Bonded Cellular Is ENG's Next Frontier
When news broke on the morning of Feb. 27 that a student gunman had terrorized Chardon (Ohio) High School, Cleveland TV news crews raced to broadcast live from the scene of the shooting.
Most floored their satellite or microwave trucks down Route 6, then scrambled to run cable and establish signals — tedious processes that delayed their live shots. But the crew from Gannett's WKYC had a secret weapon that got its reporter on the air minutes after arrival.
Still en route, the crew from Cleveland’s NBC affiliate turned on a device manufactured by LiveU that allowed it to broadcast live video over the same cellular networks people use to make phone calls.
“We really won that story,” recalls veteran WKYC videographer Barry Wolf. “We were on-air at least an hour before ground crews at other stations even powered up.”
For decades now, television stations have used satellite and microwave technology to beam video from the field back to control rooms. The requisite equipment is dependable, but expensive and cumbersome. A single truck can cost several-hundred thousand dollars. At the scene of breaking news, setup takes 30 minutes or more. Some locations — the inside of a school, for instance — are unreachable without long, unwieldy cables.
Increasingly, TV stations like WKYC are transmitting video from the field wirelessly via the Internet. To achieve the bandwidth needed to stream broadcast-quality video, and to boost the odds of making a strong connection, TV crews are employing devices that “bond” signals from major cellular carriers’ 3G and 4G networks.
Six companies — LiveU, Dejero, TVU Networks, Streambox, Teradek and DSI RF Systems — have emerged as pioneers on the cellular video frontier. A seventh, Vislink, is about to enter the market. Each manufactures a portable device that uses AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile air cards to produce a signal capable of transmitting high-quality pictures.
And each will be at this month’s NAB Show in Las Vegas, pitching its product as the future of live video.
Future is the key word. Even the biggest believers in cellular video transmission — the executives whose livelihoods depend on it — concede the technology is not developed enough to supplant its predecessors.
“I’m not going to say that we’re a replacement for a satellite or microwave trucks,” says Jon Landman, VP of sales at Teradek. “That’s not fair because when there’s that one story that everyone is running to and you need a guaranteed feed to be supplied, microwave or satellite can give you that.”
“We all have the same problem,” adds Dejero founder and CEO Bogdan Frusina. “We can’t give [customers] reliability. Reliability is only given with the classical sort of transmission, which is Ethernet, satellite and microwave."
What cellular video can deliver is mobility (entire broadcast units fit in backpacks, suitcases or belt clips), speed (setup takes five minutes or less) and ease (the units are highly automated because, as Frusina says, “you don’t want to make a reporter who’s not a techie, be a techie”). The benefits often outweigh the risk of having to scrap a shoot because of poor reception.
“Having the satellite trucks is great for those high-profile events where you absolutely have to get the picture 100% of the time, and it has to look great,” says Mike Savello, LiveU’s VP of sales. “For every one of those events, there’s probably three or four other events where just having the news coverage is going to give you an edge over your competition in that marketplace.”
So, what is the chance that bonded cellular technology will fail on any given assignment? The answer depends on two chief factors: the strength of wireless signals in the area, and the availability of bandwidth.
Even as cellular companies expand their networks, dead zones still exist. If there are cellular signals to bond, bandwidth might be limited by heavy use, especially at major news events where — thanks to government-mandated net neutrality — journalists must compete with crowds of smartphone-wielding citizens.
As Savello puts it: “Our modems and our system don’t get any higher priority than some 16-year-old with a cell phone standing right next to us.”
But makers of cellular video transmitters can offer TV stations some advantages over the general public. Streambox, for instance, uses technology called the Avenir Range Extending Model to boost reception. LiveU has developed custom antennas that can pick up signals from faraway cell towers unreachable by phones. At some big-time news events, COWs (cell towers on wheels) provide extra bandwidth.
Manufacturers call these technologies proprietary, but competing cellular video devices are more similar than they are different. With the exception of DSI’s NewsShark, which is not yet 4G- or high-definition-capable, they all boast of superior picture quality and sub-second latency in good conditions (users can select from a range of latency settings). And they’re all beginning forays into the smartphone and tablet markets, producing apps that will make streaming video available to journalists and pedestrians en masse.