NAB in Review: Broadcasters Find New Ways to Ride Cellular Networks

Cellular-based transmission systems continued to show advances at NAB 2013, with highlights including improved transmission performance as well as sleeker integration with professional camcorders. So a technology that, only a couple of years ago, could not meet the needs of sports broadcasters is quickly becoming more and more reliable.

“With each product generation, several elements improve,” says Ken Zamkow, director of sales and marketing, LiveU. “More 4G LTE networks are now available along with broader cellular coverage, which dramatically improves the base conditions. Additionally, our algorithm keeps getting more intelligent and knows how to better anticipate the networks’ behavior and, in many cases, adjust the feed before a change in bandwidth even occurs.”

The improvements are a result of better ways to bond cellular signals together so that more bandwidth is available for video transmission. And a number of other enhancements to the technology offerings make for a more reliable and robust cellular transmission environment.

Cameras With Uplink
Of all the developments this year, the most exciting may be the integration of cellular-based transmission systems into camera bodies, obviating the need for the camera to pass signals through a large backpack containing the cellular-transmission gear. Instead, a simple dongle can now do the trick.

TVU Networks products like the TVUPack Mini make it easier than ever to transmit video over cellular signals.

TVU Networks products like the TVUPack Mini make it easier than ever to transmit video over cellular signals.

“The trend in the broadcast industry is for cellular uplink devices to be more integrated with the camera,” says Eric Chang, VP of marketing, TVU Networks. “This has been a big driver in the development of our TVUPack Mini solutions, and we have been working for some time now with all of the major camcorder manufacturers to ensure integration and interoperability.”

TVU Networks and LiveU are getting closer to camera manufacturers. Both companies now have tight integration with Sony XDCAM camcorders, and TVU Networks also now has an integration deal with Panasonic.

“In the future,” says Chang, “we anticipate uplink devices to eventually wind up being built directly into the camcorder.”

From the Camera Perspective
Panasonic and Sony were not the only camera suppliers getting more closely aligned with cellular transmission. JVC’s HM650 is now equipped with a dongle port for an LTE modem as well as with dual codecs, producing HD files for one memory card while simultaneously creating smaller, Web-friendly files on a second card. With built-in FTP and WiFi connectivity, the GY-HM650 delivers the footage back to a station without a microwave or satellite connection.

According to JVC Marketing Manager Dave Walton, the camera is designed to take advantage of the higher bandwidth afforded by the rapid buildout of 4G/LTE around the U.S. and of broadband and WiFi throughout the world.

“News organizations see it as an opportunity to reduce the number of microwave and satellite trucks and put more of the ENG investment into the hands of reporters and shooters in the field, delivering remotes from nearly any story at any time of day,” he says. “With IP, broadcasters will utilize a combination of real-time [streaming] transmission and in-camera file transfers to deliver stories to the station.”

Meanwhile, Panasonic’s AJ-PX5000 AVC-Ultra camcorder, available this fall priced at $28,000, will support operational integration with live-video uplink transmitter devices from partners LiveU, AVIWEST, Streambox, and TVU Networks.

And the Sony PDW-700 camcorder has a bracket for integrating the camera with LiveU’s handheld LU40 video uplink. With up to six network connections and weighing less than 1.5 lb. (700 g), the bonded LU40 offers 4G LTE/3G, WiMAX, WiFi, and LAN video transmission in a substantially smaller form factor. It also has an integrated touchscreen.

Non-Integrated Options
And those looking for more-traditional and non-integrated cellular transmission also find new options. LiveU, for example, rolled out the LU40-2 at NAB 2013, a system that combines two LiveU field units to provide additional resiliency.

“Our goal is to allow any LiveU device or application to leverage any other LiveU product,” says Zamkow. “In addition to the LU40-2, the best example of this implementation is our enhanced external wireless antenna, called the Xtender. By placing the Xtender on a vehicle outside a busy sports venue, any LiveU backpack, belt-clip unit, or our LU-Lite laptop software will be able to wirelessly tap into that additional bandwidth.”

Zamkow notes that LiveU’s work on antenna design has increased its products’ range, enabling them reach cellular towers that are farther from the transmission location and may have more available capacity. In addition, the company has worked hard to create the cleanest signal possible even as it operates in very difficult environments.

LiveU cellular systems were used during Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

LiveU cellular systems were used during Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

“As a result,” he adds, “we’ve seen examples, such as on the sideline during Monday Night Football or in the basement level of Radio City Music Hall during the (recent NFL) Draft, where consumer cellphones could barely send a text message or e-mail yet we were transmitting at a good rate. Changing the end-to-end delay can also improve results in such congested venues, without requiring Ethernet. In Europe, we started seeing some networks transmitting certain professional games by bonding two DSL connections along with cellular on our units, but we haven’t seen demand for this use in the U.S.”

At NAB 2013, TVU Networks introduced TVU Grid, which comprises the TVU Grid Transceiver, TVU Grid Switch Panel, TVU Grid Server, and TVU Grid Management Server. With TVU Grid transceiver, broadcasters can distribute live video captured by any SDI input source with minimal latency. TVU Grid utilizes the new TVU transceiver, a purpose-built server capable of receiving and transmitting Grid streams as well as receiving and decoding TVUPack transmissions.

“The TVU Transceiver sits in the broadcast facility and serves three purposes,” says Chang. “First, it acts as the receiver for live TVUPack video transmissions from the field. Second, it can take any SDI input, whether from a TVUPack source or elsewhere, and upload it to the central TVU Grid Management Console, enabling any station connected to the TVU Grid to pull down the content. Third, the TVU Transceiver enables the station to pull down content that has been distributed to the TVU Grid.

“This is all done in real time and with frame-accurate switching,” he continues, “enabling stations to switch, route, and distribute video to any number of locations over their existing IP networks seamlessly. The Transceiver does have internal storage and can record incoming signals coming from either a TVUPack or the TVU Grid.”

Also new from TVU is MARC-1, an exterior-use and water-resistant enclosure that gives field crews the ability to move the system’s detachable 3G/4G cellular-modem module to ideal locations for optimal reception, such as the roof of an ENG vehicle or a tripod.

Looking Ahead
So what’s next for cellular-based transmission systems? User interfaces will continue to become simpler, the antennas will continue to become more spectrum-efficient, and the ability to offer a better picture in fewer bits will also improve. But all of those things could also mean that more and more broadcasters will embrace the technology at a venue and, in turn, put more strain on existing cellular resources.

“Until such time as broadband providers can provide service priority to specified accounts, broadcasters will have to compete for bandwidth,” says Walton. “As with any technology, the broadcaster must weigh the cost of the truck and staff versus the end result of [going to a cellular model, which would mean] more cameras and reporters on the street.”