Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 1 — IP Boosts Economics, Efficiency, Accessibility

Matching the technology and techniques to the application is key

The shift to IP-based intercom-signal transport and management has become more pronounced over the past year. The move reflects advances in network technologies in terms of bandwidth, reliability, and their increased application to broadcast systems and uses. However, like just about everything else, it’s also a function of money: using IT services saves costs and allows intercoms to be managed and distributed more widely and efficiently.

The move to IP-based intercom systems is a collateral effect of the increased use of at-home/REMI–type operations for broadcast-sports productions, itself an economy move, says Martin Dyster, VP, business development, Telos Alliance TV Solutions Group.

Telos describes its Infinity AoIP intercom system as a “comprehensive next-generation communications solution.”

“That has been the big trend lately: getting the workflow between the remote site and headquarters perfected,” he explains. “The [IT networking] technology is mostly there, but the challenge has been in dealing with the latency that longer REMI productions result in, such as spill-back getting to the talent’s headphones. That’s less a matter of technology than it is of technique. It wasn’t a major problem for short hauls, but, as the distances get longer, the problem becomes harder.”

Dyster says such issues are informing and directing product development. He cites Telos’s relatively new Infinity AoIP intercom system, a “comprehensive next-generation communications solution,” which he says offers key elements for reliability and ease of use in the IP environment: a matrix-free distributed network architecture, which enables greater user access; the application of such standards as AES67 and ST 2110; and the ability to work natively with Telos’s own wired systems using the Livewire+ AES67, such as Telos VX and the new Axia Quasar console.

“Since it can also work with any existing third-party legacy wired systems, Infinity can act as a hybrid of traditional and IP formats, which makes it very efficient and cost-effective,” he says. “And pretty cool.”

Targeted to Budget-Wary Markets
Simplified operation is a hallmark of Pliant Technologies’ new MicroCom, a 900-MHz, full-duplex wireless intercom system that also puts an emphasis on cost. Its basic configuration, which can accommodate up to five stations, costs $389. According to Pliant VP, Global Sales, Gary Rosen, it’s aimed at the burgeoning secondary professional-sports markets and at college and high school users.

“Our CrewCom system covers the high end of the player-coach communications market,” he says, “but there is a need for that at other levels of sports, ones that don’t have the budgets for systems like CrewCom.”

Rosen says Pliant was able to leverage its existing technology to build a more affordable platform, one that is also designed to work “right out of the box,” without the need for the kind of technical expertise found at the network level of operations.

“This is where it’s going,” he explains. “High schools see how the pros are doing it and want to emulate that but don’t have the budget. Now they can.”

Joe Commare, marketing and sales manager, North America, Riedel, says that reflects trends taking place even at the high end of the industry, which are enabled largely by the shift to IP transport.

“Comms are like most other broadcast technologies: how do we do more without creating a larger footprint and higher costs?” he says. “As the fleets of trucks that cover sports progress towards all-IP infrastructures, the comms systems will need to be all-IP as well. Our 2110 AES67-native Artist 1024 product was built from the ground up with all of this in mind.”

However, the shift to simplified, networked systems may be faster than expected, with some systems aimed at entry-level applications allowing the use of personal mobile devices as nodes on the system.

Commare calls that both a benefit and a challenge: “The promise of IP is saving through the use of COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] hardware and complete interoperability of everything on the network. [But,] while utilizing COTS hardware is a positive, the multicast traffic being put on these networks and the PTP clocking mechanisms required will call for PTP-aware switches.”

Furthermore, he says, this strategy can compromise security, a critical element in intercom operations.

“A simple USB thumb drive, used maliciously, could harm a network,” he warns. “Riedel is an active participant in all of the major standards bodies who are working on these very issues. Best practices for security have already been defined within BCP-003-1 and -2 and will only be improved over the coming months and years. And, yes, there will be a learning curve that goes along with these new technologies and workflows.”

Simplified intercom systems will be a boon to certain segments of sports operations, but the high-end platforms will remain necessary at the broadcast-network level for security, flexibility and other reasons.

“Sports broadcasters are interested in the enormous flexibility and versatility that IP-based intercom systems can provide,” Commare says. “Right now, these systems are flexible but [are] also a lot harder to set up for people without a solid IT background. The challenge is to harness the versatility of IP networks while greatly improving usability. Adherence to SMPTE 2110 standards and the automated-discovery features of NMOS will go a long way in making that happen.”

Click here for Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 2 — What’s on the Market

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