Five years ago, CNN opened a new chapter in the use of newsgathering technology when it delivered live and recorded reports of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict using IP technology and networks.
The news network deployed journalists with a combination of portable cameras, laptop editors, IP contribution technology and advanced satellite uplinks. The setup gave CNN a new level of mobility, speed and flexibility to contribute coverage of the conflict. For these efforts, CNN was first recognized with a pair of Innovation Awards at IBC2007 in Amsterdam and in January 2008 with a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award.
Fast forward to today, and similar IP newsgathering systems are deployed around the world by television news organizations to cover everything from the aftermath of hurricanes and tsunamis to military conflicts and the election trail.
But, IP newsgathering systems aren't limited to use by networks keen on getting to some remote corner of the planet. Local broadcasters and station groups also are deploying IP newsgathering systems to lower costs, reduce response times to breaking news and increase the number of reporters in the field.
Putting more feet on the street is exactly what local news needs, says Dave Smith, CEO and co-founder of Los Angeles-based SmithGeiger consultancy.
“Local news has become pretty generic,” Smith said. “You have to have a lot of original reporting.
“Stations have to get new, original stories on-air; they have to get back to beat stories. With MMJs (multimedia journalists), they can work beats and don't have to have eight people on standby to race out to shoot in front of a breaking story.”
IP newsgathering technology gives them a way to contribute those beat stories without the expense of traditional electronic news gathering.
The timing formula
Unlike licensed Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) point-to-point ENG microwave contribution and traditional satellite newsgathering, IP newsgathering leverages the extensive, wireless, portable IP satellite transmission and wired Internet infrastructure to transport live and store-and-forward reports. While doing so offers a number of advantages, including lower cost, quicker response and greater mobility over traditional contribution approaches, IP news transport faces one challenge that ENG and SNG do not — namely bit rate, or data transfer rate. In news, where every second counts, having sufficient bit rate literally can make or break the timeliness and relevancy of a report.
At an IT technology summit hosted by Broadcast Engineering in 2010, Fred Fourcher, CEO of Bitcentral, laid out a simple formula that puts bit rate into perspective as it impacts newsgathering. The formula (1Mb/s Connection x Encoded Data Rate = Time to Send) elegantly sums up the challenge facing any reporter relying on an IP network for story contribution. (See Figure 1.)
To put that challenge into perspective, consider that the encoded data rate of MPEG-4 H.264 compressed 720p HD video is 11Mb/s. (See Table 1.) Obviously, with a 1Mb/s connection, it will take 11 seconds to contribute one second of report. A two-minute report, therefore, would require 22 minutes to submit via a 1Mb/s connection (120 seconds of an encoded news report x 11 seconds). The delay grows dramatically from there as resolution increases to 1080i source footage.
Resolution (W x H) Pixels Description Multiple of SD MPEG-2 compress Mb/s MPEG-4 compress Mb/s 720 × 480 345,600 Standard definition 1 8 4 1280 × 720 921,600 720p 3 21 11 1280 × 1080 1,382,400 Used by Panasonic 4 32 16 1440 × 1080 1,555,200 Used by Sony 5 36 18 1920 × 1080 2,073,600 1080i 6 48 24
Table 1. A comparison of the size of HD and SD formats as it relates to resolution and bit rate. The MPEG-4 column refers to H.264 compression and is considered to have similar quality at about half the data rate of MPEG-2. The chart shows the data rates starting with MPEG-2 at 8Mb/s. Table courtesy Bitcentral.
A couple of solutions are obvious: Increase the data rate of the connection and employ more efficient encoders or compression algorithms. A variety of vendors offering IP newsgathering systems have addressed the former by increasing the number of IP paths, including support for multiple wireless Internet modems from different service providers, and channel bonding the connections. One, in particular, takes a slightly different approach and examines the network performance of each available wireless path. In essence, it performs a reverse stat mux to divvy up the data in a way to take advantage of the maximum data transfer rate of each wireless connection employed.
Until very recently, these types of strategies were about the only ones available to increase transfer rate. That's because even as companies like Verizon Wireless, Sprint and AT&T roll out their 4G wireless networks, high-data transfer rates were reserved for downloads, not uploads. But, that began to change in the spring when one vendor announced at the 2011 NAB Show that it would begin shipping later in the year a self-contained, on-camera IP newsgathering solution with full integration with the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network that takes advantage of possible upload speeds that can provide reliable delivery of broadcast video in real-time for live news.
Another solution is to take advantage of other faster wireless technologies, such as WiMAX, or tap data transfer rates available on a wired Internet connection. As for the other part of the equation — finding more efficient encoders and algorithms — price has limited deployment of more efficient encoders for IP newsgathering, and work is still under way on the successor to H.264 compression.
New possibilities and priorities
Despite the bit-rate challenge, local broadcasters are increasingly embracing IP newsgathering as a supplement to traditional ENG and SNG backhaul for contribution of stories because of portability and speed.
The apprehension of the alleged bank-robbing Dougherty gang this summer in southern Colorado is a good example, said Jim Ocon, VP-Technology for the Gray Television broadcast group. The gang — Lee-Grace Dougherty; her brother, Ryan Dougherty; and her half-brother, Dylan Dougherty Stanley — were taken into custody after a 20mi, high-speed car chase.
“Our station in Colorado Springs rolled their satellite truck and couldn't get a signal but had their (IP newsgathering) backpack and used it to scoop the country,” Ocon said. “They deploy so much faster than a truck. Once the yellow tape goes up, and people are on the scene, you go with a traditional truck or a land line if you have one (for the Internet connection).”
