Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 1 — Dynamic Technology Adjusts to Whatever Comes Next
Multiple approaches — wireless, IP, the cloud — are available but not without obstacles
Over the past decade, intercom technology has evolved into a multilane highway. A couple of the channels were turned into express lanes by the COVID pandemic, with intercom users, including sports broadcasters, forced to seek alternatives. Some lanes have been slowed by other extenuating circumstances. And there are plenty of potholes to navigate.
“Sports broadcasters are looking for everything,” says Michael Brown, regional sales manager, Mid-Atlantic and Upper Central States, RTS, “because they never know what they’re walking into or what they’ll need for a show or what might change when they’re there.”
The first new lane on that highway was the move to wireless connectivity, but that was hemmed in by the FCC’s constriction of the 700 MHz and then the 600 MHz band — think of the highway sign that warns “Road Narrows Ahead, No Shoulder.” Then came lanes dedicated to audio over IP (AoIP) and, subsequently, to cloud-based virtualization.
Brown notes additional FCC restrictions atop the loss of spectrum, including limits on output power and antenna directionality, further complicating wireless intercom operations. Even so, it remains the primary mode for large-scale deployments. AoIP and virtual comms show promise as alternatives but have their own intrinsic limitations.
“Cloud-based comms sound good,” he says, “but the first things the people on the trucks ask is, Whose cloud, whose server? And AoIP is limited to 100 meters — 328 ft. — before [the signal] needs to be boosted, which is not something every situation allows. That’s why sports broadcasters want all of these options available to them.”
In response, Brown notes, RTS has developed hybrid-type workarounds, such as its RTS Voice Over Network (RVON) TCP/IP-based VoIP product. The Odin frame is a multiformat analog-to-Dante audio frame, allowing existing analog users a migration path to interface with existing data networks, including Dante, thus extending the system’s scale. Its ROAMEO system takes wireless to the 1.9 MHz DECT frequency range, addressing earlier spectrum loss.
Away From Hardware, Toward the Cloud
Over the past two decades, the Telos Alliance has been shifting away from hardware-based matrixing and toward AoIP-based operation and then on to the cloud, according to Telos VP, Business Development, Martin Dyster. Its Telos Infinity Virtual Intercom Platform (VIP) fully featured cloud-based intercom system launched in 2021. Much of its evolution was sparked by the COVID pandemic, he notes, which accelerated what had been a trend toward remote broadcast production by budget-sensitive television networks.
But, he adds, the pandemic had another effect: “It created a component shortage, and we, like many other companies, couldn’t build anything,” pushing product development further in a virtual direction. “As a result, if you have a cellphone, tablet, or computer, now you also have an intercom panel.”
Of course, moving into a virtualized environment has its challenges. For instance, browser-based interfaces can be vulnerable to online interruptions, as anyone working on Zoom or Teams has learned. The potential applies to any foray into internet-based connectivity. Dyster acknowledges that concern, one shared by just about every other industry sector that extends its reach through employees’ devices. Announced in February, Telos’s Infinity VIP App extends operation of the Infinity system to iOS and Android mobile devices, mirroring Infinity’s current HTML5 browser-based VIP panel offering.
On the one hand, browser-based operation continues the company’s mission of putting a panel virtually (and literally) anywhere. But it also comes with such issues as maintaining compatibility with Apple’s and Google’s steady stream of OS updates for those devices, updates that can be quite buggy in their initial iterations.
On the other hand, the phone version, described by Telos as a “companion application,” isn’t intended to replace Infinity’s other versions but rather to extend its reach at a time when broadcast sports productions are experiencing and experimenting with novel — and often disruptive — workflows.
Another response to virtualization was Telos’s announcement, in October, of a partnership agreement with Vizrt. The resulting Viz Now SaaS-type portal, hosted by Vizrt, is intended to simplify and automate more of the intercom operation in the cloud environment.
“Right now,” Dyster says, “[intercoms in the IP environment] are in the midst of constant innovation and testing to meet customer needs and expectations.”
Customers Are Asking
The pandemic focused users on alternative remote-production techniques. As COVID receded, the need for more ways to manage comms on a show persists, but it’s not one-size-fits-all.
“Our customers are asking for more ways to connect their teams, which are spread across multiple venues and locations,” says Kris Koch, business development director, broadcast, networks and media production, Clear-Com, “and REMI workflows have continued to grow and mature after the pandemic.”
He points out that the digital diaspora of operators during COVID put a new premium on flexible comms solutions: “IP connectivity,” he notes, “adds tremendous flexibility in how teams communicate and adds valuable third-party integration as well. Any and all users may or may not be in the same physical location. One crew member may be a great fit for our mobile client, Agent-IC, while another may be a better fit for Station-IC, our virtual-desktop client.”
