The Slingbox Solution

Slentz is excited about the Slingbox, which has been on the consumer market for nearly two years, and about the device’s po-tential as an extremely cost-effective conduit for transporting video (and audio) via an IP connection without a lot of high maintenance.
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FOSTER CITY, CALIF.


(click thumbnail)Although marketed as a consumer product, Slingbox has gained some broadcast adherents.If Dan Slentz has his way, soon there will be several live weather-traffic cams situated throughout Zanesville, Ohio. Slentz, chief engineer for WHIZ/AM/FM/TV, hasn’t suddenly come into a small fortune which he’s kindly donating to his operation. Instead, he’s in the process of testing a Slingbox from Sling Media Inc., which is essentially a consumer product designed to reroute all the content from a home TV cable or DBS source to a dedicated laptop or desktop computer anywhere in the world via a typical broadband connection.

Slentz is excited about the Slingbox, which has been on the consumer market for nearly two years, and about the device’s po-tential as an extremely cost-effective conduit for transporting video (and audio) via an IP connection without a lot of high maintenance. Slentz has been in touch with Sling Media to encourage it to work up a professional-grade Slingbox for broadcasters, and the firm has been generally receptive to the idea.

Using the off-the-shelf box, the initial test for Slentz in late June was to begin at the site of a print shop on the main drag of tiny Zanesville (Nielsen DMA #203) to install a weather/traffic cam connected to a Slingbox. “The box only cares about the source of the A/V,” said Slentz. “It can take a feed from a VCR or a PVR, a cable converter output as A/V, or a straight RF input. The two crucial parts I’ve found to consider are the upload bandwidth—the stream speed output to the Internet—and the resources of the computer itself that is receiving that stream.”

Slentz said a second tentative test phase in Zanesville would involve placing another camera and Slingbox atop a 30-foot tower at a park that sits high above a well-known bridge. “Our city is famous for having a Y-bridge that crosses over the juncture where the smaller Licking River hits the larger Muskingum River. It’s a great vantage point for a camera that shows the weather and any threats of floods, plus traffic in the distance on [Interstate] 70.” And the third phase of testing, Slentz said, would be locating a cam-and-Slingbox at the local courthouse for news reports on WHIZ, an NBC affiliate.

THE SHARP APPROACH


(click thumbnail)With a Sprint EV-DO card and Slingbox, KPIX has fashioned a remote camera package for $600-$700.An ambitious Slingbox project also is underway at KPIX-TV, the CBS O&O in the nation’s fifth-largest largest market, San Francisco. News Operations Manager Don Sharp currently has more than two dozen camera-Slingbox units focused on various traffic/weather sites throughout the Bay area—all available round-the-clock on the CBS5 Web site.

Sharp’s tests with remote wired and mobile video garnered some industry attention this spring when he detailed his initiatives in an online interview with CNET-TV. “The response to that was truly amazing,” Sharp said. “I heard from both broadcasters and other guys in a lot of states, in Europe, South America, from everywhere, asking me about this Slingbox idea.”

Sharp said in his earliest tests more than a year ago he got “some pretty good quality” from a Slingbox attached to a DSL telco line. But looking for a wireless solution, he found the most reliable success using a cellular-based EV-DO (Evolution Data Only/Evolution Data Optimized) card from Sprint—a technology that provides wireless broadband (3G) Internet service directly to a laptop computer or smartphone. In effect, EV-DO creates its own WiFi-like “hot spot.” The Sprint card works with Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, according to Sprint, at DSL-comparable speeds.

In addition to his current 30 wireless remote locations with fixed cams (each connected to its own Slingbox) which are proving suitable for capturing traffic/weather content for on-air and online use, Sharp said he’s also had success with Slingbox-generated video coverage in moving vehicles.

“I started playing around with it first on my bicycle, doing live shots, and then found that even driving beneath the Bay Bridge we had a live shot and never lost it. It even worked in rain at 65 miles-per-hour,” said Sharp. “I can do a whole [cam site] package for maybe $600-$700 each. That’s many times less than what we’d be paying for traditional equipment, which could easily run $20,000 a site, with all the microwave links, licenses and such.” Sharp buys his cameras for about $200 each from China, and predicts he’ll soon be using 50 Slingboxes and cams in CBS5’s news operation.

