The expansion of cellular uplinking

Monday, November 12, 2012

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Cellular uplinking has entered the mainstream, used for almost every major event around the world, including this year’s US Presidential Campaign
There comes a time in every truly innovative technology sector when the question changes: it’s no longer whether to the use technology but how to deploy it. Ronen Artman, VP of Marketing at  LiveU believes the London Olympics marked this point.

Over the last five years, widening cellular networks and new video uplink technology have changed the transmission space significantly. The growing connectivity of terrestrial wireless networks has begun to provide a resilient, cost-effective alternative to streaming SD and HD video via traditional satellite and fibre. Today, more and more broadcasters and online media use cellular-bonded technology for cost-effective live video transmission from any location, combining multiple cellular technologies and networks, including 2.5G, 3G, 4G LTE, Wi-Fi and WiMAX, for reliable, HD (even up to 3D) video uplinks.

It’s clear from a LiveU perspective that the London Olympics marked a turning point in the use of cellular uplinking. The Games were an undoubted success, not only in terms of the event itself but also in terms of the breadth and depth of coverage available. LiveU’s pioneering portable uplink technology was deployed for the first time at the 2008 Beijing Olympics where NBC Universal used LiveU’s live mobile units to broadcast live from the games. 

At the London Olympics the company came full circle, providing over 100 units of its professional-grade LU70 bonded uplink solution on the ground for its global customer base covering the event for viewers around the world.  This was an event where the mobility and flexibility of the technology came to the fore with the figures showing a massive leap in usage since Beijing - in total over 3,000 hours were transmitted using LiveU technology from the London Games. LiveU, along with its exclusive UK partner Garland Partners Limited, further enhanced its technology for the Olympics using QoS SIM cards. The services, backed by the onsite support team, enabled customers to deliver the best broadcasting and online video experience. 

Now for the next stage. The world of technology never stands still for long: no sooner have the benefits of using cellular-bonded backpacks over 3G been recognised by broadcasters and online media companies than 4G is rolled out – in some parts of the world, the US in particular, 4G is in widespread use and has been for a while. In other parts – the UK for example – these are only now being deployed. 

Impact of 4G LTE
There’s no doubt that 4G is potentially a game-changer in terms of available bandwidth but what is the real-world impact of 4G likely to be in the content acquisition space? Will the additional bandwidth negate the need for bonded modem technology?  4G LTE networks are expected to offer considerable bandwidth benefits allowing consumers, especially smart phone users, to take advantage of surfing and downloading content. Does the same apply for HD (1080, 720), or even SD, live video transmission from the field for broadcast or online use?

Well, yes and no. For the 3GPP 4G LTE (not LTE-Advanced which is still some way from realisation), with all the variations in operators, territories, spectrum, infrastructure and modems, significantly higher total bandwidth is certainly possible with LTE both in the downlink and the uplink. Lower uplink latency is also achieved.

However, the fundamental factors that affect 3G networks and have an impact on uplink video transmission affect 4G – or any cellular network for that matter. Regardless of the exact bandwidth demand versus availability, many of these factors touch on the basic requirement from live broadcasting: resiliency, stability, anywhere, anytime.

Firstly, the topology: the number of base stations and antennae deployed and their locations - up high with great line of site or around the corner in a high-rise urban area where signal quality can be compromised. Then, as with 3G, multipath interference and fading is an issue with 4G, for example in built-up areas. Of course the distance from the tower remains very important in limiting the momentary performance of a 4G device, even more so in the uplink.

Secondly, the frequency being used has a very real effect on performance. In much of Europe, for example, 2.6 GHz is allocated for LTE whereas 3G uses 2.1 GHz. This is likely to require technology specifically to address problems related to indoor coverage. Thirdly, since the maximum bandwidth is higher for 4G LTE, so is the bandwidth amplitude. This means that in case of RF interference or other cause of change, for example, a truck passing between the user and the tower or more subscribers sharing the capacity, a significant sudden bandwidth drop and/or latency increase may occur. To realise the potential LTE bandwidth increase, operators need to invest in strengthening the backhaul too and that seems to be happening in stages.

In most countries, 4G LTE coverage is still very limited compared to 3G. Whereas 3G reach has grown significantly beyond city centres, LTE deployment is only beginning in city centres while suburban, let alone rural areas, will see much later deployment due to ROI issues, except if forced by regulation. Still, broadcasters need the peace of mind to be assured that broadcast-quality video will be delivered, regardless of whether there’s 4G network coverage or not. Initially, of course, there are very few users on any new LTE network but sharing the uplink capacity applies as much as it did previously. Even before an increase in users and a rise in bandwidth demand, 600 Kbit/s and lower sustained uplink speeds had been observed for entirely understandable reasons, representing a difference between theoretical, maximum, average or published speeds and what’s practically achieved in the field.

None of this is to underestimate the value of 4G LTE: if everything’s optimal then users will get lower latency and more bandwidth. For video transmission it’s not peak, or indeed average speeds that we’re interested in. While surfing the web a sudden drop may go unnoticed, for video it’s very different: what’s required is as high sustained “goodput” (throughput that’s received okay) with as low sustained latency as possible. With inherent cellular behaviour, increased network loading and the other factors, performance fluctuations are inevitable. 

Moving between networks

Multi-link solutions, such as LiveU, that use 4G LTE and other available networks, allow broadcasters and online video professionals to enjoy the benefits of both the 4G and 3G worlds. While harnessing the extra bandwidth and shorter delay provided by the LTE network, bonded solutions overcome LTE difficulties with 4G/3G technology switching. A properly-designed LTE-bonding system automatically switches a greater percentage of the transmitted video bandwidth over to the 3G networks in relevant areas without, for example, succumbing to broadcast breakdowns because of relying too much on any single LTE link. Indeed for many years to come, multi-link backpacks and handheld uplink devices that simultaneously bond 3G and 4G technology will see the best results.

There are other developments too. April saw Panasonic and LiveU announce a new collaboration to deliver an integrated camcorder and live video uplink solution, utilising the LU40i video uplink device and the new AJ-HPX600 P2 camcorder with planned wireless integration features. The LU40i will be linked via the camera interface, giving camera operators a real-time indication of LiveU’s transmission status and video transmission quality. With the LU40i and HPX600, a camera operator will be able to manage the video uplink while shooting: a must for a one-person remote crew.

At IBC 2012 the company announced the expansion of it live video portfolio to offer customers a complete end-to-end transmission solution, adding laptop and mobile apps to its flagship LU70 backpack and handheld LU40 uplink solutions. At the same time, LiveU unveiled LiveU Total™, its unified management platform enabling control rooms to manage multiple video feeds from LiveU units operating in different locations. The LiveU Total platform seamlessly supports the full spectrum of LiveU’s product portfolio within a single ecosystem. 

LiveU’s extended portfolio reflects the changing way live video is being acquired in the field. Customers now have an even wider range of options for their teams covering breaking news and events, at any time, using multiple devices to transmit video back to the studio. This can range from reporters and producers on news teams using their own smartphones and laptops to professional camera operators on location. All products are based on LiveU’s fourth generation high-quality and resilient bonded uplink technology.  

The future is bright
Cellular uplinking has entered the mainstream, used for almost every major event around the world, including this year’s US Presidential Campaign. It’s even proven itself as the most effective transmission technology in the most extreme weather conditions, such as recent Hurricane Sandy coverage in the US.  With the increased deployment of 4G LTE and continued technological advancements, cellular uplinking will have an even greater role going forward in international news and event coverage. 

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