Teradek Bond II: Hands-On Review

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Continuing my series of benchmarks of link-aggregating, channel-bonding, cellular video multiplexers (cellmux for short!) this week Richard Payne from Holdan, Teradek’s UK distributor, arrived with the super-sexy latest addition to Teradek’s ever-expanding range.

Unlike the spy movies, where 007 never gets superseded and hasn’t aged for about half a century, Teradek’s success with the Bond device—which I reviewed eighteen months ago or so—has prompted an update. 

This summer they introduced the Bond II. Enough to break Miss Moneypenny into a fidgeting sweat for sure! While the real lowdown has to be undertaken in Q’s labs, let us remain just for a moment with Miss Moneypenny’s outlook, for the Bond II is, even at a superficial skin deep level, simply one good looking hunk…

Figure 1. The Teradek Bond II

OK. I should probably drop the Ian Fleming take: I can hear a few broadcast engineers shifting uneasily. But it’s true—the Bond II, in keeping with Teradek’s other products, not only looks great, but is built robustly, and you can feel that the moment you pick it up. Teradek’s team is a young one, and they understand form, as well as function, is a critical key to success in this post-iPhone world.

Teradek Bond vs. Teradek Bond II

So what is it? In terms you can use to explain to your granny, it is “a small device that you can screw to the top of your camera and, once connected, it will use several mobile phone accounts to get high quality live video back to the TV studio.”

Now obviously readers of Streaming Media (with the possible exception of my dad) are fairly technical, so let me break this out for you:

The Bond (version 1) is a channel-bonding link aggregator expansion pack for the Teradek Cube series of compact video encoders. The Cubes are based on the Texas Instruments DaVinci Digital Signal Processor (DSP) chips that do all their H.264 encoding. DSPs, while being more expensive to develop in their own right, are dedicated to their task, and as such, once they’re developed mass production is cheap, and typically the power consumption is relatively low. This in turn lends itself to small form factor devices and that is what the Cube is: small.

I won’t go into a review of them as standalone encoders here, but for reference I have deployed several Cubes with clients in the place of extremely expensive “high-end” encoders that are some five times the price, both for direct-to-web (DTW) and for IP contributions to broadcast TV. For many applications they are excellent.

The Bond extension for the Cube had a proprietary link between itself and the Cube that let the channel-bonding link aggregator and separate encoder communicate to ensure that the critical vertical integration between the multiplex over the bonded link, and the video encoding process could vary— creating a two-part system that was a true cellmux.

Having sold many of these devices as a paired system it obviously became clear that there was a market for a single integrated device. And that is what the Bond II is—it is a true cellmux, a vertically integrated video (and obviously audio) encoder, combined with a channel bonding video multiplexer and a link aggregation protocol.

Naturally because the Bond II is a single unit, there are space savings over the Cube + Bond combination. Teradek has used the extra real estate to provide an extra USB port for a sixth cellular modem, offering greater options for the link aggregation.

Other key features of note: It supports HD-SDI input and encodes to 1080p. You can monitor the encoded feed locally from an iOS device using the built-in Wi-Fi link. There is an interruptible foldback (IFB) feature so the directors at the TV studio can communicate to the field engineer for cueing and programming instruction.

Using their familiar OLED-based UI, it is easy to monitor the link connections and encoding status. The device can be programmed through an built-in web server driver user interface, and, with a little patience, the basic button interface on the unit itself can be used to control most parameters quickly and logically.

The encoded signal is contributed over the multiple (Wi-Fi, Ethernet, fiber, BGAN, 3G/4G/LTE) interfaces linked to the free Sputnik demuxer software located at the “remote end,” perhaps in the TV studio or simply in “the cloud” of the Internet. This then demuxes (recombines) all the different inbound streams into a single output, which then outputs (typically on IP) the combined stream as a single video source.

Latency over the link can be fine-tuned: for our tests we used a 4-second buffer—remember that in the IP domain, particularly with CellMux systems, latency is an inevitability if you want a jitter-free constant stream. This can cause some in the world of traditional broadcast to raise an eyebrow of disapproval, but then if they want to solve that problem they would need to run a fiber to the location and bring in a high-end, extremely expensive video codec. That is NOT the application this market is targeting.

