AT&T, Media Links Go to Extremes (and Embrace CBRS) To Help ARA Racing Go Live From Remote Locations

Lake Superior Performance Rally deploys CBRS spectrum to transport video and audio signals

You see it more and more in sports production: athletic competitions heading to far-flung and remote places. Because such sites offer no wireline or wireless network connectivity, the vast majority of those events are not covered live. Some companies, though, are pushing the edge of innovation with the goal of making extremely remote locations cost-effectively accessible to live broadcast.

The work done by AT&T, Media Links, and Teradek last year on the Lake Superior Performance Rally offers a perfect example. Dubbed the “oldest, meanest, toughest rally on the circuit,” the American Rally Association (ARA) event was held on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Last year’s Lake Superior Performance Rally deployed some new transmission techniques that can make a difference in extreme sports in extreme locations.

“Streaming rally races is extremely difficult and expensive,” notes Yujiro Otsuki, director, communications, Vermont SportsCar, which participates in the ARA. “So the accomplishment last year was just unbelievable, thanks to our partners and everybody else. We had a successful test, and we know what to do now.”

Anyone who has seen footage of an ARA off-road rally race is aware of the challenges. The courses feature muddy or snowy roads that are often no more than 8 ft. wide and pass through miles of rough terrain. One of the major challenges when trying to broadcast an off-road endurance rally is that the stages don’t typically have pre-built fiber.

“The [stages] might be 6 miles long but not much more than that,” says John Dale III, director/CMO, Media Links. “There’s a [transit] to the next rally stage, and a race typically has between 14 and 16 stages.”

In rally racing, teams compete for the best times over a number of stages, which can be upwards of an hour apart. Cars run against the clock, and the team with the lowest combined time is the winner.

“ARA came to AT&T to put together a cost-effective way to do a multi-camera live production of rally stages,” says Scott Beckett, director, product management, Global Video Solutions (GVS), AT&T. “As a result, we’re able to use AT&T’s private wireless network to power in-car cameras over AT&T Wireless Broadband. We put together a private wireless network in an extremely remote setting that leveraged Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service [CBRS] spectrum combined with our Global Video Solutions fiber. We believe we’re the first live production in the U.S. to do so, and we are thrilled with the outcome.”

Given that the production center could be up to 60 miles from a stage, CBRS — which is 150 MHz of spectrum that is in the 3.5-3.7 GHz spectrum — played a big part.

According to Teradek Product Manager Derek Nickell, CBRS is typically used in stadiums and arenas, where VIPs don’t want to be on public Wi-Fi because service is too slow. In this instance, CBRS is used to resolve another problem: lack of 5G and Wi-Fi in the middle of the woods.

“This is a different use case to deliver signals out over a Ku- or C-band satellite where there can be interconnection without the internet,” he explains. “We wanted to keep all our streams local and just get it back to the AT&T Extreme Production Motor Coach via IP and transcode it into baseband for switching.”

Dale notes that live coverage was limited to the final stage of the rally, which was held at a small ski area in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That gave the production team the opportunity to use some ski-area facilities along with an Extreme Production Motor Coach provided by AT&T to house the production area and the CBRS radios. The production switcher, audio mixing, and all other required transmission and conversion gear were in the 45-ft.-long motor coach.

An AT&A Extreme Production Motor Coach provided a workplace for the production team.

“We installed our fiber equipment on the motor coach — which was built just for events like this, through a collaboration with PSSI Global Services — along with the CBRS equipment and Media Links MD8000 fiber transport and coding technology,” says Beckett. “The motor coach also had the equipment to pick up the satellite feed and connect to the internet via our AT&T GVS Ethernet fiber infrastructure for the live stream on social media.”

Adds Otsuki, “At first, I thought it was too big for us, but it’s amazing how quickly we filled up the motor coach. It was the hub for all the connectivity technologies. In the future, if we are to stream again at the rally, we need something like that again: a centralized location onsite. Eventually, I would like to do everything remotely. But I think that takes time.”

As for getting camera signals to the motor coach, a tablet running Larix Broadcaster live-streaming software was located at the start line and used Wi-Fi to reach the CBRS transmitter. A Teradek Ranger 4K RF pack was used for commentators to move around the drivers and base parking area, and a wired camera was also deployed for the host stage. Starlink was used to get video to the motor coach and edited and then to provide live-feed connectivity from a location roughly 100 miles from the compound.

“For racing,” Dale notes, “we had a Google Pixel phone that was running Larix Broadcaster connected through CRBS and was located at the midway point. We had a drone flying where we couldn’t get CRBS. And the in-car cameras ran over AT&T Wireless Broadband.”

Using CBRS enabled the team to set a network up quickly, according to Beckett.

One hurdle that popped up was that the Ericsson system used for the rally needed a constant internet connection so that it could ping home and be identified as licensed and thus keep running. The trick was to figure out how to get the live feed out to the world with minimal delay.

“There was no fiber and limited cellular coverage,” says Beckett, “so we used a 36-MHz transponder for satellite transmission of around 100 Mbps. One of our learnings was that we were able to use less than 100 Mbps for the delivery out to social media over AT&T Global Video Solutions fiber, which was pretty phenomenal. But the CBRS radios were running in the range of 300 Mbps throughput.”

With the ARA deployment a success, the next question is how this sort of technical solution can transform not only ARA but also other events that are often in the great (and remote) outdoors.

“This is technology that can be brought to events that are having trouble getting fiber connectivity,” Dale points out. “CBRS is something that could be applied, and RF technologies can get coverage in areas where it wasn’t possible before.”

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