Gray Television, which serves 30 markets across the country, has outfitted about half of its newsrooms with backpack-based IP newsgathering systems and has plans to equip the rest.
“We are finding that acceptance from stations is really spectacular,” Ocon said.
What IP newsgathering offers newsrooms is a new tier of coverage, said Del Parks, VP Operations and Engineering of the Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBG).
“They're the next level down from a live truck,” Parks said. “If it is a scoot and shoot, then you might use one of these backpacks.”
With stations in 39 markets, SBG is currently finalizing a deal to equip all of its stations that do local news with an IP newsgathering backpack, according to Parks. From a strategic point of view, IP newsgathering opens up new possibilities for capital expense devoted to field contribution.
“Maybe now, we don't need five live trucks; maybe we need three,” Parks said. “As you introduce technology, you reduce the cost on the big ticket items and spread it over these lower-cost technologies, and it gives you more capability.
“At the end of the day, it is about getting more content.”
Ocon, however, sees IP newsgathering as a way to break cleanly with the past.
“I am not buying any more live trucks,” he said. “We'll still have a vehicle to get to the story, but that is different from a masted vehicle that costs $100,000 or more.
“Those (ENG trucks) are a huge safety risk. They cost a lot in maintenance and gas, and there is an environmental cost as well.”
While Ocon said there are no plans to eliminate the station group's ENG fleet, Gray Television won't buy any more.
“Gray would much rather invest capital into smaller cameras, iPads, cellular connectivity and mobile editing platforms,” Ocon said.
Covering a raging forest fire in 2004 from a mountain near Lillooet, British Columbia, Canada, Gary Symons, then a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), experienced firsthand another limitation of ultra-portable backpack journalism.
“I was on a very steep mountain getting coverage,” Symons said. “The trees would burn down, and roll downhill spreading the fire.”
Carrying three bags of gear, including a video camera, tripod, laptop and audio equipment for both TV and radio coverage, Symons decided to evacuate his reporting position when word came that a big wind had begun spreading the fire even faster.
“I started hiking back up to the truck and caught a wire dangling from one of the bundles on a tree,” Symons said. “That flung me down the hill sending my camera, tripod and other gear all over the place. I started picking it up and stepped in a hot spot that caught my pants on fire, which caused me to drop all of the gear again.
“That is when I figured I would do two things: Get some fireproof pants and find some more portable gear.”
Since that time, Symons started Vericorder, a company that, at the 2011 NAB Show, began offering apps and hardware that turn an Apple iPhone into a Swiss Army knife of ultraportable newsgathering and transport. Using his company's newsgathering software and hardware bundle lets Symons produce three to four finished stories in the time it used to take him to shoot, report, edit and submit one with his backpack of gear, he says. Currently, live video is not an option for the system, but may be in the future, according to Symons, as Vericorder pursues a streaming partner from the broadcast industry.
Other alternatives for live streaming news reports from smartphones exist today, however. This month, AT&T announced AT&T Video Capture, an app that lets users stream video as they record it on their smartphones. A special bundle for broadcasters includes low-latency video ingest decoder software for live on-air reports. Another is Apple's FaceTime, which adds live video streaming from the iPad 2, the iPhone 4 and iPod touch, as well as a Mac.
“There are a lot of ways to stream live video that may ultimately eclipse what is being done by the industry,” Geiger said. “A reporter with an iPad and a mobile wireless connection is pretty much in business.”
However, industry consultant and publisher of the HDTV Executive Report Tore Nordahl said not so fast.
“Although helpful in the overall newsgathering environment, particularly in the area of hyperlocal reporting, Nordahl said, “the iPhone ‘ENG tool’ will not take market away from the professional mainstream HD ENG products required by TV stations' news operations to remain locally competitive.”
Even so, equipping local journalists, news producers and others in the newsroom with a relatively low-cost smartphone should increase the opportunity for staffers to find, break and report stories as they happen upon them.
A bright future
Several developments promise an even brighter future for IP newsgathering, including more efficient compression algorithms, new ways to access the Internet remotely with high bit rates and even more portable solutions for professional cameras.
In February 2012, the Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding (JCT-VC) of ISO/IEC MPEG and ITU-T VCEG is expected to release the final draft of a new standard named High Efficiency Video Coding, also known as HEVC or H.265. It is anticipated that HEVC will encode video at lower bit rates than MPEG H.264 but at the same quality level.
The consequences of a more efficient compression algorithm will ripple throughout the broadcast industry and likely lead to the availability of smaller IP newsgathering wireless transport camera backs or even integration of this capability directly into ENG cameras.
“I think that the emerging HEVC or H.265 compression with lower bit rate and improved 4G upload speeds may help to reduce bonding complexity, perhaps to the point that only one 4G wireless upload circuit is required,” Nordahl said. “Look for this by 2015, with early cameraback attempts using bonding and H.264 possibly by next year.”
While the future is bright for IP newsgathering, it isn't likely to replace traditional ENG or SNG for quite a while.
“I estimate that wireless broadband HD ENG backhaul will be dominant by 2015,” Nordahl said, “but microwave and satellite will still be in significant ENG backhaul use, because 4G/LTE will not have sufficient or reliable coverage in the fringe areas of many DMAs.”
Phil Kurz regularly reports on the broadcast industry and is the writer of Broadcast Engineering's “OTT Trends and Technology” e-newsletter.