Op Ed: Fiber Makes Sports Facilities Broadcast Friendly

By Richard A. Cerny
President
Telecast Fiber Systems

Technological advances within sports stadiums are driven by one thing the television broadcast industry. Major networks demand a certain quality and level of support for their production team and equipment. When a sports facility commits to hosting football and baseball games covered by those major networks, it must meet those requirements in terms of cabling and where it s installed. The challenge is for the facility to provide the necessary level of communications connectivity at a minimal capital cost.

The resounding answer to this challenge has proven to be the least expensive investment for venue owners: ordinary telecommunications-grade optical fiber cable. Simply called single mode fiber, these cables are the mainstay of cabling on university campuses, in data centers and in telephone company customer premises. Because of its ubiquity, a single mode fiber installation costs about 90 percent less than the equivalent SMPTE-311 hybrid fiber/wire cable installation. Any additional cost of the terminal fiber transceiver gear is borne by the visiting network or truck operator, not by the facility s owner.

This approach to infrastructure design is essentially specifying an optical plumbing system, where the fiber is treated as a fourth building utility, similar to water, power and HVAC. Unlike single-purpose SMPTE-311 hybrid camera cables, single mode fiber strands are universal in their application, carrying virtually any signal, be it a camera signal, dozens of microphones, an Ethernet extension or a high definition video feed. This multipurpose aspect is what makes it so easy for the venue owner to invest in single mode infrastructure. Some of it can be offered to broadcasters, while the team and the venue can use it for their own purposes.

With a fiber infrastructure target cost of, say, $50,000, facility managers can be lavish with the connectivity they offer broadcasters, since additional fiber paths and fiber conductors, or cores result in small incremental costs. Venue designers and managers can take into account the growing amount of equipment being used for sports coverage. Today, even college football games are using packages like the overhead cable and goal post cameras, and these advances are easily accommodated by the well-designed single mode fiber infrastructure. Thus, there is no need for network crews to hang additional wire through stadium concourses in order to enhance the broadcast.

For new facilities, the expense of installing fiber is clearly less than retrofitting older facilities which require a great deal more work to incorporate fiber into existing and often aging physical infrastructures. In either case, the first key is to install enough fiber to support the highest imaginable demand. While everyday use will not normally tax a marginally designed fiber infrastructure, one blockbuster event will reveal any deficiencies in the installation s design.

The number one rule of designing a fiber infrastructure is to pull in more fiber cores than you can possibly envision using, and then double that number of cores. The only time it s convenient to add extra fiber is before the pulling takes place. Whether that extra fiber represents 12 cores or 48 cores, still in a coax-size bundle, the incremental cost of adding more at the time of installation is very low. Fiber is cheap, multiplexing can be expensive.

Fibering a facility presents a variety of alternatives with respect to cost and utility. What differentiates high-quality installations from others are the number of camera drops, the flexibility in cross patching, and the amount of termination gear required on either end of the fiber. Most production crews just want easy access to the fiber pipe, and they will bring their own terminal gear with them. So, the second key in creating a fiber infrastructure is making access easy. The simplest way to do so is to terminate the fiber cables with industry-standard single-point ST connectors and to provide numerous and convenient drops.

Every sport has typical fiber access points that must be provided. For baseball, these include the announcer s booth, coaches boxes and dugouts, as well as camera positions at high-first, high-third, high-home and center field. For football, access at near left-center, near right-and far-center, along with a reverse camera is sufficient. Some facilities also situate access points near an RF catcher or outside the stadium to enable fan-on-the-street features during the game.

The third key in installing fiber is to locate clean, dedicated AC outlets near each drop, a step that ensures the quality of the power and prevents other users from tapping in and possibly blowing a breaker. Considerations in installing power are much different than in installing fiber, and most facilities have existing relationships with electricians who will provide this labor.

The fourth key is to make one person responsible for managing this fiber network, providing access to the patch closet and looking after the security, care and condition of the fiber. This person will be responsible for proper cable labeling, maintaining a current map of the installation and conducting periodic testing and maintenance of the network to ensure it performs properly for the upcoming events.

Since single mode fiber, unlike hybrid camera cable, is universal in its application, the cost of the network can be spread out over all types of operations. It can be used to support transmission of video to the big-screen display as well as providing video and audio to the screen control center; to provide audio to the PA system; to support point-of-sale locations throughout the facility; to provide HD feeds for luxury suites; and to move statistics, data, and closed-circuit or cable television from place to place. The more widely it s used, the more economical and attractive it becomes.

Fiber is widely used in university venues for sharing big screen control centers. By using low cost fiber between the stadium and arenas, there are significant cost savings in eliminating the need for dedicated screen control rooms at each venue. By using telecommunications-grade fiber in concert with products like Telecast s CopperHead, Cobra, DiamondBack and Viper systems, dozens of large schools have each saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in redundant facilities.

Virtually all sports venues have to be ready for HD broadcasts of their teams, and they must make it easy for the broadcasters to visit. Fortunately, the cost of providing a universal fiber optic plumbing infrastructure is much less than yesterday s copper cabling used to be, and it comprises a communications utility that the venue owner can also enjoy.