Bonded Cellular Is ENG’s Next Frontier

Six companies — LiveU, Dejero, TVU Networks, Streambox, Teradek and DSI RF Systems — have emerged as pioneers on the cellular video frontier. A seventh, Vislink, is about to enter the market. Each manufactures a portable device that uses AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile air cards to produce a signal capable of transmitting high-quality pictures.

When news broke on the morning of Feb. 27 that a student gunman had terrorized Chardon (Ohio) High School, Cleveland TV news crews raced to broadcast live from the scene of the shooting.

Most floored their satellite or microwave trucks down Route 6, then scrambled to run cable and establish signals — tedious processes that delayed their live shots. But the crew from Gannett’s WKYC had a secret weapon that got its reporter on the air minutes after arrival.

Still en route, the crew from Cleveland’s NBC affiliate turned on a device manufactured by LiveU that allowed it to broadcast live video over the same cellular networks people use to make phone calls.

“We really won that story,” recalls veteran WKYC videographer Barry Wolf. “We were on-air at least an hour before ground crews at other stations even powered up.”

For decades now, television stations have used satellite and microwave technology to beam video from the field back to control rooms. The requisite equipment is dependable, but expensive and cumbersome. A single truck can cost several-hundred thousand dollars. At the scene of breaking news, setup takes 30 minutes or more. Some locations — the inside of a school, for instance — are unreachable without long, unwieldy cables.

Increasingly, TV stations like WKYC are transmitting video from the field wirelessly via the Internet. To achieve the bandwidth needed to stream broadcast-quality video, and to boost the odds of making a strong connection, TV crews are employing devices that “bond” signals from major cellular carriers’ 3G and 4G networks.


Six companies — LiveU, Dejero, TVU Networks, Streambox, Teradek and DSI RF Systems — have emerged as pioneers on the cellular video frontier. A seventh, Vislink, is about to enter the market. Each manufactures a portable device that uses AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile air cards to produce a signal capable of transmitting high-quality pictures.

And each will be at this month’s NAB Show in Las Vegas, pitching its product as the future of live video.

Future is the key word. Even the biggest believers in cellular video transmission — the executives whose livelihoods depend on it — concede the technology is not developed enough to supplant its predecessors.

“I’m not going to say that we’re a replacement for a satellite or microwave trucks,” says Jon Landman, VP of sales at Teradek. “That’s not fair because when there’s that one story that everyone is running to and you need a guaranteed feed to be supplied, microwave or satellite can give you that.”

“We all have the same problem,” adds Dejero founder and CEO Bogdan Frusina. “We can’t give [customers] reliability. Reliability is only given with the classical sort of transmission, which is Ethernet, satellite and microwave.”

What cellular video can deliver is mobility (entire broadcast units fit in backpacks, suitcases or belt clips), speed (setup takes five minutes or less) and ease (the units are highly automated because, as Frusina says, “you don’t want to make a reporter who’s not a techie, be a techie”). The benefits often outweigh the risk of having to scrap a shoot because of poor reception.

“Having the satellite trucks is great for those high-profile events where you absolutely have to get the picture 100% of the time, and it has to look great,” says Mike Savello, LiveU’s VP of sales. “For every one of those events, there’s probably three or four other events where just having the news coverage is going to give you an edge over your competition in that marketplace.”

So, what is the chance that bonded cellular technology will fail on any given assignment? The answer depends on two chief factors: the strength of wireless signals in the area, and the availability of bandwidth.

Even as cellular companies expand their networks, dead zones still exist. If there are cellular signals to bond, bandwidth might be limited by heavy use, especially at major news events where — thanks to government-mandated net neutrality — journalists must compete with crowds of smartphone-wielding citizens.

As Savello puts it: “Our modems and our system don’t get any higher priority than some 16-year-old with a cell phone standing right next to us.”

But makers of cellular video transmitters can offer TV stations some advantages over the general public. Streambox, for instance, uses technology called the Avenir Range Extending Model to boost reception. LiveU has developed custom antennas that can pick up signals from faraway cell towers unreachable by phones. At some big-time news events, COWs (cell towers on wheels) provide extra bandwidth.

Manufacturers call these technologies proprietary, but competing cellular video devices are more similar than they are different. With the exception of DSI’s NewsShark, which is not yet 4G- or high-definition-capable, they all boast of superior picture quality and sub-second latency in good conditions (users can select from a range of latency settings). And they’re all beginning forays into the smartphone and tablet markets, producing apps that will make streaming video available to journalists and pedestrians en masse.

“Now, with those devices starting to connect to 4G, you have such good bandwidth for breaking news,” says Streambox Chairman-CEO Bob Hildeman. “You’re the first one there; it’s very quick. It’s a device that you would have on you at all times. So, you’re the first one on the scene; boom, there you go.”

But if the manufacturers are essentially doing the same thing, they are doing it in distinctive ways. The business models of Teradek and Dejero, for example, are strikingly dissimilar.

