FutureSport 2016: How to Solve a Problem like RF?Wireless RF cameras are one of the great sport production innovations of recent times, allowing access and angles that simply aren’t possible with cables. But it is also an area of the market that is fraught with complexity and volatility, as leading industry figures discussed during a panel session entitled ‘Wireless Cameras: Innovation, Frequency and 4K Challenges’ that took place at SVG Europe’s FutureSport conference on 30 November.
With governments around the world realising the financial value of their spectrum, and telecoms companies only too happy to buy it up, there is rarely enough frequency to go around. Throw in the requirement for additional bandwidth to facilitate better quality pictures and producers that want to continually extend the limits of what is creatively possible and the wireless RF service providers are left with quite a conundrum. Pinpointing the problems is easy. Solving them…well, that is something else.
The panel of speakers, drawn exclusively from facilities providers, were in general agreement about the scale and scope of the challenge they face.
“The problem is the same as it has been for years: the lack of frequency space,” said Hans van Houdt, director of international sales for NEP in The Netherlands. “This increases over and over again. Encoding technology is improving, which means you need less bandwidth but on the other hand 4K is coming. It will be a constant battle between us and the availability of frequencies.”
Van Houdt, whose company has provided RF equipment for coverage of marathons, cycling and cross-country skiing, among other things, is hoping to ease the pain in Holland by encouraging the sharing of frequencies. He’s even been involved in a pilot using an online booking system.
He revealed: “The aim is to team up with telecoms industry and other users of frequency space and allow them to use part of our frequency space when we don’t need it and vice versa. That is the only way to keep the frequencies. When it comes to money, the telcom industry holds all the cards.”
In the UK, where Ofcom co-ordinates the frequency usage for PMSE (Programme-Making and Special Events), this is less of an issue, according to Martin Sexton, Presteigne Broadcast Hire’s RF and special cameras manager. “For a major event they take all frequencies back and re-allocate them on a needs basis. But this not the case in the US, for example, where news organisations get priority.”
In that scenario, added Broadcast RF technical director Mark Houghton, being adaptable is crucial. “We have an online system for frequency booking in the UK but these systems don’t exist around the world. As a global provider we have to be very flexible. We cannot expect the same facilities everywhere.”
Euro Media Group, the company that provided RF facilities for the Tour De France, has a bigger frequency problem than most. “We are transmitting seven video sources and 10 audio sources live every day over thousands of kilometres,” explained Bruno Gallais, who heads up international business development for Euro Media’s wireless production facilities. “Every year it becomes more and more difficult to find the spectrum. Even when the Tour came to the UK, we had the same problem.”
And then there’s the thorny issue of better quality images. “Improvements in technology will allow us to use less bandwidth but Ultra High Definition (UHD) will require wider bandwidth,” continued Houghton, who spent the summer working on Euro 2016 and the Rio Olympics.
Technology will save the day, argued Nick Buckley, Timeline Television’s head of operations. “When we went from SD to HD, we thought it was impossible and that there wouldn’t be enough spectrum. But we did it. Technology came to our rescue. We got MPG4 and we had more frequency agility and better performance in the equipment. It meant we could carry the same amount of video links in the same amount of bandwidth but at a much higher quality. Technology is our hope for the future.”
Specifically, which technology is open to some debate, however. High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), also known as H.265, offers many advantages over H.264, providing significant bitrate savings and reducing required bandwidth. For HD this compression will be a real bonus and it also promises to support 4K UHD. But not everything is rosy in the H.265 garden.
“We use H.265 for aerial work and the delay is about 240 milliseconds for just the encoder,” revealed Van Houdt. “This is just for HD. It helps to be more efficient for HD. But in the longer-term we need different technologies for additional cameras and resolution.”
Sexton has been speaking to product developers about the delay problem and there is optimism, at least on the vendor side. “A few manufacturers are promising new technology with lower latency that will work for touchline cameras,” he said. “They’re aiming to have them out for NAB 2017. I will personally be surprised if they do.”
Until then, he added, “we’re up-scaling 1080 50p for 4K.”
Houghton made the point that until the low delay and low latency H.265-compatible equipment can be tested, no one knows quite how much bandwidth will be required “to keep the quality up.” He said: “In the longer delay area, it allows great quality. Low delay will be the real test, though. How low can we go without sacrificing the quality?”
Work in progress
While UHD using H.265 is still ‘work in progress’, for HD it does have value, asserted AMP Visual TV’s head of RF department Stephane Alessandri. Just don’t get too comfortable with it. “We will have a couple of years of benefit of H.265 with HD,” he said. “It’s only a short-term view, though.”
If H.265 is not the answer, are there other solutions? Euro Media, for one, is putting a lot of R&D into extending the moving sensor network architecture that it currently uses to collect performance data from the cyclists. “We think that it will soon be capable of carrying more than data and one day video by RF,” said Gallais.
At the same time NEP has been experimenting with MESH IP networks. Van Houdt describes them as being “very flexible” and “interesting for data collection”, but live video “is still too demanding.”
Using bonded mobile and WiFi networks was also suggested. Van Houdt said it has its uses at the low-end of the market but Quality of Service is an issue, while Houghton at Broadcast RF is yet to be convinced.
“Latency is a problem,” he said. “Your cameras have got to be as close to the aligned cameras as possible. Using WiFi or cellular you are putting a lot of technology in someone else’s responsibility. For news or contribution it is very useful. But for live sport, especially touchlines, it’s not quite right.”
Although no one quite solved a problem like RF during the session, there was some insight shared into new applications for wireless, with Point of View (POV) shots currently in vogue.
Broadcast RF is frequently being asked to put cameras on athletes on the field, for example, while Timeline has been putting POV cameras on boats.
Technically, it was agreed, that as cameras get smaller nothing is impossible but there are other factors to consider.
“If you’re putting a camera on an athlete who is about to compete for a Gold medal in the Olympics, they might have different ideas,” said Houghton. “The challenge then is persuading the sporting federation that the shot will improve the coverage of their sport.”