Tech Focus: Intercoms Move Deeper into Networked Mode

The broadcast sports community looks to finally make the transition to IP

Intercoms have been transporting audio over IP for a decade. Broadcast sports, however, has been playing catch-up in the category.

“We’ve been seeing this on the entertainment side for some time, where they’re more used to trying new things,” observes Vinnie Macri, product marketing manager, Clear-Com.

However, he adds, the sheer scale of intercom for sports productions puts IP bandwidth costs out of reach for all but the biggest, which require dedicated bandwidth from ISPs like Comcast. For the vast majority of broadcasts, such as the hundreds of collegiate games done each year, rented trunked IP would not be cost-effective.

The Internet is an alternative but not for complex productions. “You can’t put Dante or AES67 on the Internet; a Dante stream is 1 Gigabit,” Macri adds. “The benefit of the network is the ability to share [data] over LANs and WANs, especially from venue to venue, such as at the Olympics.”

However, the use of Internet connections for moving comms audio on a larger scale appears inevitable, and Clear-Com is looking to its LQ Series interfaces, which can connect two-wire and four-wire audio and call signaling over IP networks as a solution. Macri cites Golf Channel proof-of-concept tests during a tournament at the Doral Golf Resort in Miami last year: eight IP interfaces sent four four-wire comms and IFB audio to the network’s broadcast facility in Orlando. Golf Channel tested a similar configuration of the LQ interfaces at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, GA, last April.

Spectrum Issues
Andy Cocallas, owner of Game Time Communications, sees IP-based intercoms as a solution to disappearing RF spectrum. Game Time has provided intercoms for all 32 NFL stadiums and London’s Wembley Stadium, as well as for numerous Division I, II, and III colleges and high schools.

“Aside from the lower latency and better sound we’re experiencing with audio-over-IP, it’s also more affordable because it eliminates the need for base stations: you can take a direct feed from the beltpack to a network switch,” he explains. “That helps sell it to high schools and smaller colleges and broadcasters, which accelerates its uptake.”

It’s not a perfect solution for large networks. Cocallas cites the need for IT knowledge to keep large networks up and running, as well as the fact that a full-duplex intercom system can cut into network bandwidth. However, each active source on a 100-Mbit VLAN network uses only a fraction of a percent of that bandwidth.

“A system can be used on an existing network and uses only a small part of available bandwidth and does not degrade the host network,” he points out. “It can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.”

Loss of spectrum is a concern for wireless comms and IFB. Broadcasters and manufacturers alike are phasing out systems that use UHF spectrum, reserving what’s left for wireless microphones. “We’re looking at newer technologies, digital technologies, and higher frequency ranges to address the issue,” says Macri.

According to Rod Allen, senior project manager, Bexel — which sells, rents and manages communications systems for broadcast and other productions — migration to IP-based transport is taking place across the range of intercom types. Two-wire beltpack-based systems have been moved further in that direction by Clear-Com’s HelixNet partyline system, he says, adding that four-wire systems have been using IP-based systems from Clear-Com, Riedel, and Telex for various applications for some time. In particular, he notes how many organizations have been using RTS’s RVON interface to connect VoIP into their ADAM intercom frames.

In terms of wireless communications, Allen points out that the 1.9- and 2.4-GHz ranges are already proving to be viable alternatives to the disappearing UHF bands. He notes that such systems as Clear-Com’s recently upgraded FreeSpeak II wireless intercom system and CoachComm’s Tempest systems, which use an antenna system that can be rolled out over Cat 5 and Cat 6 cabling, can provide comprehensive wireless intercom systems for widely dispersed events.

Looking over the horizon at the potential for WiFi systems, Allen says that products like IntraCom’s V.Com system, which lets personal devices like smartphones plug into a network and act like beltpacks, point toward an intercom tool available to budget-challenged sports distributors, such as small and midsize collegiate and regional sports networks.

Intercoms are one more part of the broadcast-audio ecosphere that’s moving from the circuit to the network. And, even though it’s taking place as the price of copper drops to record levels, the upshot will be faster, simpler, clearer communications.

What’s on the Market Today

By pro-audio standards, intercoms are a small market sector but a critical one. Here are the latest offerings from the market leaders.

New HelixNet Version 3.0, a free software-only update to the HelixNet digital network partyline platform, was developed in response to the growing need for more communication channels to support live sports productions. The upgrade covers five major areas. Channels: A single HelixNet main station will now create 12 PL channels available for use as a system, no linking required. An optional license allows 12 more channels to be added for a total of 24 PL channels. Linking: Because all channels reside in one main station called the Link Master, linking is used only to add I/O capability or expansion-panel function to a linked system. Panel Expansion: HelixNet Main Stations and Remote Stations can be configured to act as expansion panels in a linked system. This allows a user to access all 12 or 24 channels much like a matrix key-panel. Core Configuration Manager (CCM): Supplied free in HelixNet 3.0, the CCM is a browser-based interface for system and device configuration. It allows real-time changes to a system along with upgrade and backup/restore capabilities. The browser interface is optimized for use on computers, tablets, and smart devices connected to the HelixNet Main Station via the optional HLI-ET2 Ethernet module. Roles: A role is a preset configuration of the options for a particular device (HMS, HRM, HKB, HBP). The number of roles is essentially unlimited. Many devices can use the same role, or many unique roles can be created for use on a single type of device.

