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News Trucks Wheel Toward the Future

Transmission needs require a flexible approach 3/21/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Manufacturers of news- gathering vehicles want to future-proof the trucks and vans they build. Their goal: Make today's vehicles ready for any of tomorrow's transmission and newsgathering formats.

One challenge is that, with the government cutting back the spectrum available for electronic newsgathering (ENG) transmission, broadcasters and manufacturers are looking for spectrum-efficient systems. "The microwave channels are crowded at news time," says Bob King, international sales manager of Frontline Communications. "With the FCC selling off bandwidth, there is less room for the signals."

Truck companies are making transmission cleaner and less bandwidth-hungry. One way is to use a COFDM-based system. By passing the signal through a COFDM digital encoder before it goes to the microwave transmitter, stations can reduce the amount of bandwidth they need to get a signal from the truck to the receiver. Signals can run in consecutive microwave channels without interfering with each other.

Microwave transmission is still popular, however. Says Ted Kendrick, vice president, E-N-G Mobile Systems, "People aren't stampeding to COFDM, but they do want trucks that are digital-transmission-ready."

Even though some aspects of ENG are getting more complicated, broadcasters want their trucks to be simpler to operate. According to Kendrick, there are still engineers on some trucks, but increasingly it's just news staff.

Also making transmission easier is the use of a global positioning satellite (GPS) system and a digital compass-enabled system. Both allow the staff in the truck to select a receive site and automatically position the dish for the clear shot needed to send video to the studio cleanly.

"Aligning the shot could take an experienced operator anywhere from three minutes to a half-hour," says King. "Now a small piece of equipment takes care of it instantly."

E-N-G will demonstrate its Sure Shot auto-positioner at NAB. By the time the tower gets up, the company says, the user is able to pick a receive site and start transmission. For stations with a rotating dish, the system will also report reverse coordinates so the receive site knows how to rotate the dish for the best reception.

Broadcasters are looking toward the future, as well. Some are buying dedicated satellite trucks or combos outfitted with both satellite and microwave transmitters. Even if they don't have a current need for satellite transmission, King says, some are wiring their trucks for future satellite capability. CNN, for example, bought a satellite-ready truck and just recently added an antenna.

E-N-G kicked off the combo trend with its OmniLink trucks, Kendrick says, noting that satellite is one of the few areas where digital technology is making a significant impact. "Digital encoding makes it cheaper to buy time, and it uses less battery power. That's one place where everyone is going digital."

About a quarter of the trucks Frontline creates today are combo. That share is increasing about 5% every year, according to King. "COFDM is a temporary fix," he says. "Satellite is the future."

Frontline will have a Dawson Dynamic/British telecom venture in its booth at NAB to showcase a managed satellite network system that will make purchasing, scheduling, and using satellite time easier. The system will work in a Windows-like environment with drag-and-drop scheduling, automated billing, and pushbutton linkups.

"We're reducing what it takes to do an uplink," says Wolf Coach VP and Director of Marketing and Sales Richard Wolf. MCPC (Multiple Carrier Per Channel) technology, he explains, uses digital compression and multiplexers to lower the cost of satellite time and make it easier for stations to adopt satellite transmission.

Digital technology has yet to make a major impact on anything in the truck besides transmission. To make a graceful transition to digital video as the technology advances, Wolf says, all of Wolf Coach's trucks are wired with SDI-grade cable for carrying digital signals.

"Digital is in the news," notes Kendrick, "but nothing new is coming into the trucks."

King believes the cost of digital technology is the major hurdle. Whereas digital video has hit, he says, digital audio has been left behind.

The smaller-faster-cheaper promise of digital is not enough, Wolf opines. Digital technology, he suggests, will have to reinforce predictability in order to add value.

Besides offering simpler transmission, the trucks themselves are getting smaller and more agile, according to Wolf. "The Ford E350 has been the benchmark, but we're working with [Dodge] Sprinters, GM Suburbans for satellite, and smaller Ford trucks."

Frontline takes about an order a week for a Sprinter, King says, citing the higher top as a big draw. His company is also converting a number of trucks, replacing the steel top with a raised aluminum top. He said the added headroom makes it easier for people to maneuver. "We have done 55 since NAB of last year, and we've only sold two with the standard top."

In E-N-G's West Coast market, the Sprinter's impact has been far slower, according to Kendrick, because the truck has not been approved for use in California. "I'm sure they will get it approved, but, to this point, it hasn't happened."

Truck outfitters are also thinking about passenger safety. CAL/OSHA standards, workplace-safety rules set by the state of California, are seen as the most employee-friendly in the country and are demanded by many large station groups.

Frontline has adopted power-line–proximity systems and inclinometers and has had its front-passenger swivel seat approved by the California Department of Transportation. Says King, "We're gratified that safety is becoming an issue."

Most of Kendrick's customers are installing detecting devices and other safety options that go beyond what is required by CAL/ OSHA standards. "Everyone," he says, "is concerned with safety."

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