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Latest newsgathering technology fosters more vans on the road

As bonded cellular transmission technology continues to be rapidly adopted by news stations and electronic newsgathering (ENG) crews across the country, the general perception is that these systems have reduced the number of ENG vans on the road and hurt business for those companies that supply such traditionally expensive vehicles.

However, that’s not necessarily the case. A new generation of smaller sport utility vehicles and the installation of even smaller transmission technology has led to less costly — in many cases about ­ two-thirds less when compared to standard news vans — portable systems that have resulted in more vehicles (and crews) on the street. And the news business, and its use of technology to trump the other local stations in the market, is as competitive as ever.

The crew at Accelerated Media Technologies (AMT) in Auburn, MA, have been building news vans and satellite and microwave transmission trucks for over 20 years and have weathered several technological storms that predicted the demise of the ENG van. Thomas P. Jennings, president of AMT, said the perception that bonded cellular is a panacea for all types of news coverage is due in part to erroneous marketing slogans from some of the companies that supply bonded cellular transmission in a backpack technology for news crews.

“Everybody is anticipating the eventual leap to IP signal delivery, whether that’s through maximizing microwave bandwidth or using cellular bonding technologies,” he said. “We’re putting in a lot of effort to make the trucks cost less for our clients. That means smaller/ less expensive cameras, encoders, transmitters and whatever else a client needs to keep cost down but functionality high. This allows them to put more trucks on the road and expand their news coverage. At the end of the day, that’s what all news stations need to do in order to stay competitive.”

This has led AMT to build vehicles that leverage a combination of cellular, microwave and/or satellite uplink systems. The company regularly includes rack-mountable cellular transmission systems from companies such as Dejero, LiveU, TVU Networks and others.

Vans get small, for the better

“This technology has allowed news vans to get smaller and more maneuverable, which is what our clients want,” Jennings said. His company now builds and upgrades about 300 vehicles per year, almost twice what it did in 2011.

“We’re now building on short-bodied Chevy and Ford vans, Subaru Foresters and a multitude of small crossover SUVs with power systems that run directly off the engine [the engine can generate more than enough to power these systems],” he said. “They are not the big, power-hungry systems that people are used to using. We’re also using more diesel, CNG and hybrid chassis, because they are more fuel-efficient and they run longer at idle without causing traditional heat problems.”

One bonded cellular system Jennings particularly likes is from Dejero, which has come up with a way to remote mount the antennas from six internal cellular modems to the roof of the vehicle, so that you are not attenuating the signal through the steel body of the van. “It’s a very sophisticated system and extremely well-conceived for a mobile environment,” he said.

Another big trend: Jennings and his team are now regularly implementing fiber-optic cables to enable signals to travel longer distances. As the trucks get smaller and crews shoot in full HD, they need to make longer runs, he said. Copper just does not cut it anymore. The company is also recommending wireless cameras and other production equipment that rely on fiber distribution. This use of newer-generation, IP-centric equipment could lead to a whole array of new applications for newsgathering.

“As the migration to IP occurs, you can begin to integrate even lower cost IP-based equipment to achieve professional results,” Jennings said. “You can start to interface with a variety of professional and prosumer cameras that you can mount all over the vehicle and control remotely [for example, from a desk back at the station] to expand your coverage. We’re seeing stations mount high-end surveillance-type cameras on the top of vans so that they can look around as they survey a news event without getting out of the truck.”

Newsgathering on the move

Citing the recent tornadoes and violent storms in the Midwest, Jennings said the myriad of “weather chasers” are driving this technology forward. 

“A weather chaser is an IP truck by nature,” he said. “It gives you bidirectional information to and from the truck and regardless of what the reporter is doing in front of the camera; all of the other subsystems in these trucks are accessible remotely. You can have two or three reporters using a particular system on a truck at the same time. For example, a meteorologist can be sending out a story live from the rear of the truck with live weather maps via bonded cellular, microwave or satellite while some else is remotely steering another camera on the truck and looking at something completely different. Right now, there are a lot of options for stations producing news from the field and we have developed several different platforms as weather chasers all over the country.

Circular rooftop antennas that allow crews to send out reports while the van is moving are another emerging technology trend, mainly because it allows the reporter to keep on reporting as they move closer to (or farther away from) a news event. It’s another weapon in the fight to “get the story first.”

“'Comms-on-the move' is really starting to take off with news crews,” he said. “However, the biggest problem with that technology to date is that they have limited bandwidth while they are in motion. The best systems get a maximum of 6Mb/s, but 2Mb/s while moving is the most allowed by the FCC.”

The good news is that some of the new compression systems are making those antenna systems more useful every day. The bad news is that the FCC is in constant flux as to the requirements for legally operating those antennas. That’s because they have the potential, both Ku and Ka band systems, to knock other traffic off the satellite.

“The commission is very hesitant to give global licensing to that technology,” Jennings said. “Just when you think you’ve got all of the right configurations in place, they change the rules again and keep tightening up the specs. The technology is very widely used in the military and in UAV tracking and telemetry. It’s just now making an impact on the broadcast industry.”

A recipe for what works

For the time being, Jennings recommends a healthy combination of bonded cellular, microwave and satellite technology as the best bet for reliable video transmission. He says every tool has its place, and bonded cellular will take on an expanded role once 4G LTE platforms are deployed ubiquitously across the country.

“Cellular bonding technology could soon make satellite tracking [comms-on-the-move] technology obsolete, especially as 4G and other types of high-speed wireless network become available to broadcasters,” he said. “Although, we still sell a lot of conventional satellite trucks on van-sized units for the high-bandwidth, ‘must have’ story scenarios. But for general news, cellular systems are reasonably reliable and can work. The key is to aggregate all of the different available bandwidth pipelines to give yourself one robust pipeline.”

And business is good, he said, for everyone involved.

“Due to the new economics of ENG vans and what we’re putting into them, the networks and stations groups now order two or three vans at a time, instead of just one,” Jennings said. “That tells me that, regardless of the technology used, there’s more news being covered and the viewer is getting better informed.”