ESPN Technology

Where sports meets rocket science: How ESPN copes with “solar outages”

When the sun threatens to interrupt satellite transmissions, ESPN's Remote Traffic Operations team works to keep sports programming on the air. (Joe Faroni/ESPN Images)
When the sun threatens to interrupt satellite transmissions, ESPN’s Remote Traffic Operations team works to keep sports programming on the air. (Joe Faroni/ESPN Images)
How ESPN delivers sports programming during solar outages

Remote Traffic Operations traffic manager Brian Burney says ESPN employs three primary techniques:
· Book our feed on a satellite that isn’t affected by an outage during the time of day that we are feeding a live show
· We utilize an ESPN or Disney-owned facility in a different time zone or region to downlink our feed and send it to Bristol via fiber optics. For example, we regularly ask for assistance of our facility in Argentina, they take our feed and send it to us via the ESPNet fiber that connects Bristol and Argentina.
· Our third option is to deploy a third party turnaround – essentially when a teleport in a different time zone will downlink our feed and turn it right back around onto either a different satellite or fiber for delivery to Bristol.

The cable industry uses satellites to transmit data, video and audio to one or multiple other points across the globe. Twice during the year, the industry is faced with solar outages, which essentially is when satellites and the sun align (once during the spring and once during the fall). As the points align, the energy from the sun has the potential to overpower the radio frequency energy transmitted by satellites, thus creating an “outage” at the satellite receiver locations.

Front Row caught up with Brian Burney, traffic manager for ESPN’s Remote Traffic Operations. The team plans weeks in advance to ensure viewers around the world aren’t affected by the bi-annual outages.

How does ESPN’s remote operations team plan in advance to avoid disruption?
The good news is that we are able to narrow down the period of outages to about one week each season and roughly 15 minutes per day during that week. Also, because all satellites are spread out and in line with the equator, each satellite in each U.S. time zone will be affected at a different time of the day.

Planning begins 4-to-6 weeks prior to each outage period. Remote Traffic Operations utilizes a software program that will predict when each satellite will incur a sun outage. The report allows our team to analyze each live event backhaul and determine if we need to make alternate arrangements so that we can bring the feed into Bristol [Conn., ESPN’s headquarters] uninterrupted. The alternate feed is typically booked as a 45-minute window.

Once the technique is determined, what’s next?
Once Remote Traffic Operations determines how the feed will be protected and coordinates the appropriate turnaround, the technical operators will switch away – usually during a commercial break – from the feed source that contains the sun outage and replace it with the feed that contains the same event but in a fashion that is not being affected by an outage. Once the outage is complete, the operators will switch back to the original satellite source to the conclusion of the event. It is a collective effort involving many different areas within our company to protect our product and the fan experience.

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