Rory Cellan-Jones

Live from Mombasa

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 17 Sep 09, 08:56 GMT

Coming to Africa to report on the new broadband cable was always going to be a challenge to our own technology. How would we get our video and audio reports back to London and then broadcast live? 

Rory doing piece to cameraThese days we try to save money when we're away from the office by sending our material over the internet rather than booking an expensive satellite link. But despite the arrival of the fibre-optic cable in East Africa, there's still very limited bandwidth in most places.

Sending a 5Mb audio file from our hotel, for instance, took almost half an hour - so it was not really going to be a practical way to send a 100Mb compressed video report, let alone my colleague Dan Simmons' piece for this week's Click, which weighed in at an uncompressed 1.2Gb.

So the answer was to go to the one place where you should be able to get online at a decent speed, the Seacom cable landing-station in Mombasa. The kind folks there rolled out two ethernet cables for us, and on Tuesday evening we sent a video report almost five minutes long to London in just over 15 minutes.

Having sat cursing the wi-fi in hotels across Europe as our video took hours to crawl back to base, this was a welcome change.But on Wednesday we faced a bigger challenge - broadcasting live on TV and radio for nearly twelve hours.

Using broadband to go "live" is a trick we've tried at home during a couple of our Broadband Britain tours. It's hairy, because we use two methods which are just slightly experimental. VPoint is video-conferencing software, which broadcasters originally adopted mainly to broadcast from warzones or other places where immediacy was the priority and Luci Live is live audio software, with which I've tangled more or less successfully a number of times.

Both depend on some kind of internet access, and often they can deliver slightly sub-standard levels  of picture or sound if you haven't got a reasonably speedy connection. With VPoint for instance, it's not wise to use a panning shot - or for the presenter to move around a lot if they don't want to look like a badly oiled robot.

So we prepared with some trepidation for a day in which we were going to be swiftly moving from radio to TV broadcast and back again for 12 solid hours.

We arrived at the landing-station in plenty of time for cameraman, picture editor and all round technical genius Neil Drake to set up his battery of equipment - which included an emergency satellite dish and a satellite phone in case the broadband connection failed.

But from the first appearance on BBC Breakfast until the last on BBC World, in the pitch black, things went remarkably smoothly. There was one little wobble in the middle of the day when the pictures got very jerky - and we started - but it turned out that our laptop had overheated and once it had been given a rest inside the air-conditioned landing station, our images looked crisp and clean once more.

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A broadcasting exercise that we had found tricky in locations from the west coast of Scotland to the west coast of the USA proved reasonably simple in Kenya. So why am I telling you all this in a blog post about Africa? Because it illustrates the very point we were trying to illuminate by coming to here, that new technology could now link this region up to the rest of the world, with profound effects on its economy and society.

Today we're off to a country whose president certainly believes in the transformative power of technology. And tomorrow I'll be giving my first impressions of Rwanda - at least I will if I can get a good internet connection.


  • Comment number 1.

    I managed to catch your 0950 broadcast yesterday, Rory, and despite breaking up in a few places it seemed to go well (I know you were worried!). Contrasting it with similar challenges in the UK just shows that these challenges can be universal, and not just developing-country specific.

    I'm really looking forward to hearing your insights from Rwanda, a country I've never been to, but one which is often seen as the "golden boy/girl" of African ICT adoption. What you discover there could go a long way to counter some of the arguments and comments on your earlier "water" post, and hopefully show what's possible when government policy and ICT capacity come together.

    P.S. I'm almost out of Rwandan coffee if you could grab me some. =)

  • Comment number 2.


    Thanks for the excellent reportage about the LIVE FROM MOMBASSA....

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 3.

    The technology to do exactly what you want to do with delayed reports and live links over very slow connections and for it to look flawless already exists, it's just that it will take time, perhaps even five years, to filter down to something niche like electronic news gathering.

    Certainly the clever people at BBC R&D could create something working in a few weeks.

  • Comment number 4.

    Okay, here is where you can get too wrapped up in technology for technologies sake.

    As someone in media for more than thirty years, including the technical side, I have become more and more depressed as picture quality falls away. I watch digital television via free view and have to put up with low quality gradients on textures such as mist and water - you never got that with analogue. When the signal is poor, you lose the entire picture, rather than it just going a bit noisy. And more and more the BBC (the station that used to reject any submission that was not perfect quality) is broadcasting low quality images just for the hell of it, it appears.

    I can understand that with reporting on an incident such as the London bombs or a major sporting event, quality should take second place to immediacy - I have no problems with that at all.

    But with your reports on Africa, whether the material is broadcast today or when you return makes no difference what-so-ever.

    So why do you compromise on quality simply so you can say "oh look, we broadcast this from Africa?"

    We know it can be done, and it is dreadful quality when it arrives - even if you have the luxury of a high speed connection or a Satelite link.

    The BBC used to have very strict guidelines about using satellite and landlines in the old days - if it was not urgent, send the tape by bike! It was one of the many annoying aspects of working with the BBC that ensured that British television was always the highest technical quality in the world.

    These guidelines should be brought back. Let's see your reports clear and well filmed - no pixilation, no gradient problems, no sound sync issues, no rush edit jobs, no washed out backgrounds like the above clip. And we can enjoy them all the more.

