Bonded cellular could be a game changer for ENG

Some journalists working for WCBS-DT in New York City are now using a cellular transmitter in a backpack kit that allows them to broadcast HD images live from anywhere they can find a bonded 3G or 4G mobile connection. The most advanced 4G networks allow more and higher-quality video to be transported within a single stream, but availability around the country — indeed, the world — is limited.

Many are calling it the beginning of the end of microwave trucks, because journalists can set up and move around quickly, as the news story breaks, without having to worry about line-of-sight locations or accidentally raising a mast antenna into high-power electric lines.

Others — who have been in situations where six and seven camera operators are jostling for prime position while producers are talking on a cell phone, and laugh at the prospect of all of them getting a “clean” connection — are not so quick to sell the ENG van.

The term "bonded" means that the subscriber (a broadcast station) has asked for several circuits or connections that are synchronized to provide a level of reliability that is typically better than standard consumer wireless connections. A station could use up to 12 circuit cards to transmit a full HD signal. Some are using as few as four 5Mb/s circuits to transport live 720p60 signals at 19Mb/s. Of course, getting access to a 5Mb/s connection can be tricky, especially when you are working in a situation where there is a lot of RF traffic flying around, like inside a sports or entertainment venue.

For example, when a WCBS crew went to Madison Square Garden during an NBA New York Knicks game this past season, it found the normal transmission links were down due to construction. It decided to use bonded cellular for a live feed from the floor.

However, in an RF-intensive place like the Garden, the WCBS crew found itself competing with the fans using cellular phones for bandwidth. In that situation, public bandwidth is on a first come first served basis. This is what concerns broadcasters most about using cellular technology. They want (need) guaranteed bandwidth on demand — something they can't guarantee with bonded cellular.

Stations around the country are experimenting and meeting with cellular carriers to discuss a quality of service minimum that would give them some sort of priority access to cellular networks. Such arrangements, however, might be cost-prohibitive and could run into net neutrality rules, which prohibit carriers from selling priority access to preferred users of their networks.

In the case of WCBS, it is renting its cellular backpack system for about $2500 a month. With some rental plans, airtime is unlimited. Other services may limit it to about 60 hours a month.

Another challenge with cellular is securing reliable coverage over a wide geographical area. Some stations are located in rural DMAs with a lot of ground to cover. There might be a situation where different service provider have areas with both good and poor coverage, requiring a station to contract with two or more service providers, rather than just one, to get sufficient coverage.

“Poor coverage may be bandwidth-speed related, where bonding two 4G circuits works well, but bonding four does not,” said Tore Nordahl, an industry consultant who has researched the use of cellular networks for live HD newsgathering. “This may require the bonding of four 4G circuits, of which two are from one service provider and two more from a second service provider.”

David Friend, the senior vice president of news at the CBS owned-and-operated stations and news director at WCBS in New York, calls bonded cellular “a game changer” that has enabled his station to become more intimate with viewers and tell stories in real time as they happen.

The station purchased its first Mobile 2 units from LiveU and TVU Networks last fall and, Friend said, they have “changed the nature of how we report stories and the outcomes of those stories.”

Other CBS O&O stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Miami and Minneapolis are now using bonded cellular technology in various configurations from various vendors.

With Mobile 2, CBS crews have been working from small mobile vehicles (cars and SUVs), using only the backpack to transmit live video while moving around. Several vendors make bonded cellular systems — including LiveTV, TVU Networks and Streambox — and they work in similar ways.

LiveU’s LU60 is a 12lb backpack that bonds up to 14 cellular (3G/4G), WiMAX and WiFi modems to provide a live video uplink. It delivers 1080i HD video resolution and supports all the cellular carriers — automatically finding the best signal at a given moment.

Streambox offers its Avenir, a battery-operated, hardware-based encoder that provides up to eight 3G/4G bonded wireless network aircards, enabling transmission of live or file-based video over wireless networks. Stations owned by Fisher Communications are using them in the field as an alternative to SNG/ENG vehicles. It lets a reporter file HD/SD live and file-based video content over a variety of IP networks. Reporters can also access the unit’s user interface through wireless devices like the Apple iPod touch or iPad. The Avenir uses the company’s ACT-L3 codec to capture and encode HD content (in 1080i or 720p), at data rates of up to 20Mb/s, and SD content in NTSC or PAL from 64kb/s to 8Mb/s.

Even professional camera manufacturers are beginning to take notice. At the NAB Show in April JVC showed a prototype WiFi transmitter module that mounts on the back of its new GY-HM790U camcorder and allows a reporter to connect to a local (or personal) hotspot and use the Internet to send footage back to the station. It’s not the fastest connection, and reliability is questionable, but it gets the story back to the station almost as fast as a microwave truck.

“The reliability of the connection has a lot to do with the provider and Internet traffic congestion,” said Dave Walton, vice president of marketing communications at JVC. “We’re not suggesting a simple WiFi connection and a hotspot is a substitute for a full HD microwave link, but the reality is that when reporters get to a breaking news story, they want to get it back to the station as quickly as possible. The bottom line is that even if you can get a visual on the air, even if it’s low quality, it’s a competitive advantage.

It’s clear that cellular technology offers stations a new level of mobility to go where ENG microwave vans can’t. And wireless connectivity technology will only get faster and more reliable with time. With budgets crunched and equipment availability scarce, cellular ENG is looking more promising all the time.