While bonded cellular technology looks to be the future of ENG transmission, the ubiquitious live truck is still alive, but changing — to smaller, less expensive vehicles like this Frontline hybrid. And some are featuring new antennas to strengthen cellular signals.
The advent of bonded cellular technology is changing electronic newsgathering. On that much, ENG vehicle manufacturers agree. But on what the innovation means for the future of the live truck industry, there is no consensus at all.
“We see it as a dying business,” says Fred Gerling, the eponymous president of Gerling & Associates in Sunbury, Ohio.
Yet the dispatch from Accelerated Media Technologies in Auburn, Mass., is as promising as the one from Gerling is bleak: “The live truck is very much alive and very much thriving right now,” says President Tom Jennings.
Increasingly, TV news crews are employing devices that “bond” signals from major cellular carriers’ 3G and 4G networks, allowing them to transmit live video from the field wirelessly. These bonded cellular gadgets are much more portable than live trucks — they can be worn in backpacks, mounted on cameras or clipped to belts — and much less expensive. At $5,000-$30,000, they are a fraction of what many ENG vehicles cost.
But Jennings refutes the notion that bonded cellular devices are driving ENG vehicles to extinction.
“Three years ago, when this [bonded cellular] technology was born, everybody thought it was the death of live trucks, and quite literally people stopped buying live trucks because they were convinced that cellular bonding technology was going to overtake the industry, and there was no need for a live truck,” Jennings says. “The reality is that cellular companies will never have enough bandwidth to accommodate full-motion video by all of these news stations simultaneously.”
“Never” is a strong word, but for now even bonded cellular company executives concede their products are not ready to displace satellite and microwave trucks.
Jennings says live trucks are on the rebound and working with — rather than competing with —bonded cellular devices, like the ones made by LiveU. His company now makes trucks with antennas designed to strengthen cellular signals.
“LiveU does have a place in the newsroom, and we embrace that technology,” he says. “We build trucks based solely on LiveU.”
In truth, many of the “trucks” in Accelerated’s production queue aren’t really trucks, or even SUVs. Jennings says TV stations are asking Accelerated to build on vehicles it has never used before: the Subaru Forester and Ford Transit, which he describes as “a new, European-looking, tiny, little, mini van.”
It hasn’t happened yet, but Jennings says he won’t be surprised if, some day in the not-too-distant future, a client asks Accelerated to build on a Toyota Prius.
“The trend is smaller, cheaper, lighter, faster,” he says. “ENG vans are almost indistinguishable from where they were two years ago.”
Of all the new vehicles, the Transit strikes the best balance between meeting new demands and maintaining the advantages of larger traditional vans, like the Ford E-350.
Frontline Communications in Clearwater, Fla., which manufactures roughly half of the ENG vehicles used in U.S. broadcast fleets, has already made about a dozen Transit Connects, according to Sales Director Stephen Williamson.
The company plans to display a Transit at the NAB Show in Las Vegas next week, and last month it announced a partnership with Ford to begin making ENG Transits en masse in mid-2013.
This T-Series lineup of vehicles is less expensive and about 30% more fuel efficient than its E-Series counterparts, Williamson says. He denies rumors that the company is abandoning its E-Series line next year, but made no long-term guarantee.
“There will be some overlap,” Williamson says, but we’ll keep making the E-350s at least through 2014. Fleets are becoming more diverse. Stations want smaller, more nimble vehicles, but they still require these bigger vans.”
Most other ENG vehicle manufacturers are standing by the E-Series also, even as they offer alternatives.
L-3 ESSCO in Ayer, Mass., for instance, continues to build on the big Ford vans, but also makes SUVs — including hybrids — for electronic newsgathering. The lightweight vehicles typically feature shorter masts, but with a heavy chassis an L-3 SUV can be outfitted with a mast as tall as 42 feet, the starting height for an E-350.
ENG Mobile Systems in Concord, Calif., works exclusively on E-Series vans. And Accelerated’s line includes SUV options but still features four E-Series vans.
The key to keeping larger vehicles is controlling their costs. L-3’s entry-level E-350 comes rack-ready at $60,000, and other manufacturers have also worked to reduce sticker prices.
“The objective is not to build half-million-dollar ENG trucks, or even $200,000 ENG trucks anymore,” Jennings says. “The new objective is to put as many vehicles on the street as you can for the least amount of money, and to have those vehicles manned by photographers who can send back their own signals, so you can literally double or triple your coverage area by making the trucks so uncomplex that anybody can operate them.”
Jennings’ second point about ease of use, is essential, according to A.J. Miceli, president of Satcom Scientific in Orlando, Fla. His company is producing satellite trucks that are so simple, he says, that operators “don’t have to know anything about the satellite industry.”
“You push a button, the antenna goes up, it does a hand-shake with the satellite, and at the end of the month, you get a bill just like your cell phone,” Miceli says.
The principal savings for broadcasters, he adds, is that they “don’t have to hire all these employees, which are the most expensive part of your business.”
As stations watch their bottom lines more closely than ever, a new subset of the ENG vehicle industry is emerging: refurbishments. Miceli said Satcom recently overhauled a truck for a station in Missouri and updated two C-band trucks for Metrovision in New York. Satcom was the original manufacturer of the C-band trucks — in 1995.
The company gutted the trucks and installed new electronics at half the cost of new trucks, Miceli says.
Fred Gerling says his company now spends more time repairing its old ENG vehicles than it does making new ones.
Gerling & Associates is mostly out of the ENG business and now focuses on manufacturing the hulking, single- and double-expanding trucks and trailers used to broadcast live sporting events on major networks. It builds for companies like NEP Broadcasting and Game Creek Video, which contract with ESPN, Fox, NBC and the rest.
“We have built a lot of ENG and uplink vans over the years for the news industry,” Gerling says, “but as you see that industry starting to wane, you get this other industry to make these products bigger and accommodate more people.
“There seems to be no change to that mindset as far as how sports productions are going to be done. The change in the industry that is happening is in the coverage of the local news story.”
Even the companies that persist in manufacturing ENG vehicles have begun to supplement their businesses with non-broadcast clients. Until 2003, Miceli says, TV stations constituted the majority of Satcom’s clientele. Now, the dominant revenue source is security and defense contracts.
“We have migrated more towards that because of the fact that the broadcast market really dried up here and internationally,” Miceli says.
L-3 ESSCO makes communications vehicles for the U.S. military and Department of Homeland Security. Its parent company, L-3 Communications, is the sixth-largest defense contractor in the country.
Shook Mobile Technology in San Antonio builds mobile command centers, and military and surveillance vehicles. Frontline assembles trucks for defense, law enforcement and fire and emergency response.
And Television Engineering Corp. in St. Louis is marketing some of its vehicles as recruiting and public relations tools that can be coupled with large LCD screens for viewing by crowds at events.
It would be overly simplistic to attribute such widespread diversification to bonded cellular technology alone. Makers of ENG vehicles saw demand slow even before LiveU and its competitors were on the scene, and had already begun to explore new revenue streams.
But there is no question that bonded cellular devices are forcing ENG vehicle manufacturers to adjust their product lines in ways they never have before.
“It is obvious to me that bonded cellular has a place in the news toolbox, and inevitable that it will impact traditional truck volume, but I do not believe that it will replace the truck,” says Rex Reed, the director of business and product development at ENG Mobile Systems. “Traditional microwave and satellite have their place in the news toolbox too.”