Slingboxes are also being used for national coverage of local weather conditions. NBC Weather Plus, an NBC-Universal digital multicast weather service for local broadcasters, has begun tapping into live Slingbox-generated fixed video from a growing list of NBC affiliates around the country, including KPRC in Houston, WDIV in Detroit, KUSA in Denver and WKAQ, San Juan, P.R.

Some Wary of Slingbox Potential

Sling Media may have wowed a lot of tech critics and a growing number of broadcast engineers with its trio of Slingbox products, but it has also made one or two enemies along the way. Among those not willing to play ball with the Slingbox concept of place-shifting TV media is none other than Major League Baseball, which threatened legal action in June, (although the association has reportedly backed off from its threats for the moment).

A few heavy hitters have quickly sprung to Sling Media’s defense, notably the Consumer Electronics Association, which called official baseball’s legal threats nothing less than “a classic instance” of copyright owners trying to “suppress innovation” over a device that is clever enough to empower consumers.

“There is no infringement or piracy here,” declared CEA President/CEO Gary Shapiro in a statement immediately after MLB voiced its displeasure. “Consumers are simply watching content they lawfully purchase or receive free, over-the-air, in a different physical location. You would think it would be in MLB’s interest to please its fans, no matter where they are located. Unfortunately, MLB apparently doesn’t want business travelers or American soldiers in Iraq to enjoy the nation’s pastime via Slingbox.”

The CEA chief reminded MLB that baseball operates under antitrust exemptions based on the concept that it provides entertainment benefits uniquely beneficial to the public. In early June, the Home Recording Rights Coalition also weighed in: “Allowing large copyright owners like MLB to threaten and harass our most innovative companies will harm consumers, our economy, and our global competitiveness.” Bipartisan legislation currently pending in Congress (H.R. 1201) would limit the threat of so-called “secondary statutory damages” to device makers, according to the HRRC.

While Sling Media is talking with other parties about becoming willing content contributors (CBS has already signed on), the Foster City, Calif., firm is not looked upon warily by all pro sports groups. The National Hockey League has agreed to have live and recorded game clips, as well as some long-form content, featured on the Sling Media Web site.

John Merli
Jeff Thein, producer of NBC Weather Plus, said Slingboxes also will be put into service at NBC Universal’s 10 O&Os in the near future, both for local coverage and to augment the digital-tier national weather channel. “By tapping into Slingboxes at our affiliates, NBC Weather Plus can seamlessly bring live weather coverage—previously only available in that particular market—to our viewers across the country,” he said.

Slingbox, however, is not proving to be an easy, cost-effective solution for everyone. One major broadcast operation in the Midwest which did not want to be identified said it recently purchased a Slingbox for its own set of tests, which did not prove successful for its purposes. Problems involved latency issues (thus precluding acceptable lip-syncing for remote stand-ups), and securing enough bandwidth for the desired number of remote sites at various times. Nevertheless, this broadcaster said it does see future applications for Slingbox at some point, after some in-house tweaking.

Beyond broadcasting, major MSOs such as Comcast and Time Warner also are using Slingbox—mainly to monitor ad servers to prove that commercials are being inserted locally and going out on their systems, according to Sling Media spokesman Brian Jaquet.

When Sling Media, based in Foster city, Calif., introduced Slingbox a couple of years ago, it did not envision the consumer product capturing a growing amount of attention from electronic media professionals.

“Our primary focus was consumer-oriented, and still is, but from its earliest stages we noticed users tapping into it in a very vertical fashion,” Jaquet said. “Yet when you combine a reliable video streaming device with an online wired or mobile connection, we knew it opened up a lot of possibilities. Like any technology, you build a product and then others notice different ways to implement it, including ways the creator may never have originally envisioned.”

As for Dan Slentz’s encouragement from Zanesville to produce an industrial-strength version of Slingbox for professionals, Jaquet said, “We think it’s definitely something worth more exploration and we will look at it for increased market opportunities. The question is, ‘are we a big enough company with enough resources to put something like that out for the industry?’ But we do find the idea intriguing.”

Jaquet would not divulge any Slingbox sales figures, to date, but said Sling Media continues selling more boxes to consumers than to broadcasters and other professionals.