Streaming from the Field with TVUPack, LiveU LU60, and AVIWEST IBIS DMNG
A few months ago I wrote a review of a very neat box by AVIWEST called the IBIS DMNG (http://bit.ly/rjbk6y). It is used for aggregating several cellular data signals and treating the aggregated connection as a single pipe for streaming a point-to-point video link.
Since writing that article, I’ve received a number of requests for some sort of reference comparing this and a few other options in the market.
While there are a number of such products, they don’t yet have a generic name. So for reference here, I am terming them “cellular multiplexers” since at a technical level, that seems to be a fairly good description of what they do, certainly from a StreamingMedia.com perspective. That’s not to say that the term will take off; LiveU Ltd. calls its unit a Portable Uplink Solution, AVIWEST calls its product a Digital Mobile News Gathering solution, and TVU Networks, Inc. doesn’t quite know what to call its TVUPack.
This article attempts to provide an insight and fair comparison of three of these products. This is actually a much harder thing to do than one might perceive, for reasons I’ll go into in a short while.
First, let me give you an overview of the common themes of these products:
All of them aspire to provide ad hoc video links in the field. They are inherently not intended for permanent 24/7 video links (although I guess they could do this if the power is set up right). They are ideally suited for demanding situations where a video link is temporarily needed, and yet a satellite link (with all its established stability and quality) is unfeasible. For the best logical example, think of news gathering. Let’s look at the scenario: There you are, sitting in the headquarters of your news station. You have heard that there is a breaking story, and you need to get it on the 6 p.m. news. But it will take you 2 hours to get to the location of the story. You can get a reporter and a camera guy out there, but there is no way a satellite truck can make it—partly because the incident has caused a huge traffic jam and partly because the trucks are not available. You can, however, get the team there by motorbike.
So you send the reporter and the camera guy, who grabs his camera as well as the cellular multiplexer.
They zoom off, get themselves to the site, prepare their broadcast, and hook the camera’s SDI feed into the SDI connectors on the cellular multiplexer. With one press of the button, the server in your news room has the camera feed live, delivered to you as an SDI feed. The picture is nearly as good as your normal satellite feed’s picture, although it’s more prone to breaking up since you are sharing the cell phone mast with a variety of services ranging from passersby on their iPhones to the emergency services at the scene.
However, you are part of the only news agency with such a link, so as the 6 p.m. news goes live, you are the only team with a live video feed. Everyone tunes in to your news program, ratings soar, the boss is happy, and the news is broken.
High-action coverage is another scenario that this kit uniquely lends itself to. Let’s look at golf coverage: The typical course is far too big to completely cable up with cameras. Most footage focuses on a single hole and the players passing by, judging their performance on that single hole. However, suppose you want to make that critical difference to your show and follow a particular player around the course live. This is when a roving camera operator—one who is not tied to video, power, or transmission cables—comes into his or her own. A camera person with a bag of batteries, a camera, and a cellular multiplexer can shoot live every stroke of that chosen player’s game and send the signal back to the studio, providing unique coverage hitherto impossible.
The scenarios are as varied as camera shots. And now, with no limitation to being tethered to an uplink, the location of your live-to-air shoot is limited only by the availability of cell phone networks.
The Challenge of Comparison
There are several products in the market; I started writing this article to look at three of them and compare their features side by side.
During the course of collating the data, however, it became apparent that not only is objective comparison quite tricky without removing all the unique selling points—skewing the results in many ways—but also the environment in which they could be tested is a moving target: Given that the performance of these technologies is undeniably prone to variation in the quality and availability of the cell phone network signal, a rigid benchmark attempting to compare like with like could misconstrue performance quite badly.
Indeed, “getting all the models in one place and testing them with the same video source” sounds like the logical bench test. However, there is a complication. These models would, in that scenario, all contend with each other on the local cellular networks. So while one may perform fantastically and another may perform poorly, it could be down to factors such as session priority allocated to the devices based on which started its session milliseconds before the others.
So for the research for this article, I ran into some technical challenges trying to equate the testing I wanted to perform, and the vendors were rightly concerned that factors beyond their control could reflect badly on their technologies.
This is an interesting situation: For a reader in the broadcast space who is used to technology that is designed to provide the same quality of service and with 100% reliability, this “best effort” angle that these IP-based technologies represent must seem alien. However, when one looks at the limitations of when and from where 100% reliable “broadcast” technology must be operated, one understands that in today’s streaming-enabled world, quality is not always first priority. The maxim “any signal is better than no signal” comes into play.
That said, for a technical benchmark, it has proven to be a bit of a headache. Trying to quantise a moving landscape is tough.
