The Line On Intercoms Is Open

The systems vary in sophistication, but will meet most needs.
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The systems vary in sophistication, but will meet most needs.

An intercom system is generally the last thing on the list when government video professionals put together an inventory of what they need to equip their facilities, according to Dave Johnson, an executive with Production Intercom of Illinois.

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Production Intercom’s econoCom by Art Kingdom

“The intercom is essentially a telephone, a simple talk circuit that doesn’t vary much from the oldstyle communication device that Lily Tomlin used on Laugh-in,” Johnson says, perhaps unwillingly dating himself.

Intercom systems are found with varying degrees of sophistication in video production facilities, on board ships and military bases, in studios, with film and video crews, auditoriums and theaters, along with video enhanced facilities for military firing ranges, the NASA space program, missile defense system facilities, maintenance fields for unmanned aircraft and even aircraft carriers.

The choice of an intercom set-up usually begins with considering permanent wires, wired portable units or both.

Portable intercom stations can connect with cables to a wired system through a belt pack that hangs from a user’s belt. The user talks through a headset connected to the belt pack. However, an intercom system can be made wireless. If implemented, such battery-powered radio frequency wireless intercom units are essentially stations that are carried around.

The list of intercom applications is nearly endless and the number of users on a system ranges from simple systems intended for two people, to large set-ups that allow hundreds of people to converse with each other from all over the world.

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Telex’s BTR-80N “Every job involves talking to other people and that’s what Clear-Com makes work,” says Terry Skelton, Clear-Com’s director of military, aerospace and government division. When agency leaders need to engage in two-way communications via video conferences that are broadcast to field offices around the nation, Clear-Com’s Encore party-line MS-704 fits that requirement because it provides intercom and three channels of interruptible feedback (IFB) in a single unit, according to Skelton.

In addition, for small exchanges, Clear-Com designed the Encore RS-601, a one-channel belt-pack system for production facilities where a relatively small crew needs to communicate.


But even as technology advances, there is still a demand for old-school intercom systems, according to Johnson, who adds that Production Intercom offers its econoCom package in a small production intercom system because some customers just want simplicity. “They want to put on a headphone and talk to somebody and they want it yesterday,” he said.

The econCom system includes a table-top, AC/DC adapter with removable IEC power cord and captive output cable to connect to the PS-4 System interface. Also included is a PS-4 Intercom System Interface for voltage regulation that reduces hum and provides automatic overload/short circuit protection. The PS-4 features an LED indicator and 3 parallel XLR jacks for connection of headset stations or strings of stations in party-line configuration. Also included are two to ten BP-1 belt packs with a head-set and connector for each belt pack. All THE components are fully compatible with other company’s intercom systems.


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Clear-Com’s MS-704 An advantage to using a wireless intercom system is that it is relatively inexpensive when compared to the potential cost of retrofitting a building for a wired intercom system.

However, not everyone agrees that wireless intercom systems are less expensive. Michael Brown, a regional sales manager for RTS who advises clients to consider running a hard wire if possible, says wireless intercom equipment can be about four times more expensive. Running a wire is “cheap and guaranteed to work,” he said.

So how does a decision-maker proceed?

“Designate who has to be wireless, not who wants to be wireless, and then start design work,” Brown recommends.

Further still is deciding which wireless system to use; there is the “simplex” or “duplex” to chose from. The simplex is a two-way radio where a speaker has to stop talking before the person listening can respond. That is a less expensive option. A simplex system is “a great advantage when you’re talking about hundreds of radios for fire and police departments and homeland security,” Brown said.

However, a Simplex would not be advisable for a setting where a free flow of conversation is preferred and often essential. That is where a duplex system is recommended because it allows communication in both directions simultaneously.

Security of the systems is another consideration. A wired intercom is essentially private, so long as the wiring system is not tapped by outside parties. But a wireless intercom is not dependably private since conversations on a wireless intercom are transmitted using publicly available wireless frequencies, which means other users with similar devices can listen in if they are within range.

For that reason, federal government clients have been reticent to use wireless because of security and frequencycoordination concerns, Skelton said. Some clients even incorrectly believe a license can be obtained for their equipment’s frequencies. However, wireless intercom privacy can be obtained so long as the audio stream is digital and encrypted. Fiber optic receivers also increase security.


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RTS’ RKP-4B Yet another decision is whether the intercom signal should be analog or digital.

Government is focused on digitized audio because the signal can be manipulated to make it secure, or to put it on a flash drive, Brown says. Therefore, RTS supports “analog audio with digital controls,” he said.

RTS’ RKP-4B system features an alphanumeric call waiting display, auxiliary balanced station LCD and full function intercom keys with LED indicators. Communication between the belt pack and base station is digitally encrypted wireless, and the belt pack’s frequencies can be changed from the belt pack or base station. Belt pack units are contained in weather and shock resistant die cast magnesium cases.

In addition, Telex offers its BTR-80N, which features “narrow band” technology, digital signal processing, intelligent power control and allows up to four full-duplex wireless TR-80N or TR-82N belt packs per base station. If needed, an unlimited number of belt packs can be added to the BTR-80N in simplex operation, and the unit can operate simultaneously in two-wire and four-wire mode when linking with other systems.

Levels of knowledge about intercom systems vary based if the user is a beginner or expert, as well as on how a system is being used and its level of sophistication. “Many first time callers are sometimes hesitant to tell us what they’re really doing with the system,” says Skelton. Therefore, “Clear-Com tries to build a trust in relationships so they understand that we’re trying to solve their problem, not just sell them stuff.”

“The common factors are that government users want a solution as specific to their needs as possible, that is easy to install, flexible, expandable and reliable,” Skelton adds.

Despite continued innovation, Clear-Com keeps its products on the market longer without major changes, and almost all are federally mandated commercial off the shelf, Skelton says. “The government likes to keep using what works because it saves on training and spares and avoids design flaws that might pop up,” he said.

Increasingly, government users are turning towards the Internet as a means to create an almost endless intercom system.

Systems that use computer-based voice over Internet protocol employ technology that debuted with the introduction of intercoms designed to work through Ethernet network connections. The idea is to extend intercom to locations that are some distance away or under-equipped.

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The RTS VLink is a virtual intercom key panel that is initiated on any Windows PC provides intelligent links into an RTS intercom matrix providing full support for working with standard communication, according to the company. VLink is described as especially useful when there are a number of far-flung production areas including video editing suites and voice-over rooms. It can save on the cost of cable as well as the labor of pulling cable and installing cable trays.

Rather than having a speakerphone, users keep the computerized router on their desktop and pull it up when they need to talk to someone. Clear-Com offers the Concert IP intercom for top-grade audio through the use of a wideband codec and noise reduction. Users can see who is available to talk, conduct conference calls and chat sessions. There are few workplaces where an intercom system cannot be used and once it is installed it is almost certain that it will be taken for granted. But that means the system is doing its job.


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