During this year's presidential primary season, FOX News debuted the next generation in electronic newsgathering vans. The network now has two Electionlink vehicles on the road, and the vans will travel around the country long after the voting is over.
The new concept Electionlink (a retrofitted Ford Expedition) leverages IP signal transmission via satellite and broadband, transponder autodetection technology and solid-state recording cameras with wireless transmitters. (See Figure 1 on page 58.) When combined, these technologies offer additional swiftness and freedom to ENG crews. There's no external power requirements and no cables to set up. Perhaps best of all, this vehicle, which uses mostly off-the-shelf networking components and computer gear, can be put together for less than half of what a traditional microwave ENG van costs.
Patrick Muskopf, remote operations engineer for FOX News, designed and installed the equipment in the vehicles with the goal of overcoming the limitations of traditional microwave-equipped vans by taking advantage of the latest IT technology. Both vans feature a RaySat Antenna Systems rooftop circular antenna that rotates to find the satellite and never needs to be raised for positioning. With its autotracking capability, each Electionlink can lock onto the satellite while in transit, enabling reporters to provide coverage live from the front passenger seat via a dashboard-mounted box camera. It can also use a ubiquitous broadband connection, either wireless or wired. In fact, the only transmission limitation is the modem technology used onboard, which provides up to 850Kb/s throughput.
For most live remotes, IP signals are uplinked to a dedicated satellite transponder (AMC-5), downlinked to FOX's Washington, D.C., teleport facility and then sent via fiber-optic line to the network's New York City headquarters at 270Mb/s. The only limitation is that both vans can't transmit simultaneously because they use the same coordinates.
Multicamera production goes anywhere
The Electionlink SUVs get their inspiration from military communications vehicles. Along with the rotating flat-panel array antenna, the van's rooftop also features a digital camera inside a weatherproof turret, which can rotate 360 degrees.
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The van also has a small four-input Laird FieldFire video switcher (connected via FireWire) and Ashley audio mixer. This enables the crew to shoot a reporter inside the truck and immediately follow the reporter as he or she steps outside (via the turret camera as well) with a handheld Panasonic AJ-HPX2000 P2 camera. The handheld camera includes a Link Systems wireless transmitter, so a continuous POV is preserved. There's also a Miranda DV-Bridge to convert signals and Canopus SDI-to-DV converter to convert SD or HD footage to IP for transmission. The entire setup allows the viewers to see exactly what the reporter on the ground is seeing, at the same time. This first-person perspective was another conscious design goal of the new Electionlink vans.
IP in action
For transmission, there's a Streambox encoder and related software linked to an Apple MacBook Pro laptop. A second MacBook Pro is used for onboard editing and decoding. Once the van reaches a desired location (in addition to transmitting in transit), a signal can be sent by means of the antenna via the satellite in the sky or using a local 3G or Wi-Fi hot spot connection. (Starbucks coffee shops are a favorite stop of the crew.) A ComTech modem routes the signal internally, where data is streamed at up to 850Kb/s, or about three times as fast as traditional microwave connections. The back channel is returned at 128Kb/s. A Streambox decoder is also used to establish a point-to-point path via the public Internet if needed. Video quality can be adjusted with a few turns of a knob on the encoder, in real time.
The two-man crews report that the video quality is great, and they can move around with unlimited freedom and little latency (about three seconds) between talkback. That's about one-and-a-half seconds longer than a standard satellite-delivered videophone connection for live broadcast. Muskopf is most proud of the fact that the two crews, who began as camera operators and audio mixers, were able to operate all of the equipment in the van and file footage with little training.
A limitation of satellite antennas is inclement weather. As any broadcast engineer knows, satellite transmitters need line-of-sight to the transponder. Muskopf said the during snow storms or in heavy rain, the vans actually perform better in motion than standing still. He's working on adding heating elements to counteract icing problems, but in general he's pleased with the reliability of the satellite links that are available virtually anywhere in the country.
Transmission on the go
The vehicle's ability to get the news as it happens was put to the test during the early Democrat party primary in New Hampshire. As the van was sitting outside a polling location in the state's capitol of Concord, news broke of a hostage situation an hour away at a Hillary Clinton campaign office in Rochester, NH. A news crew raced across the state, with a reporter staying live from the front seat. They arrived on the scene in plenty of time to witness the perpetrator as he gave himself up. It was all captured live and transmitted with an IP transmission via satellite. Everyone involved agrees that a standard microwave vehicle would have taken much longer to set up and capture the story as comprehensively.
Live at all times
Four months after their debut, the new IP broadband vans have gotten the attention of many in the industry, especially among the FOX station group, which, budgets permitting, is considering building a few more by the end of the year. The dedicated transponder space that FOX News has at its disposal is perhaps the one major hurdle for local stations to add to their budgets.
Yet there's no denying that the future direction of ENG transmission is IP streaming, in one form or another, enabling reporters to file from any location, no matter how remote or congested. As Muskopf likes to say, the goal is “everywhere we go, we're live, at all times.” At FOX News, that concept has been successfully achieved with the Electionlink vehicles.
Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on professional video and broadcast technology industries.
Patrick Muskopf, remote operations engineer
Technology at work
Apple MacBook Pro laptops
Ashley audio mixer
Axis Communications PTZ roof camera
Canon HV20 dash camera
Canopus SDI-to-DV converter
Laird FieldFire video switcher
Link Systems wireless transmitter
Miranda DV-Bridge converter
AJ-HPX2000 P2 camera
HVX200 P2 cam
RaySat rotating flat-panel array antenna
SES Americom AMC-5 satellite
Streambox encoder and decoder
Telular wireless products