Tech Focus: Intercom Technology, Part 1 — RF Disruption, IP Development Drive Evolution of Back-of-House Comms

Both wired and wireless systems still have a place in broadcast production

Like the larger microphone market, intercoms’ transition to wireless might once have been considered an inevitable progression. But, as with microphones, there are plenty of applications and arguments for both tethered and untethered versions, especially given the disruption that the RF environment experienced as a result of FCC-mandated frequency reallocations (which affects both product categories). Instead, intercoms have settled into a comfortable bifurcation, in which broadcast users have a broad array of choices and suppliers on both sides seek ways to accommodate the other.

On the wired side, intercom systems have embraced IP connectivity, looking to AES67 and SMPTE 2110 standards to make cabled systems more efficient.

“Take cabling efficiency as an example,” suggests Martin Dyster, VP, business development, Telos Alliance TV Solutions Group. “Instead of dealing with multiple line-[level] or mic cables, you’re working in most cases with a single piece of Cat 6, fiber, and an Ethernet switch connection. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. IP also allows production to be managed anywhere, not just onsite in a traditional OB truck. Multichannel audio, 4K video, and communication audio can be backhauled from the venue to the broadcaster’s HQ from nearly anywhere in the world. A system such as our Telos Infinity IP Intercom is especially suitable, since it doesn’t require a matrix.”

Master panel for Telos Infinity IP intercom, which is designed to enable audio and intercom to be backhauled from nearly anywhere

But Dyster is also quick to point out that Infinity is designed to interface with wireless intercom systems, a capability he says customers regularly inquire about. An example is Infinity’s interoperability with Pliant Technologies’ CrewCom wireless systems.

“It’s important at this stage of the industry that we all try to pull technologies together and be able to integrate with other brands and formats,” he explains. “It’s possible to connect a four-wire [analog] system to an RF base station now and have it be seamless.”

At Pliant Technologies, whose X-System brand wireless coaching intercom system from corporate sibling CoachComm dominates college football, VP, Global Sales, Gary Rosen agrees that both wired and wireless intercom systems have found a place in the complex infrastructure of coach communications, broadcast, and other productions: wired systems are often preferred by stationary positions, such as directors; wireless, by positions that require mobility. What’s changing, he adds, is that the number of the latter is increasing “dramatically” as productions become larger. He cites college football, where it’s not unusual for games to have more than a dozen wireless users per team, as an example.

Wireless systems like CrewCom’s offer those productions more flexibility, he asserts, citing a recent production at New Orleans’ SuperDome, where the number of intercom positions nearly doubled when a VR truck was added to the production at the last minute. “We were able to accommodate a jump from 18 people on intercoms to another 15 people — a total of 31 positions — all within a single system. Those are the kinds of surprises facing producers of live events today, and it’s how wireless systems can help deal with those surprises.”

Standards Make a Difference
IP connectivity has seen a lot of activity in terms of standards and product development in the past two years, at a time when wireless evolution has been accelerated in response to RF disruption — a kind of positive perfect storm.

The establishment of IP standards, in particular SMPTE 2110, is having a real, positive impact by aligning multiple vendors in IP interops, observes Riedel Product Manager Karsten Konrad: “Eliminating the previous confusion is allowing manufacturers to focus on maturing the right IP elements so that it all works together. Riedel’s Bolero wireless, SmartPanels, MediorNet, and Artist are now interoperating with many other vendors’ products. Momentum with [Networked Media Open Media Specifications] for device discovery and registration is also increasing, and this is expected to add the next wave of ease-of-use required in order to offset the potential increase in complexity that can exist within IP fabrics.”

Konrad also translates that into economic benefits, particularly around at-home production. “Bringing multiple remote locations together into one virtual production environment promises savings around team and talent mobility,” he says. “While remote production capabilities have been available in Riedel’s product portfolio for some time, we are adding many new elements that are important to optimizing these new production environments.”

Intercoms likely have a lot of evolutionary headroom left. RF disruption unsettled the wireless waters for this category as it did for microphones, but, similarly, it has also opened doors to alternative frequencies that have their own advantages. At the same time, the momentum behind migration to IP-based distribution is strong, as it is for other aspects of broadcast audio. And as with much in audio, change is the one constant.

Click here for Tech Focus: Intercom Technology, Part 2 — What’s on the Market

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