excerpts from radio around the world. In fact, the "bits" were all invented and were highly comic but realistic radio parodies. This included a tape recording from a reporter who witnessed the JFK shootings that had been confiscated by the FBI - the returned tape had been edited to insert words like "Hamburger Stall" where the reporter had said "Gunman." Other sketches included hospital radio going wrong with Neil Mullarky, Adrianne Poster doing the best Agony Aunt ever (so funny it took 28 takes to get a whole one), and countless other reworking of radio from the UK, USA and Australia, oh, and the Archers reworked into Peruvian with a theme played on a whistle. The 20 odd programmes were Produced by Ralph and Martin from Eardrum Productions, and the programme was presented by Greg Proops.)

  • Comment number 14.

    If you think this was a bad experience, just wait till you try the new iplayer...

  • Comment number 15.

    I love my Mifi. I find hotel wifi often unreliable and very very slow. I personally think its a deliberate plan to increase sales in pay-per-view Jacquie Smith videos.

 

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