IP Tools Give Broadcasters Myriad Newsgathering Options

Tech executives from Fox News, Fox Television Stations, WPVI Philadelphia and LiveU are shifting away from traditional microwave and satellite technology and finding other IP-native paths to send live and edited video, they told an audience at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHForum last week. Above (l-r): LiveU’s Mike Savello, Fox News’ Scott Wilder, WPVI's Elizabeth Plyler and Fox Television Stations’ Erik Smith (Alyssa Wesley photo). Read a full report here and/or watch the video above.

Broadcasters are relying more and more on bonded cellular technology to contribute news from the field as they move steadily away from traditional microwave and satellite technology. But executives speaking at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECH Forum in New York on Dec. 13 said they are using other IP-native paths to send live video and edited packages through bonded modems, including both traditional wired broadband connections and the new option of low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite platforms like SpaceX’s Starlink service.

Outside of its helicopter, Fox owned-and-operated WTFX Philadelphia hasn’t used microwave for a conventional live shot in almost two years, said Erik Smith, VP of news operations for Fox Television Stations, during the panel, Field and Remote Production’s Multiplying Options and the Quest for More Stories, moderated by this reporter.

WTFX relies on bonded cellular for almost all of its field contribution, equipping each photographer with a LiveU bonded-cellular backpack unit. Smith said that same usage pattern is true for most of the other Fox stations.

“There are a lot of reasons why, including infrastructure,” Smith said. “Ten years ago, we had six [microwave] receive sites in our market. By the end of this year, we’re going to be down to two. There are significant savings there, obviously.”

Local colleague Elizabeth Plyler, news operations manager for WPVI Philadelphia, said that her ABC-owned station also relies on bonded cellular for most live shots. WPVI uses microwave only for big live events where congestion on the cellular network might be problematic.

“For day-to-day [news], very rarely,” Plyler said.


WPVI had previously relied solely on Dejero, Plyler said, but the station “diversified” by adding LiveU during the COVID-19 pandemic. That helped it to create pool feeds with other stations in the market to cover local events with a minimal number of staff.

“We came up with a pool situation among the Philly stations so there were less people in a specific place,” Plyer said. “We said we’re going to shoot this and we’re going to share it, instead of having 20 reporters and photographers in a room when they didn’t really all need to be at the same news conference.”

While cellular coverage today is fairly ubiquitous and the bonded systems are easy to use, there are a few drawbacks to the technology for live feeds. The biggest one is network congestion at big public events where thousands of people are all using their cellphones. Smith and Plyler recently worked up plans for a pool feed for local stations to cover a victory parade, in case the Philadelphia Phillies won the 2022 World Series. With a million people expected to attend, they were looking for alternatives to bonded cellular.

While the parade didn’t happen, the exercise was instructive. When there was a victory parade for the Philadelphia Eagles after they won the 2018 Super Bowl, the stations in the pool contributed video using traditional DVB satellite links, as every station in the market had the ability to do that.

“Fast forward four years and that was simply not an option,” Smith said. “Two of the four stations in the market had no DVB capability anymore. We had to rely on another way to transmit and share the content.”

The plan was to use hard-wired broadband connections onsite to contribute feeds and then employ the cloud-based LiveU Matrix video distribution platform to share it, with 10 cloud channels shared across the four local network stations plus the NBCU’s regional sports network.

“It went from ‘where can I park the truck and can I get the satellite?’ to ‘can I get a Fios drop, can I get an ISP drop that’s going to guarantee me the bandwidth that I need?’,” Smith said. “With a million people in that environment, bonded cellular was not going to work without some help.”

The other challenge that bonded cellular faces is damage to wireless infrastructure from natural disasters like Hurricane Ian in Florida or other causes, such as the targeted bombing of cellular towers experienced by Ukraine during its war with Russia. Fox News Channel successfully used Starlink’s LEO satellite connectivity to support live feeds through LiveU modems in both instances, said Scott Wilder, Fox News VP field & production operations, and found it to be a better option than the BGAN satellite terminals it had used in the past.

