In any county, there’s a need to serve the public with information on the activities of the local government.
by Bob Kovacs
Video staffers at Montgomery County operate the television systems for a live county council meeting. Photo by Bob Kovacs Just outside Washington, in sprawling and densely populated Montgomery County, Md., the Office of Cable and Communications team had to come up with a plan to feed simultaneous programs to different county population centers, using government channels on three local cable companies. As with so many questions in the past few years, the answer contained the words “the Internet.”
Jim Graham, chief engineer for the county’s Department of Technology Services, noted that the county wanted to reach out into the community.
“We have a mobile production van and looked for ways to get video live,” Graham said.
The traditional ways to get a live broadcast on the air (or onto cable channels) are all expensive and complicated. There’s microwave, which involves costly transmitters, receivers and towers, and there’s satellite, which involves expensive gear and pricey bandwidth-limited transponder time.
Graham and the television team at Montgomery County ruled both these out because of the cost and complexity. However, that still left a need to get live video from around the county back to the main control center, so that it could be fed to the appropriate cable company.
That’s where the Internet came in, in the form of the county’s own network that it calls “FiberNet.”
MORE THAN 300 BUILDINGS
Montgomery County has its own in-house networking staff, which is overseeing the installation of countyowned high-speed data circuits to official buildings.
Montgomery County had a new Council Room built in 2009. Photo by Bob Kovacs “So far, 302 buildings have a dedicated fiber connection to the network and there’s another 30 in the works,” said John Castner, manager of network solutions and services for the county.
FiberNet goes to hubs around the county and provides a web of data connectivity among the county’s buildings. This is a data network that the county wanted for its internal networking and it just made sense to use it to handle increasing requests for remote video broadcasts.
Using video encoders and decoders from Streambox, the county can plug into an Ethernet port in any of these buildings and get broadcast-quality standard-definition video back at the control room for distribution to any combination of three cable companies.
FiberNet has plenty of bandwidth for multiple simultaneous programs, and a 64x64 Leitch routing switcher can assign any incoming program to any of the PEG channels sent to the three local multichannel franchisees, Comcast, RCN and Verizon. The key to making this work was the Streambox 5300D/E decoders and encoders.
The Streambox encoders at Montgomery County have both SDI (with embedded audio) and analog inputs, and they are set for a data rate of 4 Mbps. In operation, the encoders may drop to a lower data rate if there is a lull in onscreen activity, but will not go higher than 4 Mbps. This lets the video data ride on the network with no interference to the county’s many other data requirements.
The county has now outfitted its production van with a Streambox 5300E encoder, which it uses for a variety of programs from arts to government activities.
“We use it for the County Council when it has town hall meetings,” Graham said. The county executive (its top elected official) also uses the system for meetings that are held outside of the main county government center in Rockville, Md.
NEW CONTROL ROOM
The Department of Technology Services is building a new control room to collect all the switching, decoding and cable feeds in a single location. With completion planned for June 2010, this room will house 11 Streambox 5300D decoders, as well as the Leitch router, encoders for PEG channel feeds to the cable companies, a 94 TB Promise Technologies data server and a Synergy automation system to control ingest and playout. Integration of the new system is being done by Rockville, Md.-based Columbia Telecommunications Company.
To maintain broadcasts during a power outage, the county installed a 15 kVA uninterruptible power supply from APC, which handles the electrical load until the building’s standby generator comes online. Two tons of additional air conditioning capacity was needed to keep the gear in the control room from overheating.
Elsewhere in the main government center building are two council rooms with remotely controlled cameras and large multipanel wall displays for vote counts and general viewing. Completed about a year ago, the third-floor Council Room has Hitachi standard-definition cameras and Hitachi pan/tilt systems. Behind the wall of the Council Room is a control room where operators control the cameras, monitor video/audio levels and switch the signals on an Echolab 2700 switcher.
For field production, Montgomery County has Panasonic P2 camcorders, which it then edits on Final Cut Pro workstations. Although there are lots of VCRs throughout the facility, Graham reports that they’ve gotten virtually no use in recent months.
There’s no plan at the moment to upgrade to HD but Graham said that it will happen eventually. Fortunately, there’s plenty of bandwidth on the data network to handle the necessary data for HD video.
At the moment, the county’s digital signals need to be converted to analog to be fed to the PEG channels. However, once the new system is installed, the handoff to the cable companies will be digital and have one less encode/decode step. The average cost per PEG channel to completely convert to a digital feed is about $32,000, including equipment on both ends, labor and IT connectivity.
Today, Ethernet ports are ubiquitous in government facilities. Now that just about everything has migrated to digital, governments are making the networks robust enough to handle the huge amount of data needed to do the people’s work—that was the idea behind Montgomery County’s FiberNet.
Piggybacking some video on these networks is not only possible, it’s a sensible way to transport video and ultimately a lot less complicated, lower cost and more reliable than the alternatives.
Bob Kovacs can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.