NBC seeks network stability for Olympics

When NBC Universal begins its television coverage of the summer Olympic Games from Athens next month, the broadcasting and cable TV company will use three satellite network linkups and three land-based connections to ensure that its video, audio and data transmissions are redundant.

The six connections, which were set up by AT&T Corp., are designed to ensure 99.99 per cent reliability, or about one minute of downtime per week, according to officials from the two companies. NBC will be able to send live feeds from Greece to the U.S. over all six links at once or use them for separate transmissions.

“An Olympic event is a one-time event, and there are no do-overs,” said Bob Kiraly, director of broadcast and telecommunications operations at NBC, in an interview from Athens last week. “Everything we plan for in our networks or our Athens operations center is really based on a failure scenario. You certainly can’t tell a marathon runner that you need to run it over (because of a network issue).”

Kiraly added that the six layers of network redundancy are accompanied by built-in systems redundancy at NBC’s on-site network operations center. All servers, switches, routers and power supplies have one or two backups, he said.

“We have to be very careful how we move our pictures back and forth, because that’s our product,” said Kiraly, who arrived in Athens in May, although network preparations for the broadcasts began a year ago. Kiraly and his staff, which he wouldn’t number for security reasons, will work 12-hour days leading up to the games and expect to be on the job almost around the clock during the 17-day event.

From Aug. 13 to 29, NBC plans to carry 1,210 hours of coverage on its various TV outlets — its flagship broadcast network plus MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, USA Network and the Spanish-language Telemundo. That’s about three times the amount of coverage that NBC provided from the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. In addition, high-definition broadcasts will be offered for the first time from several Olympic venues.

AT&T is helping NBC design, deploy and manage the satellite networks and land-based circuits, which will connect to NBC’s facilities in New York via undersea fiber-optic cables owned by AT&T, said Mike Jenner, the vendor’s vice president of enterprise networking services. NBC and AT&T have an eight-year contract to broadcast the Olympic Games, dating to 2000. Neither company would disclose its value or what it will cost to set up and operate the networks for the Athens games.

Jenner said part of the challenge of building the network to Athens was arranging in a short time to use terrestrial networks owned by other carriers, such as British Telecommunications PLC and Athens-based OTEGlobe. AT&T also had to set up cable and satellite stations in both Athens and New York to transmit and receive broadcast feeds.

Kiraly said there have been no significant problems in building the Athens network operations center, despite reports of delays in the construction of Olympic venues and facilities. “The people of Athens had a big challenge and are rising to it,” he said. “There have been many construction issues, but I have yet to see anything delivered to us late.”

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