Streaming Spotlight: LiveU: Democratising Live Production

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It was going to happen one day. For years the tech gods have smiled upon my live events over wired and wireless networks of sometimes uncertain quality from across the U.S. and Canada, Europe, and the U.K. But it’s said that if you go to the well too many times, you’ll eventually fall in. This day, I fell in attempting one more live event over a solid Wi-Fi network that was seemingly connected to the U.S. by string-and-tin-can technology. This day, the tech gods did something else on me. But it didn’t have to be that way. My fall could have been avoided with a 2Mbps connection coming out of my daypack; it could have been fixed in less than 2 minutes.

Figure 1
Figure 1. LiveU: "Satellite truckin a daypack"
A newly inaugurated president takes a train ride, a major television network broadcasts the 2008 Olympics, and a movie about a half-blood prince premieres. All apparently unrelated news events but events nevertheless bound by underlying technologies that are democratizing live video transmission around the planet. The technology at the sharp end of the transmission is a "satellite truck," magically shrunk to fit in a daypack.

This wearable satellite truck is the brainchild of LiveU, and it can provide a solid value proposition when compared to actual satellite transmission along with its requisite significant capital expenditure in hardware and recurring personnel and usage costs. The LiveU LU-30 unit has found a home in broadcast news, live web events, local and "hyperlocal" sports and news, and homeland security. Over the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with LiveU founders, partners, and users about the evolution of live transmission and some of the LU-30 applications.

The technology is particularly suited to breaking news and on-the-move events where deploying traditional broadcast technologies might be impossible or too costly. In an increasingly competitive environment and shrinking news cycles, the time-to-air can make you a leader or an also-ran.

So How Do They Do It?
They use 3G cellular technologies, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet, each alone or in any combination.

A typical field use of the unit would be a single camera operator or video journalist arriving on location with the battery operated LU-30 unit and any video camera that supports an IEEE 1394 (FireWire) output. The camera can range from a consumer-grade device through prosumer and broadcast models. The video journalist connects the camera, enters the IP address of the client server, presses a button, and is live. From arrival on location, the live broadcast can be accomplished literally in a minute or two. The broadcast can be continued as the main source, or it can easily be handed off to a broadcast truck and crew when they arrive.

Central to the versatility and simplicity of the LU-30 is the ability to combine technologies to maintain the broadcast connection. Cellular, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet are the technologies that can be combined to achieve the desired connection speed. The most flexible of the three is the cellular connection. The LU-30 uses six cellular air cards. All six cards can be aggregated to maintain up to a 2Mbps connection. In a typical U.S. configuration, two cards each from Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint are employed. The LU-30 senses the relative strength of each carrier’s signal and continually adjusts the output to each carrier to maintain the desired bitrate. The unit also senses Wi-Fi and brings it into the connection if it’s available. The hard-wired Ethernet connection can also be used in conjunction with the cellular and Wi-Fi connections. Each can be used independently of the others if that scenario will provide the desired bitrate. For example, if an Ethernet connection is available, the unit will use it and may not use the cellular technology. This may be advantageous from a cost perspective, but wired internet access by definition limits the mobility of the unit to the length of the cable. The true power of the unit is achieved with the cellular connections. This scenario permits the cameraman to stay connected and roam with the unit anywhere the cellular network is available. It eliminates the need for the direct line of sight necessary in satellite connections and makes the unit very suitable for reporting on the run. A perfect example is the use of the unit on the Obama train after the inauguration. As the train moved along its journey from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., the cellular technology permitted a continuous feed that would have been problematic with a satellite transmission.

The back-end systems required are also relatively straightforward and economical for the user. A common method of use is to push the live feed to a server running the LiveU software and encode the transmission with Adobe Media Live Encoder or Windows Media Encoder. From there, the live stream is directed to the website. This is essentially the same method used for both a web outlet and for the traditional broadcast suite.

Current Applications
In the modern business environment, every organization is a media company. Every company needs to connect with its current and potential customer base as well as with its business partners. Publicly held companies need to engage their shareholders with company news and executive briefings. So what does this have to do with streaming? Clearly the broadcast feed from any television station can be directed to a website. But what of the pure web outlet or the traditional print media outlet that also maintains a website and may not be able to afford a broadcast truck and crew? Both can add value to their properties by including a live feed on their sites, and they can do it more economically with a LiveU unit. The current LiveU pricing model reveals approximately an order of magnitude cost savings over satellite. LiveU is currently using a two-level pricing structure. The current levels are 30 hours per month at a 1Mbps transmission or a 2Mbps transmission. LiveU provides a single billing statement so that clients do not need to deal with multiple cellular vendors, and the pricing model includes the LU-30 unit and any software upgrades. Given the significant cost savings over satellite, it is no wonder that the major broadcast networks saw the value proposition and chose LiveU.

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