EMG UK. OB Resources Shared Globally
EMG is one of the largest business representatives in the sector of the infrastructure necessary to produce broadcast outside the content producer’s facilities. Its services and infrastructure are well known to everyone in the industry. Our magazine, through an exclusive interview with Phil Tidmarsh, Technology Business Development Specialist at EMG UK; has obtained a first-hand account of the evolution of its technical and human resources.
EMG is in the process of transforming to IP, a technology that is allowing them to share resources internationally and encourage remote production. Despite the dedication required to overcome this challenging task, EMG UK also has time to innovate. Proof of this is the recent project with BT Sport to transmit 8K content via Starlink satellites. Here you will find all the details.
What is Phil Tidmarsh’s background and current role?
I previously worked at ITN News. I implemented some IP technologies in that business for an English soccer league, sport and also replaced the company’s entire SDI backbone network with an all-IP infrastructure. Then, in September last year, I moved to EMG as a technology business development specialist and my remit is to enhance our IP offering across the business.
At EMG today we have the diPloy system, which is a 2110-based system, but there is very little knowledge in the lower level material. That is, the one related to online transmission and live views, and the cellular link material. As a traditional OB company, EMG didn’t have a lot of experience in that area and that was one of my strengths. This is because of my news experience because a lot of news companies were using 4G bonded cellular and those compressed IP technologies. As part of that task, I am looking at our fleet of transport vehicles. The goal is to combine the two and use compressed IP technologies in our fleet of transport vehicles.
In addition, I do other things for the company. I’ve been studying how to change our fleet and make it more environmentally friendly. Our customers are crying out for it at the moment.
I assume that the last major renovation process you have undergone has been the transition to IP. How has it developed?
We started with our diPloy technology at EMG in 2016, which is our modular system. It’s based on 2110, so it’s DASH7 and it’s fully redundant. It has evolved a lot during this time, but being an early adopter of the new standard, we have experienced its teething problems. Obviously, all manufacturers apply the standard very differently, which sometimes causes some problems. Fortunately, we have good relations with our own and that has allowed us to solve all those problems.
Now we have reached a pretty good point. We’ve created some custom software on the back-end that helps us tie things together and do reporting and configuration so that the whole solution is much easier for our guys and our customers to manage. We have a proprietary software we call NetBox, developed in-house. We use SDNsquare and Cerebrum from EVS.
What challenges did you find as early adopters?
To start with, it is quite different from SDI’s traditional OB market. It’s more of a data center on wheels now than it ever was before. Gone is the concept of arriving in a truck and turning everything on and then flipping a switch at the end of the day and going home. It is now commonplace for us to shut down our servers cleanly at the end of a production run.
Another big challenge is that the way we work has changed. We’ve gone through a big learning curve to get people up to speed and understand the new technologies. It’s no longer about SDI cable, it’s about IP addressing, routing and multicasting.
We have approached this process in a number of ways. The software has helped simplify it so that anyone can handle it and understand what’s going on in the network. We have shared a lot of knowledge across the group to contribute to learning as well. On the other hand, we’ve made some key hires, IP specialists, to work in the background to make everything as smooth as possible.
Has the IP contributed to creating new ways of working?
The beauty of an IP-based network is that we can do multi-format. We can do it in 1080p / SDR, and we can do it in UHD / HDR. We can run all those signals across the same system at the same time. This is wonderful because many of our clients, at some major sporting events, require more than one format. Traditionally, that was a challenge and people would say, “Oh God, now we have to buy another router and we have to screw this and do this and that.” Well, now that problem is gone.
Another good thing is that we can now decentralize it. As long as we can connect sites with fiber, we can host equipment in many different locations. We recently did some events in the United Arab Emirates and some of those sites were miles away from the main core. It didn’t matter, we just had to connect the fiber and we were good to go.
All of this lends itself to remote production very easily. We have VPNs all over the place so we can monitor and see what’s going on in the truck. The next step is the cloud, clearly. When you’re already on IP, the transition is much simpler and more straightforward. The team is starting to figure it all out.
What resources does EMG UK have for Outside Broadcast?
We have everything from very small, long wheeled vans for some key productions that are quite light, to a double expander. All of our vehicles are capable of recording in 1080p HD as standard. We’ve recently done some tests with BT Sport where we’ve done a production in 8K. You name it; we do it at the moment.
What was the work you did with BT Sport?
It was a rugby match in which we used Sony cameras through encoders in our trucks. The signal was delivered to Samsung TVs with a specific application installed to receive the signal sent via Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite. It was a technical innovation from start to finish. It was 8K encoded on a Samsung TV downlinked through a Starlink satellite.
The main challenge was to be able to see the result. Getting the equipment was not easy. Sony helped us a lot in this aspect. Just to transmit and watch it in 8K is a challenge. We only got two points where we could see it in this resolution, in the other points it was converted to 4K to see it.
What technology we can find in your OB vehicles?
As I was saying, we are moving our fleet to the modular IP system called diPloy that we have developed in-house. Some of the advantages are because this solution is modular, so we can load and unload different modules for different jobs. For one job, we will load a load of EVS modules and then unload them for another job, for example. Right now, we have taken a load of modules out of one of our European trucks for use at a big sporting event at another location. After that event, they will be loaded back onto the vehicle for another event.
