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Intercom Plan C: Backing up the Back-up

(Image credit: Clear-com)

Unexpected communication disruptions are an unwelcome, but alas a familiar reality for live broadcast and media production teams. Known for their meticulous planning, these teams often build in a “Plan B” for any situation, including intercom redundancy. 

But what happens when the back-up needs a back-up plan? That’s “Plan C.”

Intercom technology has advanced to the level of essential technology in live broadcast and production environments, as communications have progressed from simple walkie-talkie use to full-duplex wireless and wired intercom systems. 

If something goes wrong during an event, you lose the ability to communicate mission-critical or safety messages, making it extremely difficult to call a show or resolve any serious difficulties. The importance of intercoms is heightened by modern productions having so many more moving parts than in previous years with more elaborate production assets to track and monitor.

No one plans to fail, they fail to plan
When designing an intercom system for a broadcast facility, “Plan A” can be defined as the ideal primary solution, a thoughtfully designed configuration that does everything needed to ensure smooth operations and a high-quality production.

In most broadcast studios and media production facilities, the primary communications solution is typically an IP-based matrix and/or a digital wireless system serving as the comms backbone. Everything connected to that matrix frame or wireless network—stations, beltpacks, mixing consoles, camera control units, connections between the studio and OB trucks in the field—are dependent on the success of that IP or wireless connection. 

Plan B
Plan B is the primary alternate, for introducing redundancy into a comms system, and that redundancy can take many forms. It most often is a separate network for IP traffic in case the main network is compromised through user error, an intrusion attempt, or damage caused by natural disasters like flooding, hurricanes, or earthquakes.

Plan B can enable an authorized user to revert to an intercom client on their smartphone or allow somebody within a role-based system to re-login to another virtual port from a different connected device if the primary device fails. Plan B also can include a checklist covering internal matrix IP card redundancy, uninterruptable power supplies (UPS), multiple controller cards, multiple cross-points for carrying an output to a destination and redundant trunk lines. 

Think of it as everything needed to carry out a broadcast or media production with the full functionality of your original system.

To recap so far: Plan A, the ideal system. Plan B, back-up and redundancy.

Plan C
Plan C is all about just getting it done.

The need for Plan C arises when a team is unable to use the original main system at all—the IP connections or wireless networks are disrupted or inaccessible. That means all communications need to come across a completely different system. 

This concept is becoming more relevant in the wake of the pandemic, and  which crystallized in people's minds about the mission-critical need for alternate planning, especially with more hybrid and remote workflows in place. Remote teams need the ability to communicate with the main on-site production environment to keep operations running smoothly. 

The goal of Plan C is to provide a simple, but vital element to a redundancy scheme. For an IP-based matrix system, an analog partyline can serve as an effective Plan C. It is a separate system and not dependent on the network, but still provides sufficient communications for key personnel whether they are on-site or virtual.

The architecture of this type of battery-backed system is well suited to emergency operations. One mic cable contains both the audio and the necessary voltage for the system to operate, and the power requirements are small enough for UPS operation. These systems are also able to communicate with two-way radio systems, or walkie-talkies, which are commonly one of the last systems still running in emergency situations. 

For a wireless system, a mobile intercom app or virtual desktop client running on public data networks—in other words, non-facility-based—can also be considered. An emerging trend we’re seen is organizations falling back on virtual intercom clients (like Clear-Com’s Agent-IC or Station-IC) as an alternate back-up.

The baseline criteria for a Plan C system is that it must be based on different technology from the primary intercom infrastructure. It should not be reliant on the same infrastructure used by Plan A or B systems, on IP or the station’s power operations.

Scaling to the event
For any type of production, Plan C redundancy is important, but different organizations may approach it differently. For example, an in-house adjacent Plan C will provide cover for a news system. However, OB trucks are more susceptible to disruption (power or internet connectivity). As a result, in a live sports environment, where the production is using on-site communications to connect back to a central switch, it would be more complicated to configure alternative analog systems for anything other than local communications. In this case, simple back-up audio or dial-up connections to the central production would work.

Communications between a central production and a production truck are easier with IP and that cannot easily be replicated through a Plan C based on an analog partyline. This would be one of the few areas where it would be the hardest to achieve but PL to interfaces with local connections to mobile phones may help here.

Each tier of a comms plan should always scale according to the size and scope of the production, and Plan C is no exception. Large broadcast operations can separate studio sites into their own emergency plan C, while smaller systems may have one Plan C system that covers different buildings. 

While the reasons for activating a Plan C are never known until they happen, the reasons for having one are clear. 

More organizations are migrating their systems to IP-based operation. There are more elaborate and complex production values for broadcast and live events with increasing costs—and consequences—for down-time. The use of remote and hybrid workflows demands alternative solutions with both wired and virtual intercom capabilities.

There are myriad other reasons for having a Plan C drawn up and ready to go. Those reasons aren’t known yet—until they happen, and if they do, they will be prepared and safe. 

Simon Browne is Vice President of Product Management for Clear-Com.