While not ready to displace microwave or satellite as the best ways to get news coverage back to the station from the field, wireless broadband technologies are making life easier for reporters as the quality continues to improve.
Wireless broadband is slowly changing the way reporters send stories in from the field, giving them more freedom to roam, if not the video quality they would like.
This doesn’t mean conventional transmission will disappear overnight — or perhaps ever. You still can’t beat microwave and satellite trucks for live SD or HD video, but for anything less, broadband in one form of another — 3G, WiFi, WiMAX, LTE or Skype — just might do. The field reporter can file without lifting a mast or pointing a dish.
“People are going to use any and every mechanism available,” said John Luff, television technology consultant for HD Consulting, who chaired a panel on new transmission trends at last month’s SMPTE gathering. “There is a time and place for every transport mechanism.”
The trick to using wireless broadband is understanding its capabilities. It requires “a constant juggling between how much time you have and how much quality you can submit,” said Fred Fourcher, CEO of Bitcentral, a digital media management and content distribution management vendor.
Here’s a quick look some of the broadband options:
3G cell phone service is a good choice for stories that are not time-sensitive.
Equipped with a laptop with a 3G modem, the user pays a monthly fee for the broadband data service and accepts that a so-called broadband link will rarely exceed 1 megabit per second (Mbps) in transmission speed so uploading large files takes a long time.
On the other hand, because it serves the general public, 3G is available almost everywhere and it is mobile so it can be used to transmit files in a moving vehicle, if needed.
“We found it useful if we’re doing something that’s not breaking news,” said Gerry Gallagher, director of remote operations for Time Warner’s New York 1 News.
For non-breaking news, a reporter can shoot and edit a story and send it back as a high-resolution QuickTime file, he said. It could take all night, but if the material is not timely, it doesn’t matter.
3G can also be used for live feeds if quality doesn’t matter, but even then it’s best not to use a single wireless connection to a single network.
Companies like LiveU have technology that combines up to six 3G feeds so the user can access up to six networks. “You can get the [live] signal back with fairly decent [SD] quality,” said Walter Raps, CTO of CBS College Sports Network who also presented a paper during SMPTE.
The tradeoff is that the broadcaster must pay six times for six data cards and six data plans, but doesn’t always get six times the bandwidth because not every carrier is available at every point.
“Anyone within range of a cell tower in many parts of the world can shoot video and stream it and, if a TV station can get that, they will put that on air and be glad to have it,” said Peter Symes, director of standards and engineering for SMPTE.
WiFi ihas more bandwidth than 3G and thus offers the possibility of doing better live coverage or getting stored files back more quickly. Unlike 3G, WiFi is not close to ubiquitous. It is, however, a good excuse for a broadcast journalist to grab a cup of coffee at a hotspot-enabled Starbucks.
“It’s faster; we do it all the time,” said Raps.
It can also be cheaper than 3G.
“You can subscribe to an AT&T hotspot service for $20 a month and that’s a lot cheaper than any EVDO [3G mobile] you put in your laptop and the bandwidth on an upload speed is three times better,” said Fourcher.
Forward error correction (FEC) technology improves live WiFi transmissions by recovering lost data packets, but nothing overcomes the fact that WiFi contends with other devices on public networks that can become congested and slow.
This makes WiFi unlikely for live content delivery unless “the content is really compelling,” said Luff.
Wireless nirvana might arrive as early as next year with the new 4G cell phone services. They combine the ubiquity of 3G with the bandwidth of WiFi.
Sprint is rolling out a nationwide 4G WiMAX network that promises speeds up to five times faster than 3G and a Sprint executive said the carrier is already in trials with broadcasters to use that network for newsgathering.
“The characteristics of our 4G offering enables you to take a high-definition camera enabled with WiMAX to the scene and provide live broadcasting of that,” said Wayne Ward, vice president of Sprint’s emerging solutions unit.
WiMAX, like WiFi, is a public network so without a dedicated link and some degree of guaranteed quality of service (QoS), a broadcaster is taking a chance if he relies on it for live feeds.
“We’re not quite there yet because we’re still in this testing phase, but absolutely we’ll be applying technology that gives you a secure wireless channel,” said Ward. “That service will come to market in the first quarter of next year.”
When it arrives, more broadcasters will join WiMAX pioneer KIFI Idaho Falls, Idaho. The station, which gets a dedicated link from service provider Digital Bridge, has experienced network improvements in over the last year that make it possible to routinely use WiMAX along with two microwave trucks for live newsgathering.
“A market like ours would never be able to invest in satellite news gathering equipment,” said Mark Danielson, general manager of KIFI News Group.
WiMAX has the most potential of any available wireless technology but it is flawed, said Benjamin Larson, project manager for Streambox Live, which is supplying the compression software to KIFI. A dedicated line is essential for suitable transmission, he said.
“What you get with WiMAX is really high jitter and a lot of packet loss since it’s a radio frequency,” said Larson, who suggested FEC as the solution to those problems.
Another fourth-generation cell phone technology, Long Term Evolution (LTE) is also on tap, but is not close to market. Most cell phone providers favor LTE over WiMAX.
Skype, the IP-based voice and video service, has positioned itself as a way for broadcasters and studios to produce live face-to-face video calls.
It works across all the transmission formats and it’s really cheap.
1 News used a Skype connection to get talking-head coverage of outlying election results that otherwise wouldn’t have been covered, Gallagher said.
“I wouldn’t trust Skype for stuff that I have to have, but it’s nice to fill in the blanks,” said Gallagher. “Come a 9-1-1, I want my microwave and I want my satellite. Those are dedicated. They’re my channel when news becomes a public service for a major disaster.”