Specifically, all the major manufacturers in this industry are on our trucks.
What specific work are you doing to make your trucks more sustainable?
We are studying several ways of doing this. The first, which is obvious and known to all, is remote production: sending fewer personnel and fewer vehicles. This is something that has come out of COVID.
We are starting to study the equipment we install in vehicles and, in particular, their energy needs. We are approaching the manufacturers and starting to demand that they optimize energy use, because we don’t want a big, heavy box with hundreds of fans spinning and consuming a lot of power.
We are studying electric vehicles and their capabilities to run on their battery for the entire event without having to plug in a generator or use any other power source. We are studying the possibility of replacing generators with batteries powered by solar panels on the roof.
We have already replaced the fuel in all our vehicles with biodiesel. It’s a step in the right direction, but we are still thinking about going 100% electric.
What challenges has the Group experienced because of the effect of the pandemic?
It certainly moved us forward in technological barriers. Remote control became massive overnight. In the UK market, it’s certainly here to stay. Although it is true that several European markets are not going to keep it, so we are forced to develop that hybrid infrastructure. It is no longer a problem for us to adapt to any type of production at the drop of a hat.
Our customers like the fact that we can do both. We also try to stop bringing big trucks to all events because it is not sustainable. It’s also not easy to manage so many people inside those spaces with the intention of keeping social distances. Remote control helps us a lot in this regard. During the pandemic, we had to scale up very quickly to work remotely.
The learning curve was very steep. Within three months we built offices with adapted capabilities in Salford and in Stratford. And the people who built these new facilities were traditional OB guys and not so much network guys. They had to learn quickly and understand VPNs and all that technology, but now it’s there, it’s fabulous.
What technology did you rely on to build all these new systems?
I think one of the key things in the early days of our remote production was our connectivity piece, which was provided by BT media and sport. Without that, it would have been a real challenge, because at the beginning we didn’t have encoders and decoders and we didn’t have the expertise to do it. BT Media & Broadcast supported that part. It was a key factor for us.
Have the trucks changed a lot from before the pandemic to what they are now?
Yes. It’s a slow transition, though, because when you have a £5 million truck, you have to make sure you get the most out of it. It’s all based on CapEx cycles and the demands of our customers.
We will only upgrade them when it makes sense to do so, but the vision for the future is that they will be smaller, with fewer people and less production space. That is the way we are going. We still have some very large vehicles that are beautiful production centers with multiple galleries across Europe and the UK. I don’t see them going away any time soon. If our customers keep asking for them, which they do, we will continue to supply them.
To be honest, I think the large format OB vehicle is going to change a lot in the future. It will end up just carrying the cameras and some encoders. I think it will be a small vehicle that will show up at the stadium or wherever, connect to a network, deploy some cameras and microphones, and then everything will be remote controlled.
But where will all that physical installation move to? Will it go to the cloud or will it become an EMG data center? I don’t know, we play with both. We have both, we can run a virtual stack in our own office or we can run it in the cloud. We’re preparing for whatever the future holds.
How do you see the use of 5G transmitters in the future?
There are some pretty obvious drawbacks, like if you’re using the same network as 50,000 people at a football game for example, there can be some bandwidth limitations. That presents a challenge. Depending on the value of the production, our customers either accept that challenge or not. Top-level competitions are not interested in that way of working. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying.
We keep experimenting. For example, in the case of lower level sports they usually accept that compromise or risk lower quality or signal drops, so that gives us a perfect testing ground.
This will change as soon as it becomes possible to reserve space in the 5G band. It is not possible to do this in the UK at present, but when it is everyone will be aware that such a guarantee will give them reliability of service.
What will be the future of EMG UK’s OB Vehicles fleet?
In the last two or three years, EMG has aligned all its entities into one big company. The UK headquarters is truly committed to this union. It is satisfying because the group is sharing its resources on a regular basis. When I say resources, I mean people, ideas, technologies, trucks, modules. If I need a module here tomorrow, I can call one of our colleagues in Belgium and he can say, “Oh, I have three to spare, use whatever you need.”
Another process that we are involved in, as a result of this union, is the fiber connection of all the entities. Thanks to that we can use the infrastructure remotely. It’s going to give us a lot of extra capabilities. Imagine working with a truck that is actually parked at the offices, which you don’t have to move to where you are producing the event. You just connect a fiber to the truck, turn it on, and you have all of its capabilities at your disposal.
But there’s also the cloud, and everyone is talking about it. We’re already working to deploy these kinds of services to our productions. The beauty of the cloud is the scalability. You can do 60 productions at the same time in a day because you just have to redundant tools to access them as many times as you want. From one day to the next it would be completely impossible to buy 60 vision mixers, for instance.
I’m not saying the cloud is the answer to everything. I’m also not saying it’s cheaper. But because of these capabilities, you can cover a lot more than we covered before. Right now, with all the supply chain issues and eternal lead times, the cloud is a very good option because you just have to pay for it and get it up and running.