Bonded Cellular Met The Challenge Of Sandy

When the hurricane devastated the coastal areas of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in October, broadcasters turned to the cellphone-based technology to get live feeds back to the stations when microwave or satellite delivery systems wouldn’t work. "It continues to improve," says CBS's David Friend. "The delays are less, the signals are better, there’s less dropout. When we took the risk of using this technology very early on, it was hit and miss. Now we are more confident in its stability and its performance. We view it as an essential tool in our newsgathering efforts."

Bonded cellular technology has been making deep inroads into electronic news gathering, providing reporters and producers in the field an alternative to satellite and microwave for sending video back to the station.

Hurricane Sandy, which devastated larges stretches of coastal New York and New Jersey on Oct. 29, served as a crucible for testing the technology under extreme conditions as broadcasters deployed dozens of units to cover the storm in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

By most accounts, the technology passed the test.

As the storm approached, ENG crews were able to use bonded cellular for live, on-the-spot reports of accelerating winds and rising water. And even after the storm had delivered its devastating blows and reporters began assessing the damage, it still proved rugged and surprisingly reliable.

“They worked spectacularly well pre-hurricane,” although the service was “a little spotty” in the immediate aftermath, says David Friend, SVP of news for the CBS O&Os.

“It was kind of trial and error,” he adds. “If we had sent someone down to, say, Belmar, N.J., which was very hard hit, and we weren’t getting, good cellphone reception, we would drive to an area that was less hard hit hoping to get a better signal.”


Like the name implies, bonded cellular systems use several cellular air cards strapped or “bonded” together to provide the necessary bandwidth to transmit video. The systems, with batteries and requisite encoders, come in a variety of configurations — backpacks, suitcases and camera-top — and from a variety of vendors, notably LiveU, TVU Networks, Teradek and Dejero.

Most are designed to work with multiple carriers so that if they cannot muster the necessary bandwidth from AT&T alone they can pick up additional bandwidth from Verizon and T-Mobile.

The vendors typically offer both buy and lease options. For instance, a broadcaster can lease a LiveU unit for $2,500 a month or buy one for $30,000.

One the great advantages is that the units are mobile. A reporter with a unit on his back or in the back of a car can follow a story wherever it leads.

Another is that they work indoors and without a line of sight to a satellite or microwave relay station as the conventional ENG links do.

The great disadvantage is that they are no more reliable than the cellular network. In big crowds, when everybody is using their phones, it may be impossible to get a cellular link or a link with enough bandwidth to transmit clean video.

Latency is also a problem. Depending on the cellular conditions, the video could be delayed up to several seconds. That can make folding live bonded cellular video in with a live newscast dicey.

LiveU, one of the leading vendors of the technology, had more than 100 units is play during the storm by TV stations in Philadelphia and New York and by broadcast and cable networks.

And based on the feedback is has gotten, says LiveU’s Ken Zamkow, the units performed admirably, managing to deliver some kind of video in about 90% of the cases. “We had customers going live from different parts of Manhattan, from all over Brooklyn and Queens and Long Island, from New Jersey and Connecticut and we did not hear many complaints of signal issues,” he says. “I assume a lot of that is because our broadcasters know and understand that if they don’t get signal in a certain spot, often times all it takes is just moving a little bit, you know, closer to another.”

The cellphone network held up well, bolstered in many cases by back-up generators, Zamkow says. Even in the lower half of Manhattan, which lost all power for several days, “there was still some capacity over some of the carriers,” he says.

Fox’s WNYW New York deployed three LiveU units and one TVU unit during the storm and was impressed by them all, says News Director Dianne Doctor. Sometimes bonded cellular video can be “a little murky,”  but not during the storm, she says. “It looked crisp and clear.”

She adds that she couldn’t tell the difference between the cellular and the satellite feeds. “And it allowed us the flexibility of being portable and being really in the heart of the action.”

As the storm approached Long Beach on Long Island, she recalls, a Fox crew had to park its satellite truck a half a mile from the beach for fear that it would be swamped by the ocean surge. But with the bonded cellular outfit, her crew was able to take up a position on the second floor of a hotel near the beach and shoot down on a reporter on the boardwalk.

“If you weren’t portable with this technology, there was no way you were going to be able to do a live report,” Doctor says. “You could do telephone or you could go through an iPhone, but you weren’t going to be able to get the kind of pictures that we got.”

The night after storm had passed (Oct. 30), she says a Fox crew in a bonded-cellular equipped vehicle began roaming the lower half of Manhattan that was then completely without power. “We drove through street after street showing what it looked like, which was just unprecedented, and then we pointed the camera back uptown where the lights were shining. So I really think it gave us an advantage that night in terms of really being able to tell the story. It was really a key part of our coverage that night.”

Doctor says the latency never seemed to be a problem either. “We didn’t experience any of that that night. We had really great coverage, we didn’t have any delays. Things were sharp.”

For its storm coverage, which stretched from Connecticut to North Carolina, ABC News relied mostly on satellite trucks, but also used TVU bonded cellular units — it had 10 in the field — when satellite dishes had to be stowed due to high winds and for special supplemental coverage, says Brian Kennedy, executive of news gathering operations, ABC News.

“The experience was fantastic,” he says. “During the course of the storm hitting, they worked whenever we needed them.”

They also worked well in the immediate aftermath, but failed in a few hard-hit areas in Queens and Staten Island a day or two after the storm had passed. “I guess backup tower power started to go. We started to notice both cellphones and data was beginning not go through at that time.”

ABC News’ best use of the technology was made by Nightline co-anchor Terry Moran on Tuesday. He drove north along the New Jersey coast, sending back recorded and live stories as he found them along the way.

“That kept us hours ahead of the story,” Kennedy says. “The trucks weren’t allowed into places where he was and he never had to leave the coast and he did some amazing reporting. I think it would have taken away from the story to have to go file.”

Glenn Thomason, VP of technology and operations at WNBC, says the bonded cellular unit was only one of the “tools” that the station deployed for the coverage. “At different times, different tools came to the forefront.”

The microwave trucks did their jobs until the winds started getting strong, he says. “At some point, we had to start dropping the masts…. That’s when we were able to move on to other technologies like the bonded cellular.”

For Thomason, the lesson of Hurricane Sandy is that all the newsgathering tools matter. A crew in Staten Island had to abandoned its vehicle as water began surging around it, he says. All they had left was an iPad, “so they started shooting with it and emailed the content back.”

For others, the lesson was that bonded cellular could be counted on to provide backup to microwave and satellite and to go places and provide coverage that those older technologies cannot.

“It continues to improve,” says CBS’s Friend. “The delays are less, the signals are better, there’s less dropout. When we took the risk of using this technology very early on, it was hit and miss.

“Now we are more confident in its stability and its performance than ever before. We view it as an essential tool in our newsgathering efforts.”

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