Have you ever wondered how you can watch live events from the other side of the world on your screen? It’s all thanks to the intricate digital infrastructure that powers global broadcasts. In this article, we delve into the behind-the-scenes technology that brings events like the coronation of King Charles III to audiences around the globe.
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which took place on 2 June 1953, was historic, not just because of the significance of a new monarch, but because it was the first such event to be aired live on TV. While the technology was rudimentary – comprising makeshift transmitters emitting patchy and fading signals – it is considered to be the nation’s first shared TV experience, with 27 million out of a possible 36 million people gathering round their sets to watch the service on the day.
On 6 May 2023, the eyes of the world will once again be on Westminster Abbey as people tune in to King Charles III’s coronation. While the pomp and ceremony of the service will be broadly similar to that seen almost 70 years ago, the way it will be broadcast couldn’t be more different. This time around, pictures will be distributed to audiences across the globe, who will be watching on digital platforms as well as TV sets. While it is hard to predict how many people will tune in, the number is likely to be magnitudes higher than in 1953.
Royal events are not the only occasions that create truly shared viewing experiences. The delayed 2020 Olympics was watched by more than 3 billion people worldwide, while almost 1.5 billion people tuned in to watch Argentina edge out France in the final of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. The 2018 FIFA World Cup drew similarly staggering audiences, with FIFA estimating that more than 3.5 billion people – over 50 percent of the world’s population aged four and above at the time – tuned in to watch the tournament. The 2018 viewing figures were up 10 percent on the previous World Cup in Brazil, largely driven by fans watching content on digital platforms, including on second screens.
When viewers switch on their TV sets or click play on a video clip on their phone, few will stop to consider how that content got there. Many surmise that live feeds reach our homes, pubs, community centres and devices wirelessly. While that may be true for part of the content’s journey, the reality is more complex. Broadcasts on this scale require an intricate ecosystem of interconnected digital infrastructure assets.
Indeed, it is subsea fibre cables do the bulk of the distribution, bridging continents to distribute content across vast distances. According to TeleGeography, there are 552 of these fibre optic links currently in operation or under construction, providing 1.4 million kilometres of network and carrying 98 percent of the world’s internet traffic. These links play a fundamental role in moving live content around the globe. While satellite distribution is marginally faster, only subsea cables have the capacity to handle vast and growing volumes of data traffic, while also offering cost advantages.
When the video reaches its target domestic market it is moved onto a terrestrial fibre backbone network. For viewers watching via their home TV the next hop of the journey is wireless, via Air-to-Ground spectrum, from a transmission mast that is connected to the backbone network, straight to the home. For those watching online, it will be delivered ‘Over-the-Top’ (OTT), by broadband network, while for mobile users it will be via 4G/5G. The infrastructure will vary for people watching as part of their cable or satellite TV package.
At various stages of the journey, the content will pass through data centres, where it is cached, processed and stored. These will be located in proximity to the live event, at the subsea cable landing sites and other network peering points, as well as in the destination market.
Specialist content delivery data centres located at the edge – close to the target audience – make it possible to serve up content at scale. The global feed from the host broadcaster will be spliced with locally tailored content (local studio footage, commentary, ads, etc.) and, when it comes to sporting events, is often augmented with rich, real-time data. For football in particular, this could be analysis on how far each player has run during the game or how many tackles or passes they’ve successfully completed. These various components will be served up from different local data centre facilities.
When you consider the complexity and the length of this journey, it is truly astonishing to think about the speed in which it is completed. The delay between continents could be as little as 20 or 30 milliseconds; half the blink of an eye. The reliability of the infrastructure is equally impressive. The viewer experience is consistently high; so high that it is taken for granted.
Yet, as our desire for content continues to grow, so too does the need for high capacity, resilient infrastructure – subsea and terrestrial networks as well as data centres – that can deliver more content to more people in more places.
Much needed investment is underway. It is estimated that $10 billion will be spent on new subsea connectivity between 2022 and 2024, with a focus on traditionally underserved yet often highly populated continents and regions. Projects of note include Aqua Comms’ EMIC-1, which will link Europe, the Middle East and India.
Data centre investment is equally buoyant but building facilities in metropolitan areas, close to eyeballs, is a growing challenge. Here, data centre demand for power is putting grids under strain, causing some governments to legislate about their construction. There are also financial and environmental costs to bear in mind. A solution here is to earmark metro data centre capacity for latency sensitive applications only (e.g., live video) while moving all other apps (e.g., telematics data on player performance) to alternative locations – for example, The Nordics, where there is an abundance of affordable renewable energy.
At D9, it is our mission is to provide new high-capacity digital infrastructure assets that are both reliable and sustainable. Not only will this ensure people in all corners of the globe will be able to tune it to major TV events for many years to come, it will be crucial to fostering economic development.