On Sunday, August 28, 2011, Fox News Photographer/Editor Paul Celeste set up his camera at Newport Harbor in Rhode Island, preparing for a long day of live shots as Hurricane Irene passed over. Through most the morning the satellite truck was stable, sheltered from the wind by a parking garage. But, when the eye passed overhead and the winds shifted, catching the dish, the truck operator had no choice but to stop transmitting and lower the dish. They were off the air.
Fortunately, Fox News had provided Celeste with LiveU’s LU60, a new video uplink system that fits in a backpack. Using this cellular-based technology, he was able to re-connect Newport to New York. Reporter Molly Line continued covering the hurricane story live for Fox.
Romney Campaign Embed for NBC News, Garrett Haake, tweeted this on Thursday, September 1, 2011, “If the next week is any indication, September will be wild. Going to at least 6 states and all 4 time zones in the next 6 days.” Fortunately for Haake, all NBC News campaign embeds were put through a two-week “boot camp” with NBC broadcast engineers and taught how to use the LU60 to stream video to New York. September was manageable for Haake because he could hand-carry the backpack-sized system onto airplanes and broadcast or upload footage from any airport, hotel or rental car.
With the presidential primary campaign season in high gear, news operations are fast developing “to-air” workflows that are near instantaneous. The new digital journalists like Haake, who joined NBC in 2007, are excited about the blistering pace that puts them through six states in six days while tweeting, commenting, shooting, reporting, editing and transmitting.
Haake, speaking from a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas where Romney was to address the VFW, described it this way, “I think there is a sense of pride with really owning more aspects of the story. We’ve got folks who have grown up editing because they were cutting clips for YouTube when they were kids, and those kids are just now starting to come into the industry.”
With the accelerating pace, you would think seasoned pros like Fox Photographer Paul Celeste would be exhausted. On the contrary, Celeste is enthusiastic about new technology that efficiently streamlines his day and makes it possible to upload video from almost anywhere. “I used to be one of the young kids,” Celeste said. “Now, I’m getting to be one of the older guys, and I really like the new technology. It has incredible capability, and it just keeps getting better and better.”
The current centerpiece of this capability is the LU60, which consists of seven cellular data modems bound together and transmitting through a proprietary internal antenna array. The data stream is managed across all the modems to achieve the necessary bandwidth to deliver live HD video and audio over the cellular network. If the cell signals are weak at a particular location, the LU60 will grab any Wi-Fi or WiMAX it finds. You can also connect it to a wired network or to other external cellular data cards. The unit comes in a backpack and weighs 11 pounds.
LiveU, Inc. was established in 2006. NBC News used an earlier generation of the LU60 to transmit live video while aboard the Obama Inaugural Train as it headed to Washington D.C. in January 2008. NBC broadcast reports from the train at stops and while it was moving. What’s new for the 2012 election is an upgraded LU60, and its wide adoption and deployment by many news organizations in the US and worldwide.
The LU60 will deliver up to 1080i60 video to its destination IP address through 3G or 4G cellular, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, Ethernet, BGAN (satellite), and USB 2.0 (for additional air cards). It can achieve “live broadcast” transmission speeds by using up to 14 of these wired and wireless links simultaneously. In the case of live shots, a low-latency operational mode allows sub-second delay remote interviews between anchors and guests. The unit has return audio for guest IFB. Video input to the unit can be standard or high definition SDI, HDMI, any traditional analog video signal, Firewire, or Ethernet. It supports HD, NTSC, PAL at DV25/50/100. DVCAM, DVCPRO/50/100 with full auto detection.
To get the best cell coverage, LiveU manages multiple SIM card accounts with all cellular providers. This, along with the LiveU proprietary antenna, leads to the LiveU claim that the LU60 can turn “dead cellular zones into live zones”. If the definition of a dead cellular zone is a place where you can’t get reliable service on a regular cell phone, the claim is accurate. On August 17, 2011, Garrett Haake followed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to Berlin, NH for a campaign stop at a local business. Cell service was weak, and only certain phones with certain carriers could complete calls. In spite of that, with the LU60, Haake was able to establish a reliable connection to NBC in New York and stream the press conference live.
NBC News NY reviewed the footage and determined that the quality of the transmission was unsuitable for broadcast. The LU60 dynamically adjusts the bit rate and load to match the available cell bandwidth, and there was poor service at that location. NY did see the footage, though, and could select clips to use when they got the stored higher quality footage later. Haake was able to upload again while driving through better cell zones to the next Romney event. “I can get into my car, set it all up, and press play to roll out my video,” Haake reports. “Once it’s rolling, I can start driving to the next event.” NBC received the quality video they needed within two hours of the live transmission.
