Streaming Snowplows Circle Detroit

WDIV uses Streambox software to pull live storm video

WDIV Detroit has been a pioneer in using Streambox’s software-based encoder for IP-based newsgathering in both the Detroit area and internationally. The station relies on it instead of traditional microwave and satellite links to backhaul coverage for both TV newscasts and its Website. The NBC affiliate, owned by Post-Newsweek, has used Streambox to cover everything from a local long-distance yacht race to the aftermath of January’s massive earthquake in Haiti, combining it with both wireless EVDO data cards and BGAN broadband satellite transmitters.

This winter, WDIV took its use of the Streambox system one step further in an effort to improve its local severe-weather coverage. The station reached a deal with Michigan roadway authorities to place video-capable 3G smartphones loaded with Streambox software in 25 plow trucks.

“On big weather days, the question is always, ‘How do we show people what the conditions on the road are and what’s going on?’” says WDIV News Operations Manager Jeff Liebman. “Then we had an idea: Why don’t we show people what the inside of the county snowplows are looking at? They’re traveling on the roads themselves, and you’ve got to figure they’re pretty safe.”

The Sprint Samsung Moment smartphones, which are affixed to the windshield of the trucks using a suction-cup mount and are powered by the vehicles’ cigarette lighter, can begin streaming video back to the station with the push of a button. Drivers volunteer to carry the phones, and the audio is muted. The road authorities don’t get paid for carrying the phones, but instead receive an on-air mention during WDIV’s newscasts.

According to Liebman, the Sprint 3G service, which costs around $44 a month per phone, delivers a throughput of about 250 to 300 kilobits per second. He adds that the image quality from the phones’ 2-megapixel cameras is pretty good when transmitted using Streambox’s proprietary ACT-L3 compression scheme.

The system has proved successful but has been used sparingly, as Detroit has only had a few significant snow events this season. But the two times WDIV ran live snowplow video on its Website, it was one of the three most popular streams for the day. “It must have struck a chord with some people,” Liebman says.

The Sprint phones placed in the plow trucks were loaded with Streambox Live software, which became available late last fall. Streambox Live represents a new business model for the Seattle-based company, which counts CNN and Fox News Channel as major customers but has sold its technology to fewer than 150 local stations, including Fox, Belo, Hearst and LIN outlets.

Stations have generally bought expensive Streambox software licenses (about $3,000 each) for their laptops and used corresponding rack-mounted hardware decoders, which run about $8,000, to decompress the IP-delivered streams at the station and feed them to conventional broadcast equipment. But Streambox Live is designed to be a managed service in which Streambox only charges for the video that stations use.

Streambox Live’s encoder, which can run on PCs, laptops or smartphones, is free. Video compressed with it is sent securely to a Streambox server at one of the company’s data centers, along with a digital rightsmanagement (DRM) tag that identifies both the producer of the video and its destination. Each stream is also auto-archived for on-demand access. The end-user, such as a station, can then use the DRM tag to select a live video stream to be routed to its Website (taking the feed live to air still requires a Streambox decoder or some other type of scan conversion).

Streambox Live’s DRM system allows a broadcaster to pull live streaming video from multiple sources and also lets a professional journalist—or an everyday viewer—contribute video to multiple stations or networks.

“It’s a many-to-many type of system,” says Streambox CEO and co-founder Bob Hildeman. “Stations can view what’s being sent in, and bring in what they want. It’s designed to allow broadcasters to deploy an unlimited number of software clients.”

Hildeman says that streaming video through Streambox Live costs 50 cents a minute without a contract, and can go as low as 5 cents a minute with a contract. The service is available for Windows Mobile- capable smartphones, and Streambox is beta-testing a Streambox Live app for Apple’s iPhone that should be ready by NAB. Hildeman expects the iPhone app to be popular with the large number of stations that have already created their own apps for the iPhone, both as a way to get breaking news from journalists in the field and as a source of user-generated video.

Streambox is also working to improve the speed of its core service for stations like WDIV that use laptops with 3G wireless data USB cards in the field to backhaul live video. That will allow them to either deliver lesscompressed video or use more forward-error correction to avoid compression artifacts.

Using a Mac laptop, Streambox has developed a way to “bond” two 3G aircards to improve throughput, much as early users of the BGAN broadband satellite system like CNN fi gured out how to bond two BGAN modems. By combining cards from different cellular providers, such as AT&T and Verizon, the bonding scheme can achieve a throughput of more than 1 megabit per second with a latency of only 2 to 3 seconds. Streambox also plans to demonstrate a companion hardware device at NAB that can bond four 3G cards.

As Hildeman puts it: “There’s a tremendous demand for this type of technology, to give higher quality and more reliability.”