IP-based vehicles with on-air appeal are big sellers to stations. Many use a combination of point-of-view cameras and bonded cellular transmission to deliver “live and drive” pictures as they move down the road, both of the surrounding area and the on-air talent in the cabin. Many also feature heavy station branding and integrated pop-up flat panel displays, allowing them to serve as a studio in the field for live shots. Above, NBC Boston’s Weather Warrior from Accelerated Media Technologies.
With bonded-cellular and Ka-band satellite now accepted as everyday tools for broadcast news, the smaller, lighter news vehicles enabled by these IP transmission technologies continue to grow in popularity for weather and trafffic coverage.
Mobile truck vendors say that sales of IP-based SUVs, Jeeps and pickups to TV stations have been particularly strong in 2017.
Most of these “stormchaser” vehicles use a combination of point-of-view cameras and bonded cellular transmission to deliver “live and drive” pictures as they move down the road, both of the surrounding area and the on-air talent in the cabin. Many also feature heavy station branding and integrated pop-up flat panel displays, allowing them to serve as a studio in the field for live shots.
“The trucks are becoming a bit of a persona themselves,” says Tom Jennings, president of Auburn, Mass.-based truck integrator Accelerated Media Technologies (AMT). “People want to see the trucks on-air as well as the talent.”
Traditional ENG and ENG/SNG “dual” vans aren’t going away, says Jennings, who notes that microwave is still the cheapest and most reliable transmission technology for local feeds and that stations in very hot or very cold markets often prefer full-size vans for their rooftop air conditioning units and ample indoor workspace.
He also points out that every vehicle AMT builds today includes bonded cellular encoders from LiveU, TVU or Dejero that can give them “live-and-drive” capability.
But it is clear that non-traditional news vehicles represent a growing chunk of the company’s business. Of the 300-plus trucks AMT has built in the last year, almost 200 have been SUV or small-chassis based.
“We’ve had a huge proliferation of SUVs,” says Jennings. “I’ve never seen a year like this.”
Price is certainly a big driver, as the weather-chasers AMT builds generally range from $80,000 to $150,000, while a full-size van with bonded cellular and IP satellite is closer to $200,000. Traditional dual-path ENG/SNG trucks used to cost $300,000 or more.
Another factor is that IP-only trucks generally require little technical experience to operate, in contrast to a microwave van that needs a licensed operator to safely deploy its tall mast and set up a functional transmission link.
Jennings says that today there aren’t many engineers running news vehicles in the field. In contrast, many of the next-generation trucks are staffed by video journalists, often fresh out of college, who are valued more for their reporting, shooting and editing ability.
“The whole mission is to make the truck simpler so operators don’t have to be experienced,” Jennings says.
“It’s all about the competitive advantage of having a dynamic newscast where you appear to be everywhere at once. You don’t do that spending $300,000 per truck, and paying a truck operator $125,000 a year. That’s just not going to happen in a lot of markets.”
While many of AMT’s SUV builds over the past year were built on large platforms like the Chevy Suburban or Tahoe, mid-size and small crossover SUVs are also finding traction due to the lighter weight, smaller antennas and lower power requirements of IP transmission.
Bonded cell requires only a low-profile antenna, and Ka-band satellite dishes can run as small as 0.75 meters in diameter. For example, this summer Accelerated Media delivered a Ford Explorer equipped with LiveU bonded cellular and Viasat Ka-band to Scripps-owned KGUN Tuscon, Ariz., and a Ford Escape equipped with AMT’s wireless POV Camera system and a TVU Networks bonded cellular system to Nexstar’s WHTM Harrisburg, Pa.
“I never thought I would see the day when I’d be turning Suburu Foresters, Honda CRVs and Kia Sorrentos into news vans,” says Jennings. “But it lets the stations do more.”
AMT competitor Frontline Communications of Clearwater, Fla., still counts traditional ENG vans as its “No. 1 leading product,” says Director of Sales Steve Williamson, who adds that the “best bang for the buck” is a van such as a Nissan NV with microwave, bonded cell and IP satellite [either Ka- or Ku-band] capability, which runs about $185,000 and provides valuable workspace in the field.
“You still need a comfortable place to edit and you still need a power source,” Williamson says.
But Frontline has also seen increased interest in IP-based “weather-chaser” SUVs and Jeeps this year.
They include a Chevy Suburban “Mobile Weather Lab” it built for CBS’s KYW Philadelphia, which uses Dejero bonded cellular and a traditional DVB-based Ku-band system, and a new Jeep it has begun constructing for WBOC Salisbury, Md., which will use TVU Networks bonded cellular and Network Innovations’ Maverick IP-over-Ku system.
Stations generally try to use bonded cellular first with the satellite link serving as a backup when they run into contention issues. News crews have to park and deploy their dish first, but today’s Ka- and IP-over-Ku systems are simple to use, says Williamson, providing “one-touch acquisition” of a signal.
“IP satellite enhances bonded cell, as when the bandwidth drops for bonded cell, the encoder automatically turns over to satellite,” he says. “So, you can send more of a signal, and it’s aggregated at the backend.”
The Network Innovations Maverick system uses a bonded cellular encoder to send video as IP data over a Ku-band link via a one-meter satellite dish.
Dejero just introduced a similar IP-over-Ku system called CellSat that it is marketing as a managed service that will blend bonded cellular and Ku-band capacity from Intelsat.
Such IP-over-Ku systems can create significant hardware savings for stations compared to traditional DVB links, though Ku satellite time is more expensive than Ka-band.
