Just after Damon Evans, the University of Georgia’s athletic director, was arrested on June 30 on suspicion of DUI, he called a news conference the next day on the Athens campus. TV stations were given one-hour’s notice. The event was held on the eighth floor of a building and there was no time to run cables or set up a microwave or satellite link.
Of all the news outlets covering the news conference, only WSB Atlanta went live. That’s because the Cox flagship was the only station to subscribe to LiveU, a service that allows broadcasters to wirelessly send video back to their stations over the Internet.
“LiveU has been a real differentiator for us in the market,” says Don Bailey, WSB news operations manager. “We use it every day…. The video quality, with good connectivity, is barely distinguishable from satellite or microwave technology.”
LiveU is one of many ways stations are using — or at least experimenting with — video over IP (Internet protocol) for newsgathering. For some broadcasters, the goal is simple — retire the expensive microwave and satellite trucks and replace them with better and cheaper technology. Others see IP as supplemental.
IP comes at a time of major changes in TV news operations. Today, most stations program news for websites as well as broadcast. This has erased traditional TV news deadlines, challenging reporters and photographers to a kind of perpetual deadline akin to 24/7 radio news.
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health & Human Services, was interviewed by WDIV Detroit anchorman Devin Scillian at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. WDIV used a Streambox over DSL for the live feed.
At the same time, newsrooms are being asked to operate with less money. Microwave and satellite trucks are expensive to operate, requiring extra personnel, added travel costs and complex safety measures. Video over IP is much cheaper and faster, even if most of it usually takes a hit in video image quality.
“There’s no question that expense reduction is part of everybody’s game. It’s very challenging to run TV stations and do news. Satellite is a very expensive way to do long-form news. Video over IP really does offer alternatives,” says Terry Heaton, SVP of Media 2.0 at AR&D.
“Quality is an issue, but it’s an issue that’s really more on the minds of engineers than viewers,” he says. “As compression algorithms and the equipment keep getting better, sooner or later we are going to be able to do all these things over IP. This is going to be transforming television news over the next four or five years.”
Sterling Davis, VP of technical operations at Cox Media Group, the owner of WSB and 14 other stations, agrees with Bailey that the video quality of IP is “essentially the same” as microwave and satellite, but he doesn’t yet see it as a total replacement. “We can’t rely on third parties to provide us bandwidth like we can do ourselves.”
Adell Hill, president of broadcast services for Media General, owner of 18 stations and 21 daily newspapers, is also not ready to throw out the old technology. “Does it threaten satellite trucks? No. Is it an opportunity to manage your costs for these trucks? Yes,” he says. “It adds a tool to the toolbox for newsgathering in the field.”
The big newsroom trend is the smartphone — mostly Apple’s iPhone or an RIM Blackberry. Most reporters and photographers carry a phone with a built-in video camera, enabling them to shoot and file short news clips. Those clips are showing up frequently not only on websites, but also on the evening and late news.
Smartphones can transmit video through standard e-mail, multimedia messaging service (MMS), FTP or special applications like Streambox and UStream, which allow live video feeds. Apple’s new iPhone 4 transmits 720p high-definition video at 30 frames per second.
WSB equips each of about 60 reporters and photographers with an iPhone and a Cisco Flip Video and not only because of the ease of transmitting the video, says Bailey. “If a hospital won’t let us inside, we hand the Flip Phone to the victim’s wife and give her questions to ask her husband. Then we get an exclusive on the air.”
Bailey is excited about the new Facetime video calling feature on Apple’s iPhone 4. Although it is designed for two callers to hold a video-enabled conversation, WSB wants to broadcast the video. “We want to output the conversations to a computer,” Bailey says. “When we can do that, we will replace every existing iPhone with the iPhone 4.”
Facetime, when it’s ready for broadcast use, would be an alternative to Skype, a popular IP voice and video service that now runs on personal computers. It has been used by news operations for live face-to-face video calls.
Smartphones are fine for breaking news, but the ultimate goal is to achieve the same video quality over IP as one gets today with microwave or satellite links. The problem for all is the unpredictability of wireless broadband links, especially during a disaster when public Internet services may be overloaded or completely down.
That’s why Jim Ocon, VP of technology for the Gray Television station group, said his group of 36 stations is attempting to set up its own IP network. The only way to be certain of broadband availability is for the broadcaster to control his own spectrum, he says.
For competitive reasons, Ocon did not want to supply details of the network until it was ready to go, probably in a few weeks. But he was willing to talk about it in broad terms.
The network is a “hotspot technology,” but one not to be confused with the garden variety of Wi-Fi found at the local Starbucks, he says. In each market, a station will license duplex spectrum with custom-manufactured encoders and decoders.
“One has to use spectrum for a specific market,” he says. “This is where frequency coordination comes into play. One can use either licensed or unlicensed spectrum if they know exactly what is available. Also, the manufacturer of the custom equipment must be licensed to build the gear for that frequency.”
For broadcasters relying on conventional broadband services, the trick is knowing where the access points are and which are most reliable. They range from Wi-Fi locations at retail businesses to DSL connections at hotels.
In early June, WDIV Detroit did several days of remotes from the Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. No motor vehicles were allowed on the island. But the Grand Hotel on the island had a DSL connection, which the station used for broadcast coverage and one-hour interviews on its website.
WDIV’s setup included three cameras: two Sony PMW-EX1R camcorders and a Sony HVR-A1U camcorder for a high, wide shot. From a small switcher, the composite video was fed into a Sony GV-D1000 MiniDV Video Walkman, which converted the output to IEEE1394 Firewire.
The Firewire signal was input to a Dell laptop running Streambox software, which uses the company’s proprietary ACT-3 codec for low data rate transfers of video. The laptop fed the DSL connection. Back at the station, the video was processed by a Streambox decoder before going to the Web and to air. The dual coverage was a big success for the station, said Jeff Liebman, WDIV’s news operations manager.
LiveU, WSB ‘s choice, is another way to go. Field crews connect their camera to the LiveU LU-30, a nine-pound portable device with six wireless broadband cards — two each for Verizon, AT&T and Sprint — plus a Wi-Fi connection. (It can also input satellite phones and wired connections.) All the connections, regardless of type, are bonded together to provide the best available video uplink.
The LU-30 constantly measures the speed of each connection and dynamically varies their datastreams to maintain a constant speed of either 1 or 2 Mbps. Back at the station, a LiveU LU-1000 server receives all the substreams from the LU-30 and combines them into a single real-time video feed.
The LiveU system is already operating in about 30 countries. It can send SD signals from moving vehicles and has been used at such high-profile events at the FIFA World Cup, the Grammys and from Haiti after the earthquake, where a pair of satellite phones were strapped together with the help of Live U to allow it to broadcast live when few other technologies worked at all.
In the fourth quarter, LiveU is introducing an improved field unit, the HD60, which can transmit 1080i HD video and handle up to 12 transmission formats, including 3G, 4G, WiMAX, Wi-Fi, BGAN satellite and multiple LAN connections. It also has a new antenna that allows it to transmit video well in poor cellular reception areas.
LiveU gear is not sold, but rented, to TV stations. A complete package begins at $2,500 a month, including cellular air time.
WSB had its system upgraded to take advantage of the 4G cellular technology now available in Atlanta.