“We want to put one of these in every cameraman’s bag,” Landman says of Teradek’s Bond device, which mounts atop a camera and costs about $5,000 — less than most lenses. “We go for quantity. We want to shake up the industry. We want to be the agitator of the industry.”

Frusina, the Dejero founder, says he refuses to fight the “price war on the bottom end.” His system, housed in a sturdy suitcase, retails for $18,000.

“It’s a conversation of the Mercedes versus the Chevy,” Frusina said. “You pay a premium price for the Mercedes because you get the service and the quality with it. At the lower end, you just want to produce as many as you can and turn over as many as you can.”

Dejero, Frusina adds, has deliberately targeted “high-end customers” in large markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

LiveU’s LU-60 backpack system is even pricier, $30,000 plus a $500 per month data plan. But, Savello says, about 85% of LiveU’s U.S. clients — a list that includes CNN, Fox, NBC and the Associated Press — choose not to buy backpacks, but instead go for the company’s all-inclusive lease package, which cost $2,500 per month.

Now, LiveU is rolling out the more affordable LU-40, a smaller device that clips to a videographer’s belt and carries four air cards, instead of the LU-60’s seven. The LU-40 leases for $999 per month.

Streambox is about to follow suit. Hildeman says Streambox plans to unveil the Mini Avenir, a smaller alternative to its Avenir backpack, at the NAB convention. The Mini can be mounted on top of a camera or clipped to a belt, Hildeman says.

TVU, another maker of backpack-style transmitters, also will debut something new in Vegas, CEO Paul Shen says. But, “at this point, we prefer not to disclose it to the public.”

Backpacks have raised some safety concerns because they hold many air cards close to videographers’ bodies. Frusina says Dejero did the prudent thing by designing a suitcase-style carrier.

“I don’t ever want to be the guy who ever gets [questioned] about whether I’ve created harm to a human being,” he says. “When we designed this thing, we wanted to design it with zero liability in mind.”

DSI’s NewsShark also allows operators to keep the devices away from their bodies. Less than 100 cubic inches and weighing only 2.5 pounds, the NewsShark snaps onto the back of a camera. And at less than $10,000, it’s one of the most affordable options in the cellular market. The device holds two air cards, but only uses one at a time. The company plans to unveil a 4G, HD version of the NewsShark at the NAB convention. (Editor’s note: The original posting of this story suggested that NewsShark uses bonded cellular technology like the other devices discussed in this story.)

But backpack makers insist their products are completely safe: “There’s an enclosure for protection,” Hildeman says. “And, also, the antenna is telescoping, so the antenna could be several feet above a person’s head for that safety reason.”

Savello calls safety concerns a “non-issue,” and cites studies that showed a person is exposed to higher radiation levels when holding a cell phone to his ear than when wearing a LiveU backpack.

Vislink is convinced enough of backpacks’ safety that the newest bonded cellular player chose them as the vessels for its new Airstream devices. The company is hoping to gain a share of an already crowded market by offering value under a familiar broadcast brand name.

“We want to be known for video quality and for quality generally,” says Mike Payne, Vislink’s managing director. “One thing that differentiates us from our competitors is that our brand is 50 years old. Another differentiator is that we have, we think, the best connection management because of our variable bitrate encoding.”

Variable bitrate encoding, a feature not unique to the AirStream, helps stations maintain their live shots, even as bandwidth levels fluctuate.

Vislink is also hoping its tiered prices — devices cost between $8,000 and $20,000, depending on features — will meet the needs of a diverse clientele. Several station groups have already made orders, Payne says.

In addition to macro-level questions about the future of bandwidth, there are micro-level concerns for the bonded cellular industry. Landman says videographers complain that some cellular units — especially the backpacks — are “heavy, hot and uncomfortable.”

But Wolf, the WKYC cameraman, isn’t griping. He’s confident that as cellular video transmitting technology advances, devices will grow even more user-friendly, and even more dependable. If that happens, he suggested, ungainly live trucks might become an endangered species.

“The comparison is …,” Wolf pauses before finishing his thought. “You can’t even really compare them.”

Comments (1)

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Kathryn Scheets says:

April 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm

With the reliance on shaky iPHONE video uploaded from by standers, it is obvious that content is always more important than quality.
In news quick and first is better than great production values and late for air.
Let’s look at today where we can edit in the camera and send it back to the station as a digital file as a completed package.
It’s also about saving money. If I can ‘stream’ video from a small camera over the WIFI, I don’t need a sat truck and 3 people on the shoot.
As soon as we get rid of the ‘stand up’ in the dark out side the courtroom where something happened 6 hours earlier, there won’t be any need to go into the field. It will be back to ‘live’ from the car park out side the station and just mix in b-roll.
Suddenly, Comedy Central The Daily Show with their Green Screen live reports, doesn’t seem too far away from reality.