“It’s just a smaller list of needed hardware,” Williamson says. “They don’t need an IRD receiver, and the encoder is already covered by the bonded cellular unit.”
To date, Frontline already has many trucks in the field equipped with ViaSat’s Exede Ka-band system.
One of those customers is Cox’s WJAX Jacksonville, Fla., which last year took delivery of a Jeep Wrangler storm chaser, “First Alert,” described by WJAX News Director Bob Longo as “our gravy ticket.”
The four-door Jeep is equipped with LiveU bonded cellular; Exede Ka-band; five POV cameras including a rotating rooftop model with infrared, digital zoom and a windshield washer; a mobile weather station for real-time wind, precipitation and temperature measurements; and a 42-inch monitor that swings out on a pedestal for live shots.
The Jeep is also raised slightly and outfitted with a “snorkel” exhaust system that lets it navigate moderate flood waters (1.5 to 2 feet).
“First Alert really gets in and around a lot of different things,” says Longo. “For Matthew and Irma this year, our guys were in it, and it was in areas that were impenetrable otherwise because of water.”
Longo says that the bonded cellular system from LiveU has worked very well so far, and that the station has used Ka-band satellite as “more of a boost than anything else.”
“The video is spectacular,” he says. “If you’re moving, particularly if you are going farther into the hinterland, away from the cell towers, you can run into a situation where it’s spotty. But in the metro area — Duval County, St. John’s, Baker, Clay, the core of our market — we have not run into any issues.”
During Hurricane Irma, WJAX didn’t have any problem using bonded cellular because most of the flooding was along the heavily populated coast where there was dense cell tower coverage, says Longo. At one point, WJAX reporter Russell Colburn was on the move in First Alert doing a live talk-back with chief meterologist Mike Buresh as a tornado was forming nearby.
By looking at the live video from First Alert, Buresh was able to identify the exact clouds in which the tornado was forming as the crew drove along the path of the storm.
While the team thankfully didn’t get close enough to see the actual tornado in action, says Longo, it was still a “holy cow moment.”
WJAX also has two Ford Escapes equipped with LiveU units and interior and exterior POV cameras that it uses for traffic and weather coverage.
Longo would have more First Alert-type vehicles if he had the budget. He says in a big market like Jacksonville there is still the need for an ENG van with a tall mast to relay signals from distant locations, and that WJAX generally replaces one a year (after about five years and 300,000 miles). But bonded cellular has been a pleasant surprise.
“Seven years ago, when I saw the first LiveU’s, I would say it looks good in the lab,” he says. “But it’s been 99% terrific. I think these things are here to stay.”
Graham Media’s KPRC Houston is also a believer in bonded cellular technology. The station has two vehicles equipped with LiveU encoders and Xtender rooftop amplifier units, including a weather-chaser with point-of-view cameras.
But KPRC also makes heavy use of LiveU backpack units, says Edgar Zavala, director of technology, such as when its reporters took to motorboats to deliver live video during Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic floods.
KPRC has 12 LiveU units and averages 50 to 100 GB of data per encoder, per month. Zavala says that stations need to be careful of running up big bills by going over their monthly data quota.
He says a big recent improvement from LiveU is a cloud-based interface that lets station staff remotely control the encoders, so field personnel aren’t streaming when they don’t have to be.
“What ends up killing you is when you have it up and [the field crew] leaves it running,” says Zavala. “This helps avoid potential ridiculous expenses.”
While Zavala is impressed with how well bonded cellular works, he says the technology has limitations both in coverage across Houston’s geographically huge market and in network congestion during busy times.
For example, the station experienced a drop in picture quality when covering the Houston Astros’ playoff run after games ended and thousands of fans started using their phones to post to social media.
“We still remain committed to microwave capability, and three years ago we invested heavily in upgrading our central receive site and ENG vehicles,” says Zavala. “We have not reduced our vehicle count as result of the LiveU units, but instead have increased them in a supplemental way.”
For their part, both LiveU and TVU Networks were at the NAB New York show last month demonstrating new encoders that use the HVEC compression scheme instead of H.264 to effectively cut the bit rate required for HD pictures in half, down to the 1.5 to 3 Mbps range.
For example, TVU Networks’ new HVEC encoder can do 1080i video at 3 Mbps with a half-second latency, says TVU Networks VP of Sales Ken Dillard, who adds that 80% of customers buy a 40 GB data plan per pack, per month.
“With HD at 3 Mbps with HVEC, that 40 Mbps goes a lot farther [than with H.264],” he says.
While bonded cellular has become increasingly important for newsgathering in recent years, LiveU VP of Sales Mike Savello doesn’t expect microwave to go away but instead to be used as a complement. He notes that in some cases LiveU is used just to get feeds back to a truck, which are then relayed via microwave or satellite.
“Microwave bandwidth is free, and that infrastructure is already paid for,” Savello says. “But there are so many places where you can’t hit a receive site.”
The next step for microwave technology, say station engineers and vendors, is creating a bi-directional IP communications system using the Broadcast Auxiliary Spectrum that stations already have been assigned for ENG use.
That problem is being tackled by several companies including established ENG players AMT (ENGenesis) and IMT Vislink (Newsnet) and a new entrant to the broadcast market, Persistent Systems (MANET).
AMT’s ENGenesis system, which is already deployed at Graham’s WJXT Jacksonville, remodulates the microwave spectrum to create a two-way LTE network with the ability to support up to 10 trucks on one 12 MHz ENG channel.
“What cellular bonding did was firmly ingrain an IP workflow in these guys,” says AMT’s Jennings. “Now we’re adapting microwave to go the same way.”