Here’s what’s in it for you:
- Learn how broadcasters and production companies adapted to the changing workflows during the pandemic.
- Learn how to save costs using 5G cellular and Public Internet connectivity.
- Produce a live show with multiple untethered handheld cameras using the latest At-home Production and REMI technology.
- Learn the techniques to maintain frame-accurate genlock and audio lipsync across dozens of cameras.
How 5G Technology Simplified Live Remote Broadcasts During the Pandemic
Jim Jachetta, CTO at VidOvation, Engineer, Design Consultant, Integrator, Trainer, Teacher, Author & Speaker
Learn how broadcasters and production companies adapted to the changing workflows during the pandemic. Learn how to save costs using 5G cellular and Public Internet connectivity. Produce a live show with multiple untethered handheld cameras using the latest At-home Production and REMI technology. Learn the techniques to maintain frame-accurate genlock and audio lip-sync across dozens of cameras.
There is nothing like a crisis to force advancement in the use of technology to improve the way we do things. It might sound cliché, but that doesn’t make it less true – necessity is the mother of invention. So, with the broadcast industry forced to work remotely and with only skeleton crews at locations, broadcasters had to develop new ways to produce and deliver their live event programming.
The truth is that when COVID struck, and most of the world had gone into lockdown, we were very well prepared because we had already solved the problem of at-home production and REMI (remote integration model) and had been doing it for five or six years. Of course, the pandemic forced us to perfect the techniques to make it all work efficiently and reliably, but the technology was all there.
Case Study: First Live Sporting Event After Lockdown
To illustrate the basics of the solutions that have emerged, let’s look at how we managed the first sporting event broadcast live in the US after the lockdowns went into effect. It was a PGA golf event held at the Seminole Golf Club in southeast Florida. The local health authority had put in restrictions that dictated that a maximum of 50 people would be allowed on the course, including the players, officiants, club personnel, camera operators, and other broadcast personnel. No spectators were allowed. The players weren’t even allowed caddies and had to carry their clubs.
Given that the Seminole course is a private club and not a regular venue for PGA events, no telecom or fiber connection was available for broadcasting. They just weren’t equipped. So, a bonded cellular solution capable of 3G, 4G, or 5G connectivity was the only thing that made sense.
The setup out on the course consisted of two cameras in the tee box, two cameras on the fairway, two on the green, and then a couple of POV cameras for beauty shots. The primary cameras were connected to bonded cellular encoder/transmitters that employed eight cellular modems. For the POV cameras capturing shots of the clubhouse and shots of the dunes along the beach, the transmitters were equipped with only two cellular modems – the cellular reception was more than adequate for this.
The camera operators and production team desired encoder/transmitters that mount on the camera. The encoder/transmitter is mounted between the camera and the battery, which is preferred. Most camera operators prefer not to wear a backpack. Production is streamlined as one battery powers both the camera and encoder/transmitter unit.
The bonded cellular encoder/transmitters also featured analog inputs to handle audio. For every video, there could be four to eight audio inputs. For this event, some of the supplemental audio channels used two-modem devices. There were quite a few background microphones and microphones on the talent, microphones on the players, the two commentators walking the course, and parabolic microphones catching the action.
Frame-accurate Video Gen-lock and Audio Lip Sync
With all the cameras and microphones, it’s vital to keep everything in perfect lip-sync; all the cameras in Gen-lock and the technology we used in the bonded cellular devices made this happen. So, all sources going back to the control room in St. Augustine are in perfect sync. If any of these microphones were a little bit out of time, it wouldn’t make for a good production.
Frame-accurate video Gen-lock and audio lip-sync across multiple untethered handheld cameras and dozens of microphones covering the entire golf course was critical. The encoder/transmitters typically use unmanaged networks for connectivity, such as the cellular networks and the public Internet. A similar technique to those found on a managed network such as PTP or Precision Timing Protocol is utilized over the cellular and public Internet connection. The encoder/transmitters are locked to a GPS reference clock and the cellular network reference clock. A GPS clock is highly accurate. The decoder/receiver sends a timing and reference signal like PTP to keep all the encoder/transmitters in Gen-lock and lip-sync. Any remaining variation in the SDI, NDI, or IP camera video output is corrected via a frame buffer in the decoder/receiver connected to a studio reference signal also derived from a GPS clock.
