Live From the Scene, and in HD

Cheaper, lighter gear enables high-def remotes
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Stations and networks want high-definition to hit the road.

High-definition satellite newsgathering (HD SNG) has been used by some
networks to cover major news events, such as political conventions. For the
most part, though, HD remotes have remained a novelty because of the extra
bandwidth and expensive transmission gear they require.

That may be changing. HD encoding and decoding gear has become both
cheaper and small enough to be integrated into the latest generation of compact
news vans. News-truck builder Wolf Coach of Auburn, Mass., has built more than
20 HD-capable SNG trucks, most of them “Sprinter” models based on a small,
light Dodge van and costing about $600,000.

“If you are going to build a truck today, it has to be HD,” says
Thomas Jennings, director of broadcast sales for Wolf Coach. “We've
designed a way to do high-def out of a Sprinter and keep the vehicles under
10,000 pounds.”

That is important, because an uplink truck with a gross vehicle weight
of 9,990 pounds (Wolf Coach's vehicles are usually delivered to customers as
much as 2,000 pounds lighter, to allow for additional equipment) doesn't
require a commercial driver's license to operate it, nor does it need to be
weighed in frequently, according to Department of Transportation
regulations.

A $150,000 premium

A true-HD SNG truck costs about $150,000 more than a standard-def unit,
because of the HD wiring and monitoring infrastructure required, not the
transmission gear itself, says Jennings.

Wolf Coach has built or is building two HD uplink trucks for ABC; two
such trucks for NBC for use in NFL coverage; and HD-capable units for
Hearst-Argyle's stations that will require only an encoder upgrade for them
to go fully high-def.

The company is also building HD units for freelance truck operators that
provide transmission services to major news organizations. Jennings says about
50% of freelance operators are “doing some form of HD.” Some vendors, such
as Peak Uplink of New Castle, Colo., are investing in trucks that are capable
of transmitting HD in both the C-band and Ku-band frequencies.

Jennings concedes that running HD SNG trucks is not always easy. “They
are not all performing 100% all the time, and they are going through some
growing pains,” he says. “It's more complex from an operator standpoint.
It's not more complex from the equipment standpoint, but you're dealing
with things like embedded audio and analog audio. And the interoperability
between different brands is often a little laborious.”

Wolf Coach just completed building an HD Sprinter unit for freelance
operator VideoLink. The Boston-based truck, which is nicknamed “Lobster,”
is targeted to customers in the Northeast.

“An economic gap”

The unit is capable of simultaneously transmitting dual SD and HD feeds
and is equipped with a wealth of the latest transmission and production gear.
Included in the equipment are a 1.8-meter Vertex Antenna; Tiernan HE4000
encoders capable of HD and SD; Tiernan HD4040 HD/SD integrated
receiver/decoders (for monitoring and return paths); MCL transmitters; a
satellite phone; RTS and Telos communications systems; 2,000 feet of Telecast
Viper fiber cabling; and Panasonic DVCPRO HD recording decks, in addition to
standard-definition Sony Beta SP and SX decks.

“We're trying to bridge the gap between HD program transmission and
HD newsgathering, a gap which seems to be more of an economic gap,” says
VideoLink VP/General Manager Howard Miller.

The few morning news shows offered in HD, notably Good Morning
America
and Today, find it too expensive to
insert HD remotes into their high-def studio programming, says Miller. So
VideoLink is packaging an HD camera crew with the Lobster to try to offer a
cost-effective turnkey service.

Unproven ground

Network executives say HD satellite newsgathering is still relatively
unproven ground. “HD satellite, we've done a little playing around on
that,” says Matthew Braatz, regional VP of technology, NBC TV Stations. “HD
satellite is a lot harder than SD, as you need so much more bandwidth. There is
still a lot more experimenting to be done. HD takes a lot more work and a lot
more tweaking.”

HD remotes for GMA have been “somewhat rare”
since the show went to high-def a year ago this month, according to ABC VP of
Telecommunications Rich Wolf.

Although ABC regularly uses third-party vendors like Video­Link for
analog-feed operations, the network has preferred to contract directly with
encoding vendors to set up HD links, mainly because of the complexity
involved.

Nonetheless, ABC is encouraged that third-party uplink vendors like
VideoLink are investing in HD gear. And Wolf says that the bandwidth required,
although still higher than SD, may not be as onerous as many people think.

Whereas ABC typically uses the industry-standard “DS-3” rate of 45
megabits per second (Mbps) for high-definition links, says Wolf, “we have
gone as low as 18 Mbps with acceptable HD quality for news feeds.

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