Gary Rosen, VP, global sales, Pliant Technologies, manufacturer of the CrewCom systems, has been wary of moving comms to consumer-grade mobile devices. He cites such issues as the range of Bluetooth, crowd noise overcoming limited device power, lack of full-duplex functionality, and sudden spikes in cellular broadband at critical moments, causing loss of signal.
“We keep an eye on it,” he says, “but it’s really purpose-built and not for professional intercom use.” He’s watching developing solutions, he adds, such as wireless multichannel audio systems (WMASs), which are promoted by Sennheiser, Shure, and other wireless-systems suppliers to help meet increased demand for wireless mics, especially during large events.
Rosen is also cautiously eyeing the DECT-band frequency, in the 1880-1900 Hz range, which defines 10 frequency channels from 1881.792 MHz to 1897.344 MHz. It’s part of spectrum that has become more popular for wireless microphones, phone systems, and intercoms following the loss of most of the 600 MHz and 700 MHz bands in the past decade. That has also led to its becoming more crowded.
“We’re seeing significant saturation in that range,” he says, noting that all of his company’s wireless products operate in the industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) frequency bands between 902-928 MHz and 2400-2480 MHz. “Most of the time, [that range] is fine, but everyone is starting to see limits in any frequency band. Density has gone way up because everyone wants wireless comms for their events. It’s a big deal for everyone.
“Workflow has to address new realities,” he continues, noting that CrewCom’s CB2 high-density system, introduced last year, can accommodate up to 32 radio packs, although only four can be used simultaneously, prompting an adjustment in user behavior. “We all have only so much spectrum, so we need to work together to ensure that everyone that needs it can have coverage.”
More Sports Audio in General
The trend toward more on-field and on-player audio is reaching comms as well. For instance, the PGA is using Riedel’s Bolero wireless intercom beltpacks to mike some players, using Bolero’s Bluetooth connectivity for interviews by the announcers between shots or between holes. MLB is using the same system for umpire PA announce as well as for facilitating baseball’s new pitch clock.
“More and more of our customers are looking to use an intercom system for much more than just intercom,” says Philip Stein, VP, key accounts, East, Riedel. “[It’s] becoming an integral part of the game and production itself. They want to bring the viewers in closer to the action and make the players more accessible. And, because these devices are being used beyond just intercom and are now going live on-air, the audio quality and reliability of the system are becoming even more paramount.”
The shift to IP-based connectivity lends itself to that, he says, in several ways.
“IP makes it easier to be agile in the way you deploy a system, as well as allowing easier future expansion of the systems and greater distribution,” he explains. “Also, in the world of remote productions and cloud-based technology, IP makes it easier to include remote users and participants. IP allows further redundancy on the backend with redundancy schemes such as SMPTE ST 2022-7. Plus, IP can help with cutting down on the cabling infrastructure required.”
IP also helps simplify operation and can have sustainability benefits as well. For instance, he adds, putting multiple functions on one device can be an advantage, such as the user’s having to learn only one interface.
“It saves on buying multiple pieces of dedicated equipment, which in turn saves rack space, power consumption, and fuel as there is less weight,” he says, citing the company’s 1200 Series SmartPanel as an example. “Since the device is software-definable, it can be repurposed and reused, reducing waste.”
The dark horse emerging from the comms pack during the pandemic was Unity Intercom, a full-duplex intercom system that connects over Wi-Fi or cellular and has offered a cloud-based solution nearly from its beginning a decade ago. The Norman, OK-based company began with an app for listening to multiple televised games in sports bars and gained traction first in the church-AV market vertical. It quickly found favor with ESPN — an early adopter — and other major sports broadcasters during the pandemic and has been deployed at such events as the World Cup, Super Bowl, and both Summer and Winter Olympics.
In the second quarter, the company plans to release Unity Pro, which will allow users to increase the maximum number of channels from six to 128 PLs in groups, each configurable with local volume and other parameter controls. It’ll perform similarly to the conventional hardware-based solutions that Unity’s technology model — largely predicated on deployment of users’ own mobile devices as endpoints — seemingly disrupted. However, its reliance on iOS and Android devices is both its charm and its Achilles heel, according to Unity CEO Chuck Downs, its lead developer.
“That’s the trade-off,” he says, acknowledging that frequent Apple and Android OS updates can be tricky to navigate, for users and Unity’s software. “But that’s also how you get 500-plus users on a system for $7,000. What Unity Pro brings to that is more frame-level power but still keeping the easy [browser-like] user interface, as well as AES 256 encryption and remote system monitoring.”
Although the industry has gone through its wired/wireless/digital/IP/cloud progression over the past 20 years, there are still horizons that are hard to see over.
As Rosen puts it, “I think we’re all in a period of trying to figure out the next step, and how to best use what we have.”
Click here for Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 2 — Growth in REMI Production Spurs Product Growth.