Ultimately, I decided to do the comparison using given vital statistics from each vendor and comparing only statistics that all three vendors had in common. By removing features from the comparison that only one or two of the devices had, I felt that I at least created a level playing field.
Let us first take a quick profile of each of the products with text directly from their own websites.
TVU Networks TVUPack
Using TVU’s Inverse StatMux technology, the TVUPack delivers broadcast quality signals by leveraging multiple 3G/WiFi connections. Its flexible external modem connections allow it to advance to 4G/WiMAX without replacing any hardware.
- It’s your Electronic News Gathering Van in a backpack
- Bring the news back to your newsroom fast
- Simple to operate, on/off button only
- Broadcast-focused, SDI, HDMI, Composite input and Firewire input
- Live HD-quality with multiple 2.5G/3G/4G connections
- Short delays. Supports real time interviews without pixelation
LU60 for Professional News Gathering over Multiple Wireless Networks
LiveU’s new LU60 series takes the broadcast-from-anywhere experience to new heights with an abundantly rich feature set for Mobile ENG over multiple wireless networks. The LU60 bonds up to 14 cellular (3G/4G), WiMAX and Wi-Fi modems to provide a resilient, broadcast-quality video uplink, packing the capabilities of an HD Satellite truck into a compact backpack. The LU60 adds new features such as 1080i HD video resolution and super performance even at ultra-low sub-second latency.
AVIWEST IBIS DMNG
IBIS DMNG is a patented revolutionary light, portable and cost effective DMNG (Digital Mobile News Gathering) wireless camera system designed by AVIWEST for the broadcasters, the content producers and the TV stations allowing them to produce professional live video contents from remote places the more easy and flexible way.
The concept of this new system is based on the use of simple and cost effective multiple bonded 3G or 4G networks or a Wi-Fi connection that replace the complex, heavy and costly satellite contribution based DSNG infrastructures.
Being based in the U.K., my contact with these companies has been through their local U.K. distributors:
A huge thanks goes to them for both helping out and also for braving this shootout.
One of the key things to understand upfront is each company’s pricing model.
TVUPack and DMNG are sold in much the same way—you buy the initial mobile unit and a server unit. The mobile unit goes out in the field, and the server unit is installed at your master control room (MCR)—wherever you want the feed brought back to for onward processing. You supply the data connections and arrange the contracts as you need them.
LiveU does things differently in several ways. First, on the server side, you are supplied software and some engineering time, but you provide the server hardware to run it. Also, you buy the mobile unit on a service model, so you pay a monthly fee for the device that includes the cellular contracts. It therefore provides you a certain amount of guaranteed delivery each month—and this is sold in blocks of hours—for example, 10 hours per month.
Ultimately, this makes it a little difficult to do a like-for-like comparison on price. But by looking at this as a 1-year cost for the cheapest “on the road” SD-SDI to SD-SDI configuration, it looks something like the following:
I spoke to the vendors and we agreed that I would collate a range of data and pick a subset of these characteristics that ended up giving a fair position to each of them. There are, accordingly, no “outright winners” of this shootout. Each wins in several categories, and hopefully, this will let you, the reader, evaluate which product has strong characteristics of importance to your own applications.
However, to give the article some focus, I have added a scoring of 1 to 3, where 1 is awarded to the outright leader in a category. I then awarded 2 and 3 according to the next best placements. However, in many categories, two vendors’ showings were equal, so I would award them both the same point, and the third vendor would come in the next place. By doing this the vendor with the lower score “objectively” has the best offering.
That said, I feel that there should be an associated column filled in by the reader, essentially, a multiplier that reflects how important each of these categories is to the particular application.
So, for example, if portability is key, then I would have a multiplier on the dimensions row of 1; if it is not important, I would have a multiplier of, say, 3, and I would apply this multiplier to each of my scores. Doing this would give a truer indicator of the right solution for a particular application.
The final comment I have before taking you into spreadsheet land is that all these products are excellent: They are all going to play a significant part in the mobilisation of media and the proliferation of sources for, in particular, live content.
It is also important to highlight that the methodology I have tried to employ here ignores all unique selling points. I wanted to only compare features that were common to all platforms. This is a critical point, and I strongly recommend you to explore each in detail with the vendors; you may find that a USP that I have excluded from this article is actually a killer app for your purposes.
Whichever of these products you do finally commit to, you will find it to be robust, flexible, and reliable.
And despite the fact that you can, at a push, sleep in a satellite truck, these devices are a hell of a lot more versatile for all other purposes!
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A comparison chart of three leading cellular multiplexers
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Companies and Suppliers Mentioned