The ENG Bonanza

How a cellphone supplier is changing the news biz

One vital link in the news-production chain is due for dramatic change over the next two years: the electronic newsgathering (ENG) equipment used to relay video from the field back to the studio.

It's all going to be replaced, and paid for by wireless-phone giant Sprint Nextel.

That big change is happening because ENG is shifting from analog to digital microwave gear as part of an unusual $4.8 billion spectrum agreement the FCC brokered with Sprint Nextel in February 2005.

The deal moves some of Sprint Nextel's operations out of the 800 megahertz (MHz) frequency band, where its signals were interfering with public-safety communications. Sprint's frequency will become part of the 2 gigahertz (GHz) band. That's the part of the spectrum broadcasters currently use for ENG links.

To compensate broadcasters for moving off their ENG channels and converting to digital microwave gear on a smaller swath of spectrum, Sprint Nextel will pony up roughly $500 million for the equipment those stations will need. Digital ENG systems for standard news vans run $35,000-$50,000, plus the cost of multiple receive sites scattered around large cities; large-market stations may have 10 or more receive sites. Although Sprint Nextel is picking up the tab, broadcasters face an initial challenge in learning how to use the new digital ENG equipment.

The “2 GHz Relocation” should be completed by September 2007. It has been slowed by complicated negotiations between broadcasters and Sprint Nextel on legal and business—not technical—issues. A company spokesman says things are now progressing quickly. As of last week, Sprint Nextel says, relocation schemes for 185 out of 205 U.S. TV markets are progressing. The ABC station group is on board, and other group owners are nearing agreements, the wireless company says.

Microwave manufacturers are starting to ship new digital microwave systems, albeit slowly. Microwave Radio Corp. (MRC) has fulfilled some $75 million in Sprint Nextel orders for digital ENG gear, says MRC VP Dan McIntyre, but most of it is still sitting in its warehouse in Billerica, Mass., waiting for Sprint Nextel to give the go-ahead to send it to stations.

MRC's “CodeRunner” digital ENG system was a proven commodity long before the Sprint Nextel deal, and “thousands” have been sold worldwide, says McIntyre. But even early adopters of the COFDM-based ENG system will get new gear under the Sprint Nextel frequency-relocation plan.

The GHz process is similarly going slowly for NuComm, another ENG supplier. It has received a “half dozen or so orders” for its digital microwave gear through Sprint Nextel, according to NuComm Director of Sales and Marketing John Dulany. Like MRC, NuComm has previously sold COFDM-based gear to a couple hundred stations. “Even if stations bought some of that gear,” Dulany says, “it's older technology, and it is still getting upgraded” under the reallocation deal.

That will take some time. Mike Smith, VP of news and production for Gray TV CBS affiliate WCTV Tallahassee, Fla., says Sprint Nextel has inspected the station's existing ENG equipment. But it will be between six months and a year before new gear arrives.

In the meantime, suppliers are marketing gear outside of the relocation process. Portable, compact microwave systems that can be carried in a regular-size auto and set up on the fly for breaking-news events are now hot items. MRC, NuComm and RF Central make versions, which were originally developed for sports coverage.

The wireless transmitters mount easily on a camera's battery and can be used by themselves for shooting within a short distance—say, a few blocks—from an ENG van. When paired with a high-powered amplifier, they can transmit video feeds at a range of 10-30 miles.

RF Central's portable high-power transmitter (PHT) is being used by some 16 stations. The $30,000 system comprises a camera-mounted transmitter and a power amplifier housed in a box the size of a lunch pail —small enough to be a carry-on item on a jet airliner, says RF Central President/CEO Jeff Winemiller.

“It's a big hit in downtown environments because the [COFDM] signal [performs well in] multipath,” he says. “Where you would do an analog bounce shot, the digital just bounces off a building and gets to the receive site. You couldn't do that live with a mast.”

Stewart Romain, chief engineer for Raycom Media's KOLD Tucson, Ariz., says that, without the PHT amplifier, the range was about a half mile. With the amplifier, the station received feeds from one side of Tucson to the other, a “12-mile shot.”

“The thing is small, and it can go in the back of a station wagon or in an actual live truck,” he says. “Our normal operation will still be live trucks, but we can use these portables for an emergency: You grab one of the news cars, throw it in the back seat, run to the story, and set up and go.”