That same day, further south in New Hampshire, Paul Celeste and the Fox crew were covering Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s roundtable discussion with business leaders. Weak cell service inside the building made a live broadcast impossible, but the footage was stored on the LU60 and uploaded from a nearby mall parking lot where the cell service was better.
“Back a couple of years ago,” Celeste said, “we might drive to a Starbucks or something to use a different technology with a single air card to compress a file and send it back. With LiveU, its basically like taking Starbucks into my car.”
At the other end, in New York, Fox News LiveU Operations received the transmission through a server running LiveU software. The software recognizes the data streams, reassembles them and then outputs files, streams, or SDI video. It has the capacity to handle multiple field units simultaneously.
This workflow redefines “live” for broadcast and cable news.
“I was covering Gov. Romney at the Iowa State Fair,” NBC’s Haake said. “And he had some back and forth with protesters while he was speaking. I had been sending the whole thing live to New York on LiveU, and I called into the desk because the protestors really went after him, and said, ‘you guys should really check out my signal. I think this is going to be something’. So, sure enough, MSNBC broadcast my signal live for the rest of the speech, but then, as they continued to discuss the event in the studio, I snapped my camera off the tripod, threw the LiveU unit on my back, and followed Romney after the exchange and he toured the fair with Senator Grassley and a pack from the media around him. As the on-air people on MSNBC were discussing Romney’s exchange with the protesters, they were able to go to my live picture of Romney cooking pork chops at the pork producers’ tent. MSNBC had live action “B-roll” covering their discussion of an event that just happened minutes before. That was pretty cool.”
Live is redefined for Paul Celeste at the Fox News Channel as well. “Technology is constantly changing, and it has added a new dimension to television news and the element of going live,” Celeste said. “A lot of what we use it for is just editorial. By delivering pictures live, the producers or reporters in Washington or New York can monitor, in real-time, press conferences and speeches by politicians.”
With the cost of remote standard definition satellite transmission around $2000/day or more, excluding satellite transmission time, it’s logical to wonder what impact these units will have on that business. But, according to LiveU VP of Sales, Mike Savillo, LiveU products are not positioned against traditional satellite transmission. “It’s really complementary technology. Cellular technology has limitations,” said Savillo. “Satellite is still the best option for quality of service. The key thing that broadcasters are excited about is the mobility the LU60 provides. You can use this from a moving vehicle whether it’s a train, car or helicopter.
Videolink, a company with a fleet of satellite trucks, provides video production and transmission for news networks and corporations. Doug Weisman, Chairman of the company, agrees with this positioning. “I have to agree that the cellular video transmission is complementary technology.” Weisman said. “The networks will plunk a satellite truck down at a location if they are going to put a correspondent in front of a camera, or they are going to do a high level interview, or be covering significant event. They want a high quality signal, and satellite is still the only way to do that.”
The LU60 is leased to users for a year with monthly billing, although there are exceptions. For example, according to Savillo, shorter term leasing is possible for specific events, especially if multiple units are needed in the field. The lease cost of $2500/month in the U.S. covers everything you need to broadcast live. “When you get a system from us in the U.S., you get it configured with Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint already inside the box, and you get monthly usage attached to that so you can go live,” Savillo said. “You get a server from us, you install it in the facility, we link the two together, and you are good to go.” 24/7 support is also included as part of the lease.
With 4G and WiMAX speeds on the horizon, and the test drive of this technology by news organizations during the 2012 primary cycle, the future is bright for LiveU and others getting into live cellular broadcast-quality transmission. LiveU demonstrated its commitment by introducing a hand-held version of the product at International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam on September 7th 2011.
At 1.5 pounds, the LU40i is positioned as a tool for the online media market but brings along many of the features of the top-tier product in a camera-mountable package. The LU40i will be attractive to online journalists who are already transmitting live video from personal cell phones through platforms like Livestream and Ustream.
As personal journalism evolves and broadcast journalism redefines itself, the distinction between the two will diminish. “You can’t put a news bureau every place you would want one.” Haake said. But, if you want to cover domestic or international news in a really serious way, you can put one or two digital journalists, who now can do almost everything a news bureau can do, in places where you need them. This allows you to grow the scope of your operation and achieve that goal.”
This evolving technology, along with excited, enthusiastic journalists, photographers, editors and producers will keep us connected and well informed in real time.
Jim Pfeiffer is a freelance writer, video producer, editor and news photographer based in New Hampshire. He works for a variety of clients and national news organizations in Washington, D.C., New York and throughout New England.