The FreeSpeak II operates in multiple license-free DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) bands from 1.897 GHz to 1.933 GHz, enabling continuous, clear communication even in RF-hostile settings and eliminates the need for frequency coordination. Its active antennas and wireless beltpacks use separate data and audio channels in DECT6 to create a dependable link between beltpacks and the base station or Eclipse HX matrices. Beltpacks possess cellular auto-roaming technology, allowing them to constantly scan and automatically select the optimal wireless signal. The beltpack is IP-65–rated, which means that it is water- and dust-resistant. The beltpack’s exterior housing is also constructed with polycarbonate plastic and thermoplastic elastomer overmold, making it highly durable. FreeSpeak II is scalable: users can add more beltpack users as the team and workload grow; the system can support 20 full-duplex wireless beltpacks. Implemented as an integrated wireless solution within Eclipse HX matrices, known as FreeSpeak II Integra, up to 50 full-duplex wireless beltpacks can be used simultaneously. The system’s wireless coverage can be expanded with locally powered active antennas, which can be positioned up to 3,200 ft. away; antennas centrally powered from the base station can be 800 ft. away. Five-way antenna splitters and up to 10 antennas can be installed to create a wide coverage zone for beltpack users to roam. FreeSpeak II beltpacks offer five intercom channels to enable efficient management of workflows. Such features as Listen Again message replay as well as battery health, RF status, and antenna-link monitoring add to the convenience of the system.

The company’s oratis compact professional intercom matrices provide a highly cost-effective entry-level solution. The platform offers up to 48 digital panel ports (16 on AES/EBU, 32 via Dante) and up to 120 four-wire ports (16 two-channel AES/EBU, 64 Dante, 24 analog I/O lines) in only 1RU, featuring the CS 1624 Dante model. Product versions CS 1212 Dante and CS 0800 Dante downscale these specifications to meet smaller port-count setups at a minimum price. DELEC is also present in large systems providing non-blocking solutions with more than 4,000 active ports with its oratis MF4 frames (all of which can drive intercom panels). During IBC2014, DELEC announced the world’s first intelligent trunking solution for professional wired intercom and RF handheld two-way radios.

DELEC recently integrated Kenwood NEXEDGE technology into its matrices. Using one digital RIF interface equipped with one or two Kenwood base stations, the DELEC system enables dedicated calls to one of 63 NEXEDGE groups or talk to one of 189 single-unit IDs. Likewise, handhelds are able to address a single DELEC subscriber through this interface. NEXEDGE is a digital TDM-based algorithm modulated on a single RF channel supporting up to 65,000 ID addresses. DELEC users have the option to transparently interface to the third-party VCOM virtual-intercom system, enabling extended communication over cellular, WiFi, and the Internet. This facilitates local, national, and international bidirectional communication. This feature is fully programmable, allowing access via the DELEC IconXP user interface.

Artist is a digital matrix platform for intercom applications and the distribution of analog and digital audio and TCP/IP data signals. The system comprises a fiber-based backbone providing a decentralized infrastructure for live audio and intercoms with matrix sizes up to 1,024×1,024 ports. Multiple frames can be interconnected by a dual optical-fiber ring to form a single large, full-summing, non-blocking distributed matrix. With Riedel’s new AES67 client card for Artist, installed into the Artist mainframe and configurable through the Director software, the platform can accommodate both AVB and AES67 audio networks. The interface will also allow AES67 connectivity between the Artist and Smartpanels, as well as other third-party devices.

Tango is Riedel’s first network-based communications platform supporting both the AES67 and AVB standards. With its own dedicated app, My First Riedel, Tango becomes a cost-effective and efficient 40×80 digital intercom matrix. It features two integrated Riedel digital partylines, two AES67- and AVB-compatible ports, two Ethernet ports, one option slot, and redundant power supplies. The 1.5RU system features a shallow mounting depth and low-noise design and is fully compatible with all of Riedel’s current and legacy intercom panels, including the company’s RSP-2318 Smartpanel.

Smartpanel, a powerful multifunctional user interface, features three high-resolution, sunlight-readable, multitouch color displays; stereo audio; a multilingual character set; and 18 keys in 1RU. It can be expanded through the use of intercom and non-intercom apps. Three apps available offer different levels of functionality: the BASIC app includes 12 intercom keys; the PLUS app has 12 intercom keys and adds an analog audio port for four-wire integration and three GPI/Os; the PRO app has 18 intercom keys and two analog audio ports for four-wire integration, three GPI/Os, and the ability to connect an independent second headset.

Performer, a digital partyline intercom system, provides two- and four-channel master stations; rack-mount, wall-mount, and desktop speaker stations; call-light indicators; and two-channel beltpacks.

Acrobat full-duplex wireless communications solution offers up to 120 individually addressable wireless control panels/beltpacks and 18 wireless partylines. It utilizes the benefits of the DECT standard’s base layer, suiting it for use in crowded RF environments.

The BTR-80N two-channel wireless intercom system offers extremely reliable and secure full-duplex communication with up to four wireless TR-80N beltpacks and an almost unlimited number of half-duplex beltpacks. Variable transmit power is available up to 249 mW. Operating in a very tight frequency band (at 25 KHz vs. the 800 Series’ 100 KHz), the BTR-80N system can be effectively used in difficult RF environments and is approved for license-free use in most countries. The system also incorporates ClearScan technology, allowing users to select the optimal radio-frequency channel for communication at the touch of a button. Features include a choice of two independent or simultaneous audio channels, multiple antenna options and accessories, easy-to-read LCD indicating system status, expanded coverage using BTR-80N access points, simultaneous two-wire and four-wire intercom interface, XLR in/out for interfacing with general audio systems, auto-select condenser or dynamic microphone, and a choice or rechargeable or standard batteries supporting a wide temperature range and up to eight hours’ operation.


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