Producing From Home — Comms Edition: A Look at Intercom Tech Being Deployed for Today’s Workflows

Conventional, alternative solutions are sharing space in home-bound operations

As the coronavirus lockdown has forced nearly every major sports broadcaster to work from home in recent weeks, content creators are discovering new tools that allow crews to produce, edit, manage, and deliver content reliably from the comfort of their own homes. Whether bleeding-edge technologies new to the broadcast community or well-established tools from traditional broadcast vendors, these tools are serving as a lifeline for sports-content creators to continue to serve fans during these unprecedented and challenging times.

With that in mind, SVG will be publishing a series of articles in the coming weeks detailing popular at-home production solutions being used for sports broadcasts, esports events, and live studio productions today. This list is by no means comprehensive, so, if you are a content creator who is using a unique at-home production solution that you would like to share with the SVG community, please email details to [email protected] for potential inclusion in a future edition of SVG’s Producing From Home series. Check out the Audio Edition here and stay tuned for future editions focused on live production, postproduction, and graphics.

In the midst of a sea change in broadcast-audio workflow, when engineers, talent, and producers accustomed to working in a traditional operational environment suddenly find themselves searching their homes for workspace devoid of kids and pets, an intercom panel is not only a link between colleagues but also a tactile and audible bit of normalcy. Intercom manufacturers are meeting the needs of these homebound workers with some virtual solutions.

For instance, Clear-Com’s Agent-IC mobile app for remote intercom access turns iOS and Android smartphone or tablet devices into full-featured mobile user panels that can connect over Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, and LTE networks. Up to 48 clients with a network of local and remote LQ devices can access preconfigured user accounts with floating-license allocation and connect either with Clear-Com’s Eclipse mainframe in the studio or plant, where it acts as a server for the app, or with other manufacturers’ mainframe systems via Clear-Com’s LQ interface.

“We built Agent-IC so that it feels like a regular intercom for the user,” says Clear-Com President Bob Boster. “But we also made sure there were several connectivity options, like Wi-Fi and 4G, because, with so many people working from home, their routers are getting hammered. Plus, you can’t predict what a local internet provider’s broadband speeds are going to be. We set it up so users can use their mobile provider’s data if needed, which could offer better bandwidth when everyone at home is using Wi-Fi.” He notes that about 30 customers have added the Agent-IC app in the past month.

RTS is adapting its platforms, such as RVON (RTS Voice Over Network) and Vlink, for at-home applications.

“The global coronavirus situation is forcing many of our customers to work remotely,” notes RTS Regional Marketing Manager Doug Heinzen. “The recently launched multiformat ODIN matrix is ideal to be used for remote productions. You can also reprogram KP series keypanels to RVON mode for use in a home-office location.”

With RVON, a matrix can communicate with another RVON-enabled matrix or keypanel anywhere in the world, allowing full integration of an RTS intercom system into an existing data network, he says.

“It also allows you to create an independent network for your RVON equipment,” he adds. “Our devices are fully IP-compliant with current VoIP standards.”

Riedel offers virtual panels that allow a regular computer or mobile device to function as an intercom control panel in combination with any Riedel digital matrix intercom system along with the Connect IPx8, which provides low-bandwidth AoIP interfacing for intercom systems, with Cat 6 and coax versions available and support for up to eight remote keypanels with full functionality. The ConnectTrio combines two independent analog POTS telephone hybrids, an ISDN BRI/S0 interface with two independent ISDN B channels, and two independent VoIP audio codecs with connections via the SIP protocol.

According to Riedel Manager, System Consulting, Rick Seegull, these and other products offer close to half a dozen ways that someone working from home can access the intercom system at a studio or plant. These products range from the VoIP card that lets a homebound user call in as though it were a conventional phone call to an Android- and iOS-compatible app that mimics pane functionality on a smartphone or tablet, as well as being able to bridge an actual intercom panel taken from studio to home, using the ConnectIPx8 device.

“All of these solutions have always been part of the system,” he says. “They were there to use whether you were working from a remote production or under quarantine from home.”

The Opus codec, which is used by Skype and Google+ Hangouts, comes preloaded on the panels and beltpacks of Telos’s Infinity intercom system, allowing it to handle up to eight voice codecs on the panels and two on beltpacks, according to Martin Dyster, VP, business development, Telos, project manager for Infinity.

“You could literally decamp the control room to users’ homes and create partylines that way,” he says, adding, however, that “virtualization of the system is very much on our roadmap and we’re doing proofs of concept on that now.”

Bringing Your Work Home
Users of these intercom adaptations are trying to re-create conventional work environments in a decidedly unconventional situation.

