MSI Live: Uplinking from the Back of Beyond

Pete CodellaNews

So you think your job is tough? All you have to do is get video conferencing up and running in a climate-controlled office with dedicated broadband. What if you had to deliver a live video feed from the side of a remote mountain in blizzard conditions? Welcome to MSI Live and Johnny Cunningham’s world.

MSI Live is a Salt Lake City-based company that delivers multi-camera event broadcasts to the computers, smartphones and screens of audiences around the world. In addition to working with its sister company, Mountain Sports International, on world-class freeskiing and surfing events, MSI Live has been contracted by many production companies and events to deliver live satellite feeds from locations around the globe.

Cunningham is MSI Live’s general manager, and he and his team are out on the edge – or the mountain ledge – when it comes to working conditions. “The problem we face most days is how to get a live feed out in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “You can’t drive to Radio Shack when something goes wrong or a part fails. Sometimes we have to dismantle a faulty piece of equipment, identify the failed part, and replace it with something scavenged from another piece of equipment…real McGiver stuff when the wind is blowing sideways at 80mph.”

When they first tackled the challenge in 2008, they were working on a ski event at Copper Mountain in Colorado, where the area was able to deliver Ethernet fiber along a lift line. But the next event was in the backcountry near Snowbird. “There was no infrastructure,” Cunningham says.

Working with South Jordan-based LBI Satellite, MSI Live devised a compact and portable satellite dish solution that delivered 3MB/second, “which was pretty good bandwidth at the time,” he says.

MSI invested in satellite equipment, and soon began covering surf and skateboarding contest and rock concerts. “We have a gear set that folds down into 15 checkable bags and containers, so we can fly anywhere in the world and provide service. We’ve had shoots supporting up to 21 cameras.”

Of course, not all projects involve a high potential for frostbite. Cunningham recalls a warmer but equally challenging situation. “We were doing a surf contest on a very small island near Fiji. It took five minutes to walk around the island, and there’s nothing on it. That close to the equator, our satellite dish was pointed straight up. Then a rainstorm blew through and I had to stand by the dish and bail water out with my hat. We didn’t drop a frame.”

As internet demand grew through the decade, MSI has expanded beyond the dish solution. “We now have portable broadcast technology, similar to a TV truck without the truck. We can uplink 15 to 20MB/second, and soon will be able to downlink to our office here at 100MB/second. That means we’ll be able to support four live events in HD at the same time.”

Just this month, MSI provided live feed from an automotive trade show in New York City, where Hyundi debuted their new Sonata. “The trade show facility promised, but couldn’t deliver 5MB/second. We were able to arrange for a broadcast truck at the facility and support Hyundi with an HD product from our office here in Salt Lake City.”

Where’s the technology going? “More and more industries need high-speed internet and video access in remote areas. Just look at how the Forest Service manages firefighting or the oil industry manages remote drilling rigs. These are becoming technology-intensive operations no matter where they are based,” he says.

Cunningham’s path to MSI Live began with three years of computer science classes at Utah Valley State College. He then switched to business management. In 2007 he joined MSI in an accounting role, but management quickly discovered his other talents and gave him opportunities to expand his role. “I’ve always loved how computers work,” he says.

Mountain Sports International and MSI Live were founded in Colorado, but moved to Salt Lake City in 2002 to take advantage of accessibility. “Winter sports contests are a core business for us, so the combination of access to 11 resorts within an hour of an international airport is hard to beat,” Cunningham says.

While Cunningham enjoys the stints on South Pacific beaches, “I love to come home. There’s nothing like the Wasatch Mountains.”

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