Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 1 — Moving Deeper Into Wireless, IP, Virtual Territory
Spurred by the pandemic, comms changes in remote production are likely permanent
With remote production entering entirely new levels during the COVID pandemic, intercoms have been front and center like never before. It’s a position they’re not going to relinquish anytime soon. The need for production-team members to communicate from a wide variety of locations and positions gave new and literal meaning to the phrase at-home production.
At the same time, wireless and IP-based intercoms — the former moving to new parts of the post–FCC-auction RF spectrum, the latter leveraging audio’s migration to networked infrastructure — continued to make steady inroads in the workflow. But any technology sector that moves that quickly is bound to experience some growing pains.
The Pandemic Effect
The pandemic’s Delta and Omicron waves have made AoIP platforms even more necessary for intercoms, says Michael Marston, director, sales, Unity Intercom.
“Unity was used especially heavily in November and December for major sporting events as remote production became an immediate mandate once again,” he says, noting increased use for NFL and college-basketball broadcasts. “In many productions last month, I heard reports of a surge in team members’ testing positive, sending key positions of production workflow back to working from home. Unity is usually used as a way to extend onsite audio frames and IFBs to mobile, on cellphones, laptops, and even tablets — all sending and receiving audio as if they were onsite. In many cases, an onsite producer on a keypanel, for example, wouldn’t even know that the comms audio he’s hearing is from a team member located a thousand miles away or more on their iPhone.”
He adds that Unity systems are increasingly being integrated with RTS and Clear-Com systems, as well as with production audio consoles, as a way to extend audio wirelessly for use by remote-production–team members during, say, NBA and NFL broadcast productions.
Says Marston, “Comms using Unity Connect and audio transport over IP have clearly found permanent implementation in the production ecosystem.”
As AoIP/VoIP has become more integrated into pro audio in general and intercoms in particular, virtualization is another significant trend. In the past year, Telos committed itself to that with the introduction of its VIP (Virtual Intercom Platform), which the company describes as the first fully featured cloud-based intercom system. According to Telos VP, Business Development, Martin Dyster, it’s an approach that moves further from matrix-based intercom designs by basing the system on a cloud-based server that can manifest as a virtual comms panel anywhere on any browser.
“The pandemic definitely drove that development more quickly than it might have gone otherwise,” he points out, “but virtualization is something that intercoms and other audio systems were headed towards in the long run.”
Telos essentially redeployed the DSP of its Infinity IP intercom platform, which is also matrixless, in a cloud environment using Docker, a set of platform-as-a-service products that apply OS-level virtualization to deliver software in packages called containers.
“When VIP is initialized in the cloud, the administrator deploys a container per panel to build a comms system of the size required,” Dyster explains. “Each container then establishes a connection to a macvlan [Docker’s own network infrastructure] on the server, which supports AES67 multicast communication between the virtual devices, enabling voice traffic between intercoms in exactly the same way it would with hardware panels connected on an AoIP LAN.”
A beta version of the VIP platform “hit a nerve,” says Dyster, driving interest. VIP has also been released on AMPP, Grass Valley’s Agile Media Processing Platform intended for cloud-based live production. VIP on AMPP supports essential intercom functionality: partylines, IFBs, groups, peer-to-peer communication.
That arrangement underscores how intercom’s move deeper into AoIP and cloud-based environments and the intercompatibility that accompanies it are changing the nature of the industry.
“There’s still plenty of business out there for the big, $100,000 central-matrix model of intercoms, but virtualization is a shift that customers are asking about,” says Dyster, noting that audio consoles — including Telos’s own radio desks — are among the platforms that have already moved to productize that trend and that esports has embraced alternative intercom platforms. “It’s not going to happen overnight, and it likely will change the business model, but the writing is on the wall. We feel we’re on the precipice of that, and it’s exciting.”
The Shadow of 5G
Gary Rosen, VP, sales, Pliant Technologies, whose flagship CrewCom wireless system is widely used on sports fields as well as for other production applications, notes that the next round of RF-spectrum constraint is being propelled by the imminent arrival of 5G applications.“The pressure on tighter spectrum continues on an almost daily basis,” he says. “At the same time, there are so many more RF devices being deployed: intercoms, talent microphones, IFB, in-ears, wireless parabolics, even the RFID tags on uniforms and equipment. So the solution for wireless-systems makers is to focus on how to increase density.”
Pliant’s response has been development of a High Density mode for its CrewCom and CB2 systems. Released just after the first of the year and available as a free download to users, the user-selectable mode of operation allows user densities to increase more than fivefold. When selected, this new mode supports up to 32 radio packs (RPs) on a single radio transceiver (RT) while also allowing any of the RPs to communicate using four available full-duplex talk paths. Users have the flexibility to simultaneously deploy “normal”-mode RPs/RTs along with High Density mode. In addition, a new Auto-Configuration function provides a series of menus that walk a user through setup by connecting to the hardware via standard Cat 5e/6 or fiber connections. If more customization is required or a larger system needs to be deployed, Pliant’s CrewWare application can create a tailored configuration.
“Normal mode accommodates six devices; the High Density mode can do up to 32,” Rosen explains. “It’s dramatically more users without any new additional spectrum, and it can roam seamlessly between different locations.” He adds that the HD mode remains fully duplex, achieving the higher density by dividing the spectrum it uses in a unique manner.
Pliant isn’t looking at smartphone connectivity for intercoms, he says, noting its significant restrictions — added latency, degraded RF performance in loud environments — and a dearth of demand for that type of solution. His customers, he adds, have shared concern also about the use of personal-device endpoints for intercoms. “Our customers like the fact that we have a closed-end, managed system,”
Instead, he sees more flexibility for wireless in the 2.4 GHz and 900 MHz ranges, combined with CrewCom’s conference-type networking system, which he says provides more flexibility than conventional matrixes or partylines do but offers connectivity to both.
“ISM-band devices in 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz [range] can be engineered to be very robust in most environments,” he says. “Unlike analog RF that uses a dedicated frequency, FHSS [Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum] technology [allows you to] actually share spectrum reliably, even with a good amount of other wireless ISM-band devices active in the area. Like all RF deployment, in a crowded RF environment, it just takes some planning.”
Click here for Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 2 — What’s on the Market.
Click here for Tech Focus: Intercoms, Part 3 — For Broadcast Sports, a Widening Array of Connecting Tech.