With crewmembers scattered across different cities and states and working from home, “we can’t just step out of the truck or walk around to the other side,” says Sean McCluskey, national remote and production manager, Ross Mobile Productions.

Ross MP is using a combination of Clear-Com Eclipse digital matrix intercom panels and Agent-IC extension for productions during the pandemic. “We tested it before, and it works,” he says. “We shipped some [conventional] panels to some people and asked others to download the Agent-IC app, all running over the internet or other networks, and we’re able put together a familiar workflow.”

McCluskey senses that the familiarity derives largely from deployment of channel labels that users are accustomed to seeing in the truck, even though they’re on an iPhone or iPad instead of a panel.

“It takes a bit of getting used to,” he says, “but it’s a lot easier than texting or calling to communicate with everyone.”

John Pastore, director, broadcast communications, NBC Sports, NBCSN, and Olympics, says his team initially scrambled to create an intercom system that could extend from its Stamford, CT, control center to an array of technicians and talent suddenly working from home. Clear-Com Agent-IC apps were distributed to those users and carried over public internet to the plant, where a Clear-Com LQ interface connected to the facility’s installed RTS intercom matrix.

“As a sports network,” he explains, “we do lots of remote productions — we have massive VPN connections and even fiber back to the building — but we weren’t heavily prepared for this kind of remote work. We were looking for a quick and fast solution. This let us set up IFBs and partylines between talent and technical people.”

However, in the brief time since the COVID-19 lockdown began, broadcasting’s ad hoc response has become considerably more sophisticated. Lunch Talk Live host Mike Tirico is among hosts using LiveView’s cloud-based streaming solution over connected iPads, and program technicians use Cisco VPN routers to connect RTS RVON key panels and router control in each worker’s home. Analog audio out of the LiveView ecosystem goes into Tascam Dante interfaces and then digitally into the main control center’s RTS system for distribution as intercoms, IFB, and other applications. In addition, systems operators have their own control-surface interface, with A1s using Calrec Assist via iPad and a VPN connection for remote control of the mix.

Changing the Game
Esports is often described as its own universe, and that has also applied to communications. Leagues are looking at free or affordably licensed IP-based platforms — such as TeamSpeak, Discord, Unity, and Ventrilo — to link the dozens to hundreds of players who can make up teams playing locally or from disparate global locations, as well as their coaches and online announce talent and commentators. But, as gameplay went mainstream and was broadcast/streamed to larger audiences, the intercoms used by broadcast-industry crews covering it relied on professional stalwart brands like RTS, Riedel, Clear-Com, and Telos.

Consultant Michael Howse says that many broadcasters are looking to integrate their traditional comms systems with TeamSpeak.

However, the coronavirus is opening an opportunity for consumer-oriented comms systems to show their stuff to more-professional users.

“When the coronavirus forced Blizzard [Entertainment] — who we already had a partnership with for voice communications — to cancel their Overwatch event, they came to us to virtualize all of the voice communications for the entire production,” recalls Bay Area technology consultant Michael Howse, an advisor to TeamSpeak, which provides VoIP communications for competitive online gaming via a client/server system tuned for multi-user chat. “In addition to the gamers and their coaches, we now had over 200 production crewmembers using TeamSpeak for intercoms. Before that, they were all using traditional equipment for intercoms, the kind of equipment that came with the broadcast trucks.”

According to Howse, this was facilitated by the fact that TeamSpeak is an IP-based platform (its client is a PC or mobile user interface, and the server provides the intelligent voice-rendering technology as well as the administration and configuration features) and that live and broadcast productions have largely moved to the same protocol. What were parallel ecosystems for communications have been quickly merging into one in some cases as a result of the pandemic, with several major sports networks incorporating TeamSpeak into their virtual-sports productions, such as NBC Sports’ eIndyCar and ESPN’s NASCAR iRacing events.

Howse doesn’t say that TeamSpeak is looking to establish market share on the professional side of comms but does note that the company is getting more calls from broadcasters that want to integrate their traditional comms systems with TeamSpeak.

“We’re able to isolate and monetize some of our [intercom] streams,” he adds, such as in-car communications for iRacing races.

Streamlining the Future
As broadcast sports continues to evolve its content solutions during the pandemic, its communications backbone is reformulating itself. Some of what develops during this period will almost certainly become permanently integrated into a broadcast workflow that will have to watch costs even more closely than before.

“This is handicapping us now to an extent,” says NBC’s Pastore, “but we’re also realizing how much further we can streamline things like comms. It can create all kinds of savings: time, cost, and health. Every network is always looking for ways to do more with less and at making REMI-style ways of working more efficient. What we’re doing with this is the pinnacle of that.”

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