“There’s the cliché, another tool in the toolkit, and that’s what the low-earth-orbit satellites have been for us,” Wilder said. “Super affordable and easy to use, very user-friendly. If we weren’t using that we would pull out a BGAN antenna and it would be a lot more expensive and not as much bandwidth. So, that’s the beauty of this technology.”

To cover Hurricane Ian, Fox News didn’t want to deploy satellite trucks and risk losing them. Its crews used bonded systems until a point — once the power was knocked out and the cellular infrastructure stopped working, they turned to Starlink.

Fox’s engineers had originally been skeptical that the LEO technology could support live feeds because the “handovers” from one LEO satellite to another cause a momentary but dramatic dip in bandwidth, going from several megabits per second to under 50 kilobits per second. But Wilder said the handovers are “very seamless” and viewers seem to have accepted the occasional glitch in the picture in exchange for live coverage from disaster areas or war zones.

The big drawback to LEO is the location of the spot beams from the satellites; Wilder said the Midwest currently doesn’t have coverage. But he noted that Starlink had repositioned satellites over Ukraine and over Florida to provide more coverage and bandwidth and suggested the same could happen in other geographies.

“So, it seems like the technology is there, and it would seem [reasonable] that if there was a natural disaster in the Midwest there might be a beam there that works,” Wilder said.

The Fox stations are also interested in using Starlink to help provide coverage from disaster areas. Smith noted the stations have already had success using the FirstNet system created by AT&T to provide priority access to wireless networks for first responders.

“It has proven to be a real game changer for our stations, and I know Fox News has had the same experience,” Smith said. “In high congestion areas, areas where natural disasters have occurred, they stand up those networks first.”

Meanwhile, the broadcasters at NewsTECH Forum didn’t see as significant an impact from the rollout of 5G wireless technology, which is now being offered in various flavors by carriers Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. Smith said that the promise of 5G providing enough bandwidth to eliminate the need for bonded cellular systems was still just that, a “promise,” and declared that bonded cellular would have a “long runway.

“I see good bandwidth, I don’t know if I see something incredibly better than what we had with 4G,” Smith said. “There’s certainly a path forward when technology advances and it’s fully rolled out where every scenario doesn’t have to be a bonded cellular scenario.”

LiveU VP of Sales Mike Savello said that 5G was still in the rollout stage and that it would take years “for us to get to the fulfillment of all the different layers of 5G that are available.”

Those 5G layers Savello referred to include the low- and mid-band-frequencies being used by T-Mobile and AT&T, which offer good coverage with a slight bandwidth improvement over LTE, perhaps 25% to 35%. Then there is the high-frequency or “millimeter wave” variety of 5G offered by Verizon, which has a limited range but can deliver data rates of over a gigabit per second.

Either way, customers are getting more bandwidth with 5G than they were with 4G, Savello said. He noted that 5G is just another option for feeding LiveU encoders along with 4G, FirstNet, LEO and even Ku-band IP satellite links, which LiveU has been selling as a backup service for several years.

“From our point of view, we can connect to anything,” Savello said. “As long as it’s IP, we can take advantage of it.”

LiveU is actively investing in cloud technology for live production and also has a new product called Ingest that automatically tags incoming content with metadata based on the story assignments going out to the field. Another new development for LiveU is the ability to simultaneously support multiple camera feeds from a single LU-800 encoder, making a variety of REMI-type productions possible for either news or sports.

Fox News is already employing the multicamera functionality, using it at locations where it can’t take a satellite truck or get a fiber connection or in venues that don’t want a crew running cables from a truck across the floor.

“Today, we have an anchor doing a fairly high-profile interview offsite and they’re using the LU-800,” Wilder said. “We chose not to roll a satellite truck. It’s just an ENG crew with one backpack, and they’re feeding back multiple paths. It really speeds things up and makes it quicker to deploy.”

For more NewsTECHForum 2022 stories, click here.

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