Enhancing Quality & Efficiency: NPR News and its Use of 4G LTE

May 16, 2011

3:00 pm

“Very impressive field test of our new iPhone system tonight when the news broke that Osama Bin Laden was dead.  I went immediately to Ground Zero armed with only a basic kit and iPhone.”

These are the words of Robert Smith, an NPR reporter, in an email to NPR Director of Operations Charlie Mayer regarding advances in mobile technology adopted by news operations at National Public Radio, specifically Verizon’s 4G LTE network and iPhone.

“This adds a whole new dimension to what we do,” says Mayer.

What NPR News is doing is making live, broadcast-quality connections over wireless broadband devices, and it’s absolutely stunning to everyone who hears it. Mayer says that even the hard-to-impress people at the network are blown away by the quality the first time they experience the equipment working together.   While demonstrating it to an ‘old-school’ engineer, Mayer smirked yet admired his comment, “This is the future we were promised.”

Getting quality broadcast transmissions live from the field has traditionally been a challenge. Think of the set-up: equipment, wiring, power…the nature of breaking news doesn’t usually allow for these things. Even recently, Mayer noted reporters in war zones with satellite phones sounded better than reporters using cell phones here in the States at scheduled events. “On the satellite phone, they are always on a clear line, and sound terrific,” explains Mayer. Satellite phones don’t work the same way stateside though; you can’t use them in a hotel, for instance, and in cities – forget it.

Mayer, on staff at NPR since 1993, and director of news operations since 2007, is always on the lookout for light, easy to use technology to make broadcasting easier and more efficient. They have used hard-wired connections, phone lines with audio codec. “Basically, if it’s out there, we’ve tried it,” explains Mayer. NPR news has been using 3G for years, but Mayer notes they knew it was never really intended to support live transmission. “We figured something would come around eventually.”

He was right. In 2008, during a meeting with Verizon representatives (an NPR vendor), Mayer was notified of the impending 4G LTE. “At first, I didn’t absorb it, but when I read about the speeds and latency, the on-demand, high fidelity wireless connections that could be made, I started pestering Verizon.” Mayer credits Verizon for keeping “NPR in the loop”, and therefore ahead of the curve and the industry.

Comrex Access2, NPR’s 4G portable audio codec

Two other companies integral to NPR’s current setup were gearing up for the LTE network – Comrex ACCESS2 and Tieline Technology. Both made huge innovations in advance of the LTE roll-out. Comrex develops compact and portable IP audio codecs, and was the first to develop one for a 4G network.  Tieline Technology created an iPhone application called Report-IT that turns the smartphone into an audio codec.

“The Kit”

“I did not have to go get the [satellite] phone.  And in fact, it wouldn’t have worked with all the buildings in the way.  I used the iPhone cell service with a microphone dongle and re-50 for the first couple of live feeds.   But for Morning Edition and morning newscasts we started to use the Report-IT app.”

Currently the LTE Comrex ACCESS2 is shared equipment among the news staff, but Mayer says he can see that changing. “We started with 1, then 2, now it’s 4. When we understand our usage better, we’ll pull it out of the shared pool,” says Mayer.

Who gets it first?

“White House reporters,” says Mayer. “The same with the 2012 election team. This technology is light and reliable; it’s custom-made for the instant demand of campaign reporting.”

There are two types of ‘kits’ that NPR has put together. The first, used during a ‘Talk of the Nation’ interview with Senator Kent Conrad from the Hart Senate Office Building, contains the LTE modem, a microphone, two headphones and a power cable. There is a lighter one the field reporters carry with the Comrex ACCESS2, and an LTE modem.