It Costs How Much?

So that leads to one final comment before we look at the performance over my benchmark course. Looking at the recommended retail price (RRP) on Teradek’s own website those who have come from a broadcast electronic newsgathering (ENG) background will probably be a little confused. Not because the page is confusing, but because the prices seem simply unrealistic.

Unrealistically low.

Before I let the cat out of the bag, let me just reflect on what it used to cost me to implement a short-term, usually satellite-based, temporary internet connection in the field when I first started webcasting in the last half of the 90s.

A small truck with my encoders, monitors, power distribution, large self-aligning satellite dish, cables to the camera operator, mobile phone link for IFB, and so on would cost—at bare minimum—£60k ($80k) to get on the road, and then a 2Mbps IP connection (albeit one that was uncontended and, while it had about 650ms latency, was ultimately a portable “leased line”) could cost about £500 or more to provision and then perhaps £350 per hour to use.

Even with more recent advances in the satellite IP services such as Eutelsat’s NewsSpotter service, a quickly setup system such as the suitcase-sized flyaway by the Sat-Com Karbon 75 I reviewed recently, will cost some £10k to £15k initially and some €80/hour to operate (admittedly for the strong-hearted you can use a standard dish on a pole supported by a few concrete paving slabs for only a few hundred quid and point with meters—which is fine for car use, but not so easy for hopping on the train).

Also, satellite systems (without military grade gimbals) need to be stationary, leaving your broadcast transmission link in a fixed location once you are setup. If you are able to stay in a fixed location and plan for the event, then these are extremely good for high SLA broadcast contribution feeds, but where you need spontaneity and mobility, the cellmux technology platforms have really changed the whole dynamic.

Even the high-end cellmux are only about £15k to £18k to get setup. Then, once set up, cellmux are usually (with only one exception that I know of) completely mobile, requiring no external power, encoders, monitoring, etc. The larger units with external antennae provide incredible range, and work indoors too. They are all typically active within a minute or so of turning on.

Those who follow this sector will know that the Bond + Cube combination has been costing around $7,500. for the pair. This has been a disruptive price point facilitated by using USB dongle modems rather than the complex high-gain antenna found on the higher-end systems. We will explore this further later on.

So if that price point is attractive for ENG field cameramen—perhaps an order of magnitude smaller than satellite systems of old—the Bond II will stun you.

The current RRP for this product is $3,990.

Yep – that’s right. Not a typo (provided my editor didn’t mess it up).

I agree: that’s just silly! In ten years the capital outlay for a cameraman to get a signal back from the field in ad-hoc locations has potentially dropped from $80k to $4k!!!

So let’s put it through its paces and see what the tradeoffs really are.

Benchmarking Criteria

First I must quickly outline the test for those who are new to my benchmarks. Quoting from some previous articles:

My intention with these tests is to look at the quality of the end-to-end transport and while it is inevitable that moving would bring some degradation of the video encoding quality at times, the core investigation of these tests is focused more on how well the cellular link aggregation and demux channel bonding process can work together with (optimized) video compression to give a continuous video link from a moving vehicle using cellular and radio, that it is focused on the image quality.

My focus in these benchmarks is on the continuity of signal as an IP stream over the cellular or even mixed with W-Fi and Ethernet networks. This is about the applicability to use these cellmuxes for increasingly high SLA, “mission critical” ad-hoc backhaul or contribution feed links for broadcasters, videographers and and webcasters.

This is the course we take, beginning at my home in Rottingdean, outside of Brighton, England (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The testing course

The most important part of the course, as far as these cellmux devices go, is point C. Because of the natural geography and the local cell mast locations (indicated in red) there is a cellular “dead spot” about 500 meters long. So far no cellmux has maintained connectivity throughout this stretch and it provides a critical testing point for a variety of situations that are very interesting:

  • The duration of the layer 2 outage (i.e., how long the cellular networks are unable to get a radio signal and connect to their provider)
  • The duration of the layer 3 IP link outage, and, once the radio link is restored, how “marginal” it is and how quickly the IP services are restored.
  • Once the IP link is restored, how much video is recovered, lost, delivered at low quality, etc.

This dead spot is repeated on the return, and there are some secondary points on the route that also cause link-degradations particularly around point E.

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