Effective facility consolidation

February 1, 2005

Over the past 15 years, broadcasting has gone through some dramatic changes; the FCC's relaxation of the ownership limits left most station employees without a clue as to whom they were going to be working for from one month to the next. To realize the “economies of scale” that owning multiple stations in a single market can provide, we witnessed a large-scale consolidation effort by many group owners to maintain a single facility in which to support the operations of their new acquisitions. The consolidation frenzy that ensued usually included a move to larger space to accommodate the additional support staff and studio/technical area. In the analog world, this meant recreating a new infrastructure to support the additional programming efforts.

While it took a while for broadcasters to consider the benefits of PC-based networking due to the cost of hardware (unless, of course they could trade it) and a lack of availability, their networking effort was generally limited to back-office applications. Due to the efforts of a few forward-thinking companies and some advances in analog-to-digital conversion hardware, network-based digital audio transport really didn't take off until the mid-1990s. The migration to centralized digital audio storage certainly helped minimize the need to create additional analog infrastructure, but the dream of operating the entire facility over networks was just out of reach.

802.11a and g systems typically provide sufficient bandwidth for regular office needs. Image courtesy of Linksys.

The state of current networking technology now permits users several flexibility for the reconfiguration of any office environment. Whether you are planning a major consolidation or just routine changes within your current facility, you have some new opportunities to exploit technology and, while you're at it, maybe save a few dollars. Here is an update on two technologies that will help you achieve an effective consolidation.

Wireless networking

Wireless networking continues to prove itself as a worthy and reliable transport medium. The price point of implementing wireless has reached a level where it is significantly cheaper than running dedicated cabling. The maximum throughput of wireless networks is still limited to 54Mb/s (using the 802.11 a or g standards) but this throughput is more than adequate for most users. I would not recommend wireless for mission-critical, bandwidth-gobbling applications such as streaming audio, however the IEEE has started the formulation of an updated standard called 802.11n. This new standard promises throughput increases of at least 100Mb/s and significant increases in operating distance through the use of diversity multiplexing techniques. A properly deployed wireless network provides a great deal of flexibility and ease when it comes to adding or relocating users.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) may be one of the most exciting and promising applications in networking. In simple terms, VOIP represents several sets of protocols that permit properly designed network backbones to carry voice and data information using packet-switching, similar to the traditional circuit-switched telephones. A few of the popular protocols include the following.

H.323. The original protocol, first developed by the ITU, is a method to broadcast point-to-point/multipoint multimedia content (i.e. video conferencing and broadcasts). The protocol was subsequently expanded to support voice and data telephony.

Voice over IP phones eliminate a separate telephone network. It can also reduce distance charges between facilities.

Media Gateway Control Protocol (MGCP). A proprietary VOIP protocol developed jointly by Cisco and Telcordia, MGCP uses a server to manage call traffic between two or more connections. The ultimate control of calls is handled by an interface device (called a call agent, typically a smart telephone) required at each user location. Control of the calls may also be handled by custom gateways.

Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). SIP was developed by the ITEF for establishing a VOIP connection between two or more users. SIP works at the application layer, which provides control over the creation, modification and termination of a call. A server processes the data packets between clients.

Ultimately you will need to connect to the public switched networks. There are basically two methods to connect VOIP to the public network:

  1. Several telephone carriers provide direct access through their network. This is typically delivered from an on-premise (office) VOIP router connected to the carrier through a high-speed connection (i.e. T1).

  2. VOIP routers can be configured with analog ports, which are intended to be connected to POTS lines.

Note that there are several other vendors who provide less commercial VOIP solutions using PCs or small interface devices intended for personal use. VOIP is a relatively new technology that has matured, and should be considered to replace traditional telephone systems.

I think VOIP has some really interesting applications in a broadcast environment. Consider a facility that has enabled VOIP uses its existing network backbone for communications. This permits telephony connections between any reasonably high-speed connections that are attached to the backbone. There are several examples.

  1. Telephone extensions can be added to off-site facilities, such as alternate studios, transmitter sites or even remote locations (talk stations — imagine the possibilities for last minute remotes).

  2. If the station is in a location that serves multiple area codes (i.e. serves multiple states, outside LATAs) it may be possible to install VOIP routers in the various target areas to have direct access to various local exchanges.

  3. Group operations can use existing packet-switched (assuming interconnected facilities) backbone for telephone traffic.

  4. VOIP would permit quick restoration of phone service in alternative locations, assuming VOIP router is located off-site.

These are just a few of the resources available that will make a consolidation and facility reconfigurations more painless. We are significantly closer to the concept of operating an entire facility over a common network infrastructure, thus eliminating the time and expense required to run and terminate miles of twisted pair cables.

McNamara is president of Applied Wireless, Elkins Park, PA.