Most of the time, Mayer asks reporters to give him an address or their location, so he can get on the Verizon map to see if where they are corresponds with the LTE area. In one instance, Don Gonyea of NPR was in Ann Arbor, MI, which doesn’t have LTE, but luckily the story he was covering turned out not to need the live broadcast. But in another instance with Ari Shapiro, who was in Ft. Campbell, KY on May 7th covering a trip by President Obama, did – Mayer forgot to check. “It wasn’t a problem though; there was plenty of coverage in that area. We know the network is in its infancy; we’ve planned on it not being everywhere.”

iPhone + Report-IT

Screenshot of Report-IT app

Like many of us, Mayer is waiting for an LTE iPhone. In its stead, the iPhone with Report-IT is in use – this is what Robert Smith used the morning after the news broke about Bin Laden. According to Mayer, Brooklyn-based Smith headed down to Ground Zero for the 4 am Morning Edition and reported live via the Report-IT app over the 3G network. “This is not something we encourage, as 3G was never designed to support this type of connection,” notes Mayer, “but since it was early, and usage in the city was low, it turned out to be high quality audio.”

The NPR team worked with Tieline Technologies, the developers of Report-IT to upload a broadcast-quality file to a NPR’s audio/content management system. This is a long way from the days of driving tapes back to the studio for broadcasting. Reporters aren’t the only ones using the app – NPR has detailed instructions on downloading and using the app for guests of the show who are being interviewed outside of the studio.

Waiting to deploy this application with the Verizon iPhone was a strategic decision on behalf of NPR. In Mayer’s experience, Verizon’s coverage was excellent, and he knew that down the road, they’d need to trust this type of connection to someone. “The iPhone itself is an amazing broadcasting tool,” says Mayer. Until a LTE-equipped phone is available, the team uses the iPhones backed up with MiFi router for an extra layer of confidence. The Comrex ACCESS2 is the primary tool for field reporting; the iPhone, is a more than adequate back-up. Not everyone at NPR has an iPhone though, but this equipment, made available through member-station support, underwriting and philanthropy, is proving itself an indispensable plan B.

Novatel MiFi 4510L NPR uses with the iPhone

Listeners to NPR on April 20th heard the Comrex ACCESS2 in action – Ari Shapiro was literally on the move during a live discussion with All Things Considered host Michele Norris. Shapiro, running to get on a helicopter with President Obama after a town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters, delivered his recap of the event, including a recording of the president’s speech, in high fidelity with the Comrex ACCESS2. You can hear Norris in the interview (link below) make mention his being “on the go”. A few weeks ago, this exchange would have involved saving the audio on a flash drive and uploading it via email back to the studio for mixing into his cell phone call back to Norris during the show.

On the campaign trail, reporters don’t have the time to file – now, they don’t even need to be plugged in.  Using the LTE is saving not only time, but “a tremendous amount of money – this is about as cheap as you can get,” explains Mayer.

Robert Smith concluded his email to Mayer about his experience using Report-IT as ‘amazing’, and added:

“Now I just need a backup battery so I can do this all day.”

Hear the quality for yourself – here is a list of interviews mentioned previously, plus some of Mayer’s favorites:

Comrex ACCESS2 & Report-IT on NPR

Talk of Nation
April 7, 2011

Senator Kent Conrad from the Hart Senate Office Building
Comrex ACCESS2 on LTE
http://www.npr.org/2011/04/07/135211947/your-turn-fix-the-national-debt

All Things Considered
April 20, 2011

NPR’s Ari Shapiro from Facebook in Palo Alto, California
Comrex ACCESS2  on LTE
http://www.npr.org/2011/04/20/135584592/obama-holds-town-hall-on-facebook

Weekend Edition

May 1, 2011
NPR’s Mara Liasson from a little league game
iPhone 4 on 3G
http://www.npr.org/2011/05/01/135891295/who-will-rise-to-the-top-of-the-gop-ticket

Morning Edition

May 2, 2011
NPR’s Robert Smith from Ground Zero
iPhone 4 on 3G
http://www.npr.org/2011/05/02/135911310/new-yorkers-gather-at-ground-zero

All Things Considered

May 6, 2011
NPR’s Ari Shapiro from Fort Campbell, Kentucky
Comrex ACCESS2  on LTE
http://www.npr.org/2011/05/06/136063076/obama-thanks-team-that-killed-bin-laden

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Marla Shaivitz is a writer, developer and digital marketer. She's interested in innovations & innovators in technology and those working toward social good. Follow Marla on Twitter at @marlashaivitz.

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