    PS: I remember seeing the first demonstration of HD television when it was introduced 25 years ago (somewhere around there). It was Analogue at that point. If you think the quality now is amazing, you should have seen that system.

    Anne Diamond was in the audience at the demonstration, and they pointed the camera at her. "Oh my God! You can see my spots!" She cried out (in good humour.)

  • Comment number 5.

    Rory you seem to be making this out to be some big deal, that you got your report broadcast to us in the UK from Mombasa.

    Correct me if I'm wrong but the same could be done from most of Europe and the US in the same way, could it not?

    You have stated that you use Wi-Fi when in hotels. Wi-Fi is never going to be as fast or reliable as an ethernet connection, not for a while anyway, so the two cannot be compared. Ask for an ethernet connection next time you're in a hotel trying to send video "back to base" and see the huge difference it makes.

    And just how many of Africas residents will be able to request an ethernet connection right at the exchange? Correct me if I'm wrong but this "new" service in Africa isn't fibre optic is it? So the usual degradation of signal the further you get from the exchange will be an issue for the majority of people.

    Of course you had preferential treatment because you're from a news agency in a "wealthy" country and Seacom want to show you how good their service is.

  • Comment number 6.

    Great article Rory - but I think you might have answered your own question though, in a piece you wrote in July: ipadio allows the live streaming of audio without the need for the internet - because it works from any telephone.
    We've had broadcasts out of Africa only today with a fella using skype - quality is phone quality - but it would work where data does not, and it's live.
    In fact todays broadcast was inspired by the dozens of broadcasts made from Queensland, Australia last month from the World Transplant Games - again live telephone based broadcasting just via the phone network but streamed out on the web. Even Boris Johnson was broadcasting from New York at the weekend using ipadio.
    ipadio - no data required (unless you have some of course then you can do 60 minutes of record and publish from the ipadio app - but at 40+ mb in size that might take quite a while to upload!)
    Cheers and safe journey, Mark, CEO

  • Comment number 7.

    Just a note - professional broadcaster still use ISDN heavily. It is direct dial, very stable and with enough lines very high quality (you can run 6 lines at once, typically, to give 20khz bandwidth - which is better than broadcast)

    In the old days we used post office landlines. We had a direct line into the studio and we would book connections to radio stations round the country (and even abroad).

    Then, at the required time I would phone a very nice chap at "museum" (just behind the Post Office Tower in London) and say "hi, its Joss at Radiotracks - can you connect us to Radio Leeds?" "No problem," he would answer, and would take a lead and plug one end into our line, and the other into the trunk that took us up country. He had already contacted the other plugging centres up the country and they were already plugged in. Et Voila, there was Leeds live in our studio.

    After the interview, I would phone museum again and ask them to unplug us. It was friendly, old fashioned and problematic (when our friend plugged us into the wrong hole!). But when that system came to an end we lost something in really good human teamwork!

  • Comment number 8.

    There is some discussion about using telephone lines for ISDN and IPRadio however telephone penetration is very low in African countries, less than 1% of population in Kenya and less than 0.5% of population in Tanzania (Worldbank numbers).

    The only ubiquitous existing architecture of any significance in these countries is the electricity network which is generally overhead on poles.

    My company Powerline Technologies has developed products to deliver broadband over electricity networks. The technology creates 200Mbps cells shared by 25-50 homes giving 4-8mbps uncontended which equates to 40-80Mbps with 10:1 contention.

  • Comment number 9.

    It strikes me that this requires a thousand small solutions.

    A few years ago I wrote up an idea for a replacement for the internet in the future - I should point out that this was done for a comedy, and not me contending to be a futurist!

    The idea, called the Holonet, put the intelligence not on the connectivity, but on the packets of data. Each packet would find its own way from source to destination. This could be down a mains cable, along a telephone line, piggybacking on a radio carrier wave, as a light particle, on the identity chip on a pet (not fast, sort of a scenic route), even on sound waves and ocean current. One email took a particularly long time when it tried to use vibrations in a tennis ball and got caught in an especially long rally.

    Although this was for comedic effect, I did feel at the time that what was important was the data rather than the mode of transmission.

    Currently we are very hung up on the internet as another communication form, and most development is of the infrastructure rather than the data that uses the system.

    Moving the emphasis to the data, philosophically speaking, means that you can joyfully have a complete mess of connectivity and it really does not matter. As long as there is a potential path for the data to utilise then you are achieving the role of all these systems - from the telegraph to wireless modems. You are moving information from one point to another.

    In developing countries, especially in Africa, being able to join up a thousand different systems in a thousand different ways could solve all sorts of problems.

  • Comment number 10.

    These days we try to save money when we're away from the office by sending our material over the internet rather than booking an expensive satellite link.

    Much appreciated. But as you are all there, to send broadcasts back here, also rather a potential case of 'Spoiling the ship for a ha'pworth of tar', perhaps?

    Sending a 5Mb audio file from our hotel, for instance, took almost half an hour

    And having given up on hotel connections in favour of my mobly ages ago, I can see a slight problem arising right there, too, when the bill arrives.


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