Who can’t think of a couple of dozen reasons why live ENG, via local microwave or satellite, is the top daily headache for many stations? Dedicated ENG and SNG vehicles are expensive to buy, and keeping the fleet safe and reliable is an endless responsibility and expense. They are also a tremendous liability. Some are top-heavy. Most are loaded to the max. They’re all filled with built-in dangers such as masts, generators and extension cords.
Several new solutions to the challenges of traditional ENG, SNG and DSNG have appeared in the market recently. These solutions, known as bonded cellular, use portable video-over-cellular technology to get live reports and video files back to the station with the reliability of typical ENG microwaves and latency similar to DSNG. They can provide live backhaul virtually anywhere, anytime with relatively little effort or preparation. The technology is so new it doesn’t have an acronym, so let’s coin one. Bonded Cellular News Gathering is BCNG.
BCNG first gained popularity overseas, but domestic TV networks broadcast groups and others are quickly embracing the technology across the U.S. Some estimate approximately 1500 to 2000 BCNG systems are currently in service worldwide.
Few are predicting that BCNG will totally replace ENG vans and SNG/DSNG trucks. Instead, BCNG is being positioned as a complement to traditional RF backhauls. Big vans and trucks have obvious and significant advantages at some news events, but you can’t park them just anywhere. A small crew using a bonded cellular system can drive a hybrid sedan to a news scene and get live shots and stories on the air that vans and trucks equipped with microwaves and satellite dishes may have a problem accessing or operating out of.
The significant side-benefit of BCNG is that can be an instantaneous upgrade to HD ENG. It allows operators to backhaul and broadcast or webcast live HD feeds with nothing more than an HD camera, a lightweight BCNG backpack and a ride to the scene.
There is no need to upgrade microwave systems or station infrastructure. All you need at the studio is a 3Mb/s to 5Mb/s Internet connection, a few units of rack space and a cross point on the station router. The terminal equipment often includes store-and-forward technologies to work in conjunction with newsroom editing systems and servers. Some will simultaneously forward messages to notify users when clips are available.
Several years ago, some dreamers began to pursue the idea of “bonding” cellular telephones to achieve enough bandwidth to transport data SD and HD signals. Bonding cellular telephones simply means the subscriber has requested from a cellular provider or providers multiple circuits or connections, synchronized to provide a level of reliability that is typically better than standard consumer wireless connections. 3G is good; 4G is preferred. The caveat is that bandwidth and reliability are not guaranteed by providers.
While there are a number of technology companies building bonded cellular systems for IT-centric services, only a few have seriously focused on the broadcast market. In the process, they are finding the market for broadcast quality SD or HD video backhaul and webcasting also includes radio stations, sports departments and government agencies to name a few.
Conceptually, all bonded cellular systems work the same. They all bond cell phones, use H.264 encoding, and employ proprietary technologies to monitor and control such variables as bandwidth and error-correction.
Typically, BCNG systems are in a backpack for connection to the camera, typically HD and SD SDI or HDMI or DV, with embedded audio. BCNG can provide backhaul in two ways. One is over the Internet cloud. The other is to a dedicated receiving terminal at the station. Most receiving terminals have an embedded SDI output and include store and forward technologies for file transfers and package feeds, for instance. Bandwidth is selectable at the transmit site. Some bonded cell phones attach to Wi-Fi when it is available.
The most obvious difference between units on the market today is form factor, I/O and the number of bonded cell phones the unit can accept. Less obvious are the proprietary technologies that enable systems to achieve broadcast quality. Useful options such as solid state drives (SSD) may also be available. Most provide built-in IFB.
In some cases, such as in venues that are crowded with cell phone users (the Superbowl, for example), more cell phones are better. In other cases, three or four bonded cell phones may be sufficient. The best results come from aggregating as many cell providers as possible, such as ATT, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, so the system has the best chance of negotiating the necessary bandwidth at the most possible locations. Arriving early and firing up the BCNG unit as soon as possible allows the system and individual phones to negotiate the best available connections before the feed begins.
There are many different ways for a station or group to obtain BCNG systems. You can buy the hardware and DIY the cell phone contracts. One of the best methods is to lease the entire system as a package from the manufacturer. That way, the manufacturer takes care of everything from the hardware to the bonded cell phone subscriptions and payments. Generally, one complete system, including 30 hours of airtime each month, leases for approximately $2000 to $3000 monthly. This ballpark figure is intended for discussion purposes only, as each manufacturer has its own plans and prices. BCNG manufacturers include TVU Networks, Streambox, Dejero and LiveU.
Latency is always a primary consideration for broadcasters, although with DSNG, we’ve learned to adjust to it. BCNG systems are generally advertised to have latency similar to SD-DSNG, which is approximately one to three seconds. However, latency is a function of bandwidth, so an SD signal will have less latency than an HD signal. Typically, the latency of a full bandwidth 1080 HD signal can be from six to 12 seconds. With optimal connections, 1080 HD latency can be as low as a second or less. That may sound complicated, but with a dedicated IFB and good back-timing skills, viewers won’t know.
When do things start to get real crazy in a microwave or SNG truck? During a severe storm, high winds or both. And when do news and weather producers clamor for live coverage? During a severe storm, high winds or both. That’s not news, but easy, reliable and relatively safe live shots during severe weather is huge news.
Meredith Broadcast Group recently deployed several LiveU LU60 BCNG systems. One recipient was WFSB, Hartford. Director of Engineering Victor Zarrilli says his assignment desk loves it. They hadn’t had it long before last year’s Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast, and WFSB was doing live shots of the wreckage from inside a Ford Escape long before any ENG or SNG trucks were able to set up.
BCNG has uses other than to complement ENG and SNG. Zarrilli also shared a story about how he used his BCNG system as a substitute STL, when the regular STL was acting up. He set up his BCNG system at the studio and took his receiving terminal to the transmitter. The delay was 11 seconds, so he ran a 10-second PSA locally while he made the physical change over. The on-air transition was seamless, and the difference in video quality was virtually undetectable.
As BCNG grows in popularity and sophistication, the necessity of ENG and SNG truck fleets is in question. If trucks and microwave vans are truly headed to the Museum of Broadcast Good-Riddance, I believe there is some parking space available between the TCR-100s and the ADOs.
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