Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 1 — At the Crossroads

The sector is poised to embrace IP and wireless distribution

Communications via intercom for small armies of production-crew members on sports broadcasts systems is a hugely complex undertaking, and new tech platforms coming to market are designed to make it efficient.

The business side of intercom isn’t simple, either. The past year has seen a number of significant M&A moves, including Clear-Com’s purchase of Trilogy and Riedel’s acquisitions of Delec and ASL Intercom. Like other M&A activity in broadcasting and in media in general, these moves are part of a response to a television industry nearing its next technical inflection points: networked IP and wireless distribution and related changes in workflow.

CoachComm, which designs, manufactures, and markets wireless intercom systems for sideline communications for collegiate sports, will exhibit its Pliant Technologies CrewCom at NAB 2017. The new platform takes the most salient aspects of wired comms and puts them in a fully functioned wireless environment, with up to 200 full-duplex users and up to 1,024 conferences available without the need for a dedicated matrix.

“Until now, the wireless aspect of intercom has basically been an extension of the wired intercom,” explains Pliant Global Sales Manager Gary Rosen. “In traditional intercom design, partyline systems have offered limited functionality but are simple to lay out and have high reliability; in a matrixed design, you have a lot of functionality but at significantly greater expense. [CrewCom] is more like traditional audio routing: with conferences, you can assign any single user, group of users, or external source to anyone on the system but without needing a matrix to do so. The CrewCom beltpacks allow direct control over four separate conferences at one time. The RF components on CrewNet work like a network appliance, so the system is not limited to any specific frequencies.”

Category Drivers: At-Home Production and a Broader Sports Field
Two related and significant trends are affecting intercom development, deployment, and application: the shift to at-home/REMI approaches to production and the growth of second and third tiers of collegiate sports. Both are putting more reliance on IP-based signal transport, the latter resorting more and more to the internet as its main infrastructure.

Clear-Com’s HelixNet networked system is targeting sports broadcasts at non-NCAA schools, according to Vinnie Macri, product outreach manager. “Colleges like the University of Hartford, UMass at Lowell, Eastern Michigan University [are] great schools, but they don’t have the kind of budgets that the top-tier schools have as a result of deals with major broadcast networks,” he notes. “Instead, they’re building remote production in Sprinter vans with HelixNet and Ross switchers for a half million dollars, a fraction of what the top-tier schools are doing.”

That, says Macri, is building a foundation that leverages the internet and a campus-wide LAN infrastructure, which is already in place for a wide range of curricular and extracurricular activities, for a robust and competitive broadcast-sports universe full of content-hungry outlets, notably streaming and secondary cable channels.

He adds that the proliferation of interfaces that can convert an audio and video signal to an IP stream — such as Iptec’s VNP series network processors, which have been used along with HelixNet by several broadcast networks in proof-of-concept demonstrations — lay out an attainable architecture for these school’s sports programs.

“With platforms like these,” he explains, “schools are networking their campuses, putting a broadcast center in the basketball arena, and producing football and soccer shows from there or sending the van out to another school, calling the show remotely using four channels of comms.”

Riedel’s Christian Diehl: “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when,’ but we’re still at the beginning of moving to an IP-based model.”

Riedel’s Christian Diehl: “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when,’ but we’re still at the beginning of moving to an IP-based model.”

IP and Wireless Evolutions
According to Christian Diehl, product manager, intercom products, Riedel, the growth of smaller-market verticals for intercom systems, including regional sports broadcast, is propelling smaller and less expensive system designs and products. It’s also helping move the sector more deeply in the wireless and IP-based domains. One area of growing interest is in allowing intercom systems to extend to integrate personal devices, such as smartphones. Riedel will launch that capability, via Bluetooth connectivity, at NAB 2017 in April, Diehl says.

Although the IP evolution increasingly appears inevitable — a quick visit to Dale Pro Audio and B&H websites indicates how diverse that category has become, especially in the GHz-frequency ranges — Diehl says that, at least in broadcast, the crossover will take a while.

“Analog audio has been around for a hundred years, and technologies like AES3 and MADI have been in place for a relatively long time, too, and are deeply embedded,” he says. The implicit advantages of IP-based signal distribution will make themselves known over time, but broadcasters still want to make that transition at their own pace, he says. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when,’ but we’re still at the beginning of moving to an IP-based model.”

Diehl is similarly confident that wireless intercoms — Riedel’s Acrobat digital wireless product leverages the Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) standard’s base layer — will be more widely used in broadcast, and he hints that there may be some announcements relating to it around the time of NAB 2017.

But he also cautions that, as more professional wireless application are pushed further into the GHz range, the ability to manage that increasingly crowded part of the spectrum will require more cooperation by manufacturers and users. “No one has really mastered this band efficiently enough yet,” he observes.

Networked Audio
This is the first year that Dante appears in an intercom-market overview. As of last year, Audinate’s network-product juggernaut has swept the sector: most major players in the market — including RTS, AEQ, Riedel — are now Dante licensees. Not surprisingly, Kieran Walsh, a comms and network specialist for Dante, agrees that the evolution into an IP infrastructure for broadcast intercoms is likely inevitable.

“As the cost of bandwidth has dropped and [broadcasters] need to move larger and larger amounts of audio around, they’ll want to do that with fewer cables,” he explains. “That’s the core message for Dante and for IP in general.”

He concurs that the embedded broadcast culture won’t allow that transition to happen overnight. But he adds that the efficiencies that IP transport offers are undeniable. For instance, as digital-audio quality continues to improve, it will allow all audio sources to pass through the intercom matrix interchangeably: a voice talent could plug into a comms matrix and have his or her commentary sent to air just as easily as an A1 or a director working the same show on the same system.

“It’s an exciting time,” he says of the accelerating IP movement in broadcast-audio applications. “We’re at the point where we’ll have a common platform that all vendors — different intercom products and different remote-production trucks — can use to exchange information. That has very positive implications for intercom use in broadcast sports.”

CLICK HERE for Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 2 — What’s on the Market

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