The traditional way that a PGA event like this would be set up would be to have microwave camera links connected to a truck in the parking lot. However, most of the microwave gear available uses H.264, while the bonded cellular gear we’re using is HEVC. So, the actual picture in most cases, looks a lot better than what the PGA producers were used to. Their reaction was typical, along the lines of “Why does the picture look so much better? We’ve saved a ton of money, we saved on personnel, we saved on travel, and the pictures look better.” So, it’s been a real win-win for the PGA and others.
From the course in southeast Florida, the bonded cellular uplinks delivered the video and audio to the production facility in St. Augustine in northeast Florida. The show’s producer was located along with the play-by-play commentator and two analysts. In addition, there was also another color commentator connected via bonded cellular from his home in Michigan. We must acknowledge that the latency would be near zero if this were done over a fiber link. But going through bonded cellular or the public Internet could be up to a second of latency. It’s not a problem as long as the on-air talent are trained and get used to it, knowing to pause before they speak so as not to talk over one another.
How to accommodate remote talent is another topic all on its own. During the pandemic, sometimes people couldn’t travel because of restrictions; sometimes, they wouldn’t travel because of their unease. In these cases, the broadcast operators aren’t likely to have the resources or ability to send out techs to everyone’s homes and set up the equipment for them. So, they’re stuck with non-technical people having to set up the gear themselves – they get a shipment with a camera and tripod and a bonded cellular transmitter, and they’re left to go it alone. Fortunately, the bonded cellular systems we’ve been working with are equipped with an “auto live” feature. As soon as the transmitter is powered on (plug it in, throw a switch, attach a battery), the device connects to the tower and goes live. So, the talent doesn’t have to do anything to make it work, which in most cases is a great relief for everyone.
Another technology that needed to be accommodated for this event was Toptracer, the graphic that tracks the golf ball in real-time as it flies through the air. Again, this could be done with the analog audio inputs on the bonded cellular devices.
As I stated initially, all of these capabilities and know-how existed before the pandemic struck. They weren’t commonly being used for the usual reasons that new technology doesn’t gain immediate traction: if your current way of working is working, why change and take the risk? So, before the pandemic, the applications using bonded cellular were those applications that had challenges that couldn’t be addressed by traditional means.
A good example is some live reality television shows, where the camera operators must move fast and be flexible, such as some live police shows and shows that follow emergency response teams. The camera operators need to get in and out of vehicles quickly. And you can’t have a satellite truck following around police cars and emergency response vehicles, so this bonded cellular technology made these applications, these kinds of shows, possible. And for that matter, you can’t put a satellite truck on the back of a bass boat either, so fishing tournaments and other events in remote locations become possible to broadcast or at least more cost-effective to broadcast.
Recent Advancements and Conclusion
While most of the tech existed before the pandemic, there has undoubtedly been further development. For example, suppose you have a bonded cellular hub device operating as a receiver, decoder, transcoder, and streaming device by integrating that bonded cellular hub with a cloud service like AWS Elemental MediaConnect. In that case, you have a complete distribution network enabling quick, easy, and simultaneous sharing of high-quality live content with multiple affiliates or other broadcast facilities. In addition, it provides an all-IP infrastructure with the reliability and security of satellite or fiber services that can be okay set up in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost.
Another significant development is the availability of carrier-agnostic e-SIM cards. This allows bonded cellular devices to connect to the best available cellular network regardless of the providers. Users no longer have to swap out cards if their preferred carrier isn’t available at a particular site. The e-SIMS automatically switch over in real-time. These are for use globally, providing 3G, 4G LTE, and 5G connectivity in 120 countries.
The benefits of bonded cellular productions go beyond just solving problems to cope during a pandemic. Even if the pandemic had not happened, the continued uptake of bonded cellular for live remote production was inevitable. The benefits are numerous and hard to ignore at this point. The amount of time saved in just getting set up is one thing. On the other hand, not having to roll out satellite trucks or ENG vans is enormous. They did not require as many people on site. It all adds up to significant cost savings.