Gray Television to deploy IP hotspot network for news contribution

Gray Television has received an experimental license construction permit from the FCC to begin deploying a private radio network that’s similar to a cellular phone network in College Station, Texas, and Bryan, Texas, for IP-based newsgathering from the field.

The radios, which will operate with an effective radiated power (ERP) of 32W in the 1.99GHz-to-2.2GHz frequency range, will provide the backbone of the network Gray will use to support two-way IP communication with news crews in the field.

The rollout is part of a much larger deployment Gray Television ultimately could push to make more efficient use of 2GHz Broadcast Auxiliary Service spectrum for news contribution by its stations around the country.

The system, which the broadcaster is calling GrayMAX, will provide guaranteed bandwidth for IP transport from the field to Gray Television stations. The system bypasses commercial wireless providers and associated problems with bandwidth availability, which are common in stadiums and the sites of other large events where journalists must compete with the general public for cellular bandwidth.

“This technology will allow our backpack reporters to stay connected all of the time as opposed to some of the time using the common carrier connections that we have to currently share with other cell users,” says Jim Ocon, Gray Television VP of Technology.

Not only will the system provide for IP transport of live and recorded reports, but it will also give Gray journalists in the field remote access to their stations’ newsroom computer systems, news wires and other resources that will effectively allow them to take the newsroom with them into the field.

The brainchild of Ocon, GrayMax stitches together multiple cell sites to provide Gray journalists operating from specially equipped newsgathering vehicles with simple access to their station. Outfitted with a one-button-press-to-aim antenna, the vehicle provides for two-way IP transport to carry video, voice and other data between the Gray television station and the remote crew via the cell site.

Up to four base stations in a cell provide 360-degree coverage. Each is connected to a switch, which in turn is connected to a backhaul data link — either wired or wireless — to move data back and forth between the cell site and the station.

As envisioned, multiple news crews will be able to contribute stories using a single GrayMax channel. Each, which Gray is designating a “subscriber unit" (SU), will have access to a variable amount of bandwidth depending upon its individual needs. Base stations within cells will send out control data to tell each SU when to expect its transmit time slot. Employing this time-slot approach near-simultaneous use of the available spectrum by multiple SUs is possible, contributing to the overall spectral efficiency of GrayMax.

Gray’s KBTX first deployed the system about a year ago in College Station. At that time, the system used unlicensed spectrum in the 5.8GHz band to transport data. Since then, Gray has applied for a patent on the system and worked with radio manufacturers to modify 2GHz radios for the experimental use.

Peter Gogas, the engineer at KBTX who has worked with Ocon on GrayMax, says the system offers several advantages over traditional digital ENG links, including a far lower price than traditional microwave trucks, the ability to put more crews on live at the same time, and elimination of the need to raise and lower pneumatic masts. Gogas notes that a KBTX staff member was killed about a decade ago when an ENG mast was accidentally raised into power lines and that ever since the station group has looked for ways to minimize the role of masts.

However, GrayMax does not preclude use of 2GHz COFDM microwave or satellite backhaul to augment newsgathering reach from the field. In fact, for certain distant assignments, traditional contribution methods may be preferable, Gogas says.

According to Gogas, Gray is now waiting for radio vendors to complete necessary modifications to 2GHz radios before deployment and testing can begin. He says he hopes to see GrayMax in the field within six months.

Beyond the focus on immediate deployment, GrayMax may offer long-term benefits not only for news operations, but also for the country at large as the FCC weighs its options to recoup spectrum for wireless carriers.

“GrayMax is clearly a very efficient use of our most important newsgathering tool: BAS,” Ocon says. “It also may allow a pathway to give back additional spectrum to the FCC while still allocating a channel for exclusive newsgathering use, thereby providing a channel for emergency communications back to the public.”