Oklahoma City station finds (financial and technical) freedom with cellular transmission

The use of cellular networks to transmit live video is gaining momentum across the country, and not just in the biggest media markets. KSBI-TV, an independent station in Oklahoma City, OK, is among the latest to take advantage of the freedom and immediacy that a single operator with a backpack transmitter can bring.

The station is using two TVUPack systems, from a company called TVU Networks, attached to Panasonic 430 P2 HD camcorders to shoot local sports and entertainment events and stream a 1080p/30 signal back to the station live. The station does not produce a newscast, but it does broadcast 17 hours per week of local programming (both live and taped in the studio), as well as syndicated shows.

The TVUPack system supports all of the major cellular carriers by adding receiver cards as needed. For about $6000 per year, KSBI subscribes to both AT&T and Verizon, which both offer 3G and 4G service in the Oklahoma City area. If a camera operator pulls up to an event and can't get one service to work, he or she instantly switches over to the other.

“I just have to get a good signal from one service or the other, and we usually do,” said Jerry Hart, vice president of operations for KSBI. “In our world, the real challenge of compression is fast motion. With the TVUPacks, if I have about a 1.5Mb/s connection, we can show live football highlights, and you don't see any artifacts. It’s very impressive.”

The station produces two one-hour shows live in its studios that often include cut-ins from the field using the TVUPack. For one assignment, a camera operator covered the local Oklahoma State Fair and rode the Ferris wheel while transmitting live video. There was also a recent birth of a baby elephant at the local zoo and, while all of the other stations in the market had to use their microwave trucks to send back the story to the station, the KSBI reporter went live from the elephant pen.

“While the stations had to shoot B-roll video at the elephant pen, then run back to the microwave truck, roll in B-roll footage and then shoot a live standup from the front gates of the zoo, we did a live shot with the elephant,” Hart said.

Because the system is so lightweight and easy to set up, the station will send out its two TVUPack crews to cover parts of six football games in one Friday night.

When the reporter shows up at a game and puts on his backpack, by the time he reaches the sideline, he’s already transmitting live video,” Hart said. “This has really changed the business and has allowed us to compete in ways even we never thought possible a year ago.”

It was in November 2010 that Hart and Vince Orza, KSBI’s president and CEO, took over the station (locally owned and operated by Family Broadcasting Group of Oklahoma) and began devising a plan to distinguish itself from the competition. The previous management used satellites to gather its news and other programs, but it was determined that the newsgathering field was too crowded, so Hart and Orza shifted their business model to include primarily local sports highlights and events programming and syndicated entertainment shows (including a live morning show called “The Daily Buzz”).

“We decided to do this cost effectively, so we didn't want to use satellites and we didn't want to install a microwave system like all the other stations in our coverage area have,” Hart said. “So we found TVUPack, and now our costs are significantly less and we’re providing our viewers with the best images possible. I'd say it was a good decision.”

Hart estimates they saved “well over” $200,000 in capital costs and operating expenses. The station’s 10GB cellular package costs about $500 per month. He said satellite trucks are expensive, and aside from the cost of the equipment, they also require an engineer to run them and a driver with a CDL to drive them. On top of that, you need to buy airtime and you can’t miss your broadcast windows. The TVUPack has eliminated all of those expenses.

“If we had done this a bit earlier [before the cellular companies moved away from unlimited data plans], we would be paying about $80 per month,” Hart said. “I can have the TVUPack connected to a cellular service and if I have a WiFi network within range, I can add that to the mix and do Wi-Fi and cellular.”

He said the station is partnering with a company that is providing WiFi service to most of Oklahoma City. This allows the reporters to carry a 1ft dish and transmit a signal up to 20mi at 100Mb/s with no degradation. There is an extra charge for the WiFi service.

Apparently, word has gotten out that his station is using the system, and Hart said they are now being invited to a number of events outside of its market, such as upcoming the launch of a new Carnival cruise ship in Galveston, TX, where they will shoot live from on onboard. They’ll also shoot SeaWorld events in Orlando, FL, and San Antonio, TX.

Hart said that the systems have performed exceptionally well, with only a few hiccups. He cautions stations to research their cellular plans to be sure it offers next-generation coverage across their DMA.

“If we can't get a good connection, we just take a step one way or the other to find a better signal,” he said. “The systems have really worked well for us. If you can get a cameraperson to the game, you can get a live feed. It’s so simple to set up; nobody has to run cable or configure the pack to broadcast.”

Boasting a low-latency, HD-quality signal, the TVUPack uses proprietary Inverse StatMux technology, which dynamically segments a live video signal and transmits these packets through multiple independent 3G/4G/WiFi/WiMax connections.

“We’re not a news station, so can't win in a market if we play by everybody else’s rules,” Hart said. “With the TVUPack, we have found a way to compete and stay financially viable at a very costly and competitive time.”