June 13, 2011

Boxx unveils cost-saving wireless links

Boxx.tv, which specialises in 5GHz camera links, has launched a new hotspot service useful for news coverage and developed a prototype IT-based camera link using low-cost components that it will launch at IBC.

Its new Street-Live network of wireless hotspots should allow broadcasters to stream live pictures for significantly less than the cost of a satellite truck. It is being set up, initially, in London. "It's similar to a hotspot you'd find in Starbucks, but doesn't use 2.4GHz, so you don't get interference from standard WiFi," explained Boxx.tv CTO, Scott Walker (pictured).

"We provide a fixed bandwidth connection to the internet [of up to about 20MBps], but what happens within that we have no control over." It would be used in conjunction with Quicklink, Streambox, or Dejero, which most news crews tend to have, "and we provide them with a fast, reliable upload."

Current hardware systems for sending live pictures back via the web "are all restricted by the lack of access to a fast, constant and reliable connection into the internet," he adds.

"All these platforms have been designed to work with very bad quality internet, typically in places like Afghanistan or Libya, where the connection would typically be under half a megabit. So when you offer these platforms 10, 15 or 20Mbps, they perform very well."

A typical news truck or satellite feed would use 4Mbps or possibly 8Mbps, but the two are not directly comparable as the mobile platforms typically send the most important parts of the picture two or three times, to ensure it gets through, and can then re-assemble it, something a sat truck, with its dedicated bandwidth, won't have to do. However, "there is plenty of bandwidth to stream an HD picture with Street-Live," he says.

Its first use was for the recent Royal Wedding at Westminster Abbey, where it was used by TV2, Denmark, and a CBS regional news feed, providing a 10Mbps uplink.

That hotspot covers Westminster, from the Abbey to the door of the Houses of Parliament and, with the addition of a small antenna on a pole, crews can also connect from Abingdon Green (the favourite stand-up position for reporting from Westminster with Parliament and Big Ben in the background). The Street-Live connection is on the fourth floor of a building near the Abbey. If it had been higher, it would have cost more and Boxx wants to keep the costs low – they should be about a fifth the cost of using a satellite truck (or less).

"The wedding was a testing ground to see if the concept would work (we knew that the technology would), and it proved that. It fitted in with the way the news crews worked."

Boxx has also been asked to set up a location in Leicester Square, where most of London's movie premieres take place, and the financial channel, Bloomberg, wants a system set up near the Bank Of England. Boxx plans to have other hotspots in place for the 2012 London Olympics. The technology can cover up to about 10km from a hotspot, so long as they can find a suitably high building.

"The technology doesn't have boundaries, so you can do an interview in the stadium, or outside. It is small technology and can be carried around in a backpack. As long as you can see the receiver you can go live." He believes it will also be important for crews wanting to ftp stories. "For example: you want to go live for the 6o'clock news with a two minute story that needs to be top and tailed with a live cross. You book a slot between 5.45 and 6.15, ftp a 100MB two-minute story that takes five minutes to go up, and gives you the rest of the booking to top and tail live."

A single hotspot could cope with two to four broadcasters at once, but the number of crews that can use it at once depends on how much bandwidth they book – although each cell can be expanded to offer more connectivity (so long as Boxx has enough time to arrange it – at least a four-week lead time). "The cell's the easy part. It's the connection to the internet that is challenging."

Whether the system can be used for links to a mobile camera depends on the location. Generally it will be free to roam if it is close enough (within about 500m depending on the topology), otherwise it will need to use a directional antenna.

"The technology can be rolled out anywhere in the world, so our big focus is to identify where news crews want to be."

Access points

Boxx has been working with 5GHz spectrum with its wireless products for about five years. "Everything we do is between 5GHz and 6GHz, which is traditionally a frequency our competitors don't use," he claims.

It currently offers Cobalt, a standard definition wireless system, and Meridian an uncompressed, zero-delay HD link with a limited range (about 150m). It will launch Zenith, a long-range (up to 1km), low-latency (under three frames) HD system using H.264 compression at IBC. This will use the next generation of technology that won Boxx an Emmy award in 2005.

It should cuts costs thanks to low-cost access points that can be deployed for about £200-£300 each. It uses cheap Cat5 cable and IP networking protocols and hardware to get back to the decoder. Users could potentially have hundreds of access points for a decoder.

Some of the APs include three radios, which would allow three cameras to access it at once, but there can be multiple APs in any location, all wired by Cat5, although there needs to be a decoder for each channel.

On a shoot in a building where you'll have four cameras, there could be four APs in each room, but if there is an area where you know you'll only use one camera at a time, you could have one AP programmed to work with any camera. Each AP could work with more than one camera at a time, but with reduced bandwidth for each.

"It's completely expandable. You can program it to do pretty much what you need it to do," explains Walker.

He believes it would be perfect for use in a sports stadium or for horse racing. Indeed, it is currently being beta tested at the Selangor Turf Club in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to provide on-course coverage and output for satellite horse racing channels.

The furthest starting point at the course is 900m from the Grand Stand (where the access points are), which requires the use of a directional antenna on one AP. A wide view (120ยบ) sector antenna is used on another AP to cover the far side of the course. The system automatically switches as the camera moves from one position to another (there is only one mobile camera being used).

There is also an AP for the parade ring and a further portable AP can be plugged into the internal Ethernet network for covering press conferences or interviews in the main buildings. The system could easily be expanded with Cat5 cable and another AP. Boxx also has another two prototypes being trialled, and its first use on a production in Europe will be on a stunt challenge type show for the UK channel Dave.

Zenith has two antennae on the back of the camera (compared to four on Meridian). Both systems use MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) technology, but Meridian uses four transmit and five receive antennae, whereas Zenith has a 2x2 system. Zenith sends its compressed images at 10-15Mbps, while Meridian is well over 500Mbps. "The trade off is distance or latency," he explains. Zenith should ship by the end of the year.

Meridan has been out for about 18 months and was initially seen by users as principally for video assist use (probably because of its short range but zero delay). That was its use on a just-released blockbuster 3D movie, where it sent 3D back to the video village and was used on a follow car for a horse chase scene. It was also used for video assist on the TV drama, Blue Bloods.

Although Meridian was first used for ice hockey coverage at the Vancouver Olympics, it is only now being used more widely for live broadcasts and light entertainment productions, such as a Penn and Teller special and Australia's Got Talent. Its extremely low latency means that directors can use the classic Steadicam shot circling a singer, with no cables in the way but perfect lip sync, "which is where we come in to our own," he says.

By David Fox

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