Are nets ready for disaster?

Broadcasters revisit disaster recovery plans

When a tsunami pounded the coast of Japan last month and large parts of the country lost electricity, the world got a snapshot of how vulnerable technology is to the very old powers of earthquakes and floods.

As a result, broadcasters’ disaster recovery plans, which are normally arcane, are in the spotlight.

For a network, disaster recovery means the ability to keep broadcasting even if its main systems fail. Recent advances in technology have given TV networks cheaper and more robust ways to ready themselves for disruptions as diverse as tsunamis, storms or bombs.

After last month’s disasters, Japan’s NHK used a series of backup systems to stay on the air. Individual stations in cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya are housed in buildings reinforced to handle a 7.9 magnitude earthquake, with their own generators. The stations are also connected through a main broadcasting line and a sub-line that take different routes, with satellite available as a last resort.

While most U.S. nets declined to discuss their disaster plans, the National Assn. of Broadcasters announced April 5 it is partnering with Agility Recovery Solutions to provide recovery services at a discounted rate for member stations, and PBS plans to build and staff a disaster recovery site in Lincoln, Neb., that will mirror its East Coast operations and be ready to take over its systems in case of unexpected interruptions at the main offices.

“(PBS’ disaster recovery capability) has not been quite as strong as we would have liked for a number of years, but the march of technology made this possible for us,” says Bea Morse, director of communications for the Next Generation Interconnection System at PBS.

Morse credits software from tech company Cinegy for PBS being able to mirror its complicated tech center in Virginia for a reasonable price in Nebraska.

Daniella Weigner, Cinegy’s managing director, says this is the first time the company’s software has been used as part of a disaster recovery plan. The bulk of Cinegy’s work is used in reality and sports programming production. Applications designed for this type of work fit well into the model set up by PBS, Weigner says.

A PBS committee chose Nebraska because it is at least 500 miles away, isn’t near any coastline, and has hardened structures with multiple underground floors available.

Agility Recovery Solutions will help NAB members evaluate their preparedness plans and coordinate drills. When an event happens, the company deals with logistical issues like finding new computer equipment or office space.

“I suspect that small- to mid-size stations would want to take advantage of these rates, because larger companies can afford to have their own off-site recovery station,” says Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of NAB.

Agility CEO Bob Boyd estimates between 50 and 100 of Agility’s 7,500 members in the U.S. and Canada are TV and radio stations, including PBS and Univision.

PBS plans to have its new system running before the end of the year and expects it to be able to carry the pubcaster through anything from storms to tech failures.

“If the whole East Coast was affected, then the folks in Nebraska would be able to pick it up, and we’d have some evergreen programming ready to go,” Morse says, adding that the system would let individual PBS stations decide how best to interrupt such programming with disaster coverage. “Our Nebraska location (can) control programming on the satellite just as easily as we can from Alexandria.”

Says Boyd: “Usually the kind of disaster that shuts down a business is something more like a broken sewer or even a rat infestation, but Anderson Cooper doesn’t come out and cover that. So businesses need to have plans in place for the most likely scenarios, and that will help you be prepared for the 500-year floods or 30-foot tsunami waves.”

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