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4G cell service takes radio remotes to a new level

IF THERE were any doubt about how much of an improvement 4G LTE cell service is over 3G, this should make it clear:

It’s allowing national and local radio to do live remotes with studio-quality sound using handheld devices instead of deploying costly broadcast trucks.

If it works for them, the rest of us can be pretty confident it’s fast enough and dependable enough for our smartphone and tablet use.

NPR has been doing this on a national basis to cover the presidential campaign more nimbly than was possible in the past. Locally, WFLS/WWUZ/WVBX/WNTX is beginning to use 4G LTE technology on remotes. WFLS’ first use was a remote from the Bowling Green Harvest Festival last Saturday. WBQB/WFVA is also starting to take advantage of 4G LTE for its remote broadcasts.

Chris Wilk, chief engineer for WFLS/WWUZ/WVBX/WNTX, said a $6,000 Comrex Access handheld device that costs about $6,000 does what required a $60,000 to $100,000 broadcast truck in the past.

Using the Access and Verizon Wireless 4G LTE “improves sound quality dramatically, as if you were right there at the event yourself,” according to Melanie Ortel, a spokeswoman for the carrier.

Verizon Wireless deployed 4G LTE throughout much of the Fredericksburg area earlier this year. AT&T hasn’t announced a deployment date yet.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” WFLS’ Wilk said. “The remote from Bowling Green was the best-sounding one we’ve ever done.”

He said in addition to improved sound quality, “We can actually get the station coming back in real time. With 3G, there would be a half-second lag. The 4G LTE is amazing because everything is in such fast, real time.”

Charlie Mayer, director of operations for NPR News in Washington, said reporters are using the Comrex Access on the campaign trail. It was in use at President Obama’s stop this week in Richmond and Gov. Romney’s last week in Leesburg. NPR also uses Verizon Wireless 4G LTE to do reports and interviews via iPhones and Android phones employing an app called Report-It Live. He said interview subjects can download it and go live virtually anywhere with high quality, 15 kHz sound.

Retired FBI profiler Clint van Zandt, now an analyst for NBC, said he has used the app for a few PBS and NPR phone interviews. But most of his work is done via a small studio NBC set up in his Spotsylvania County home that connects to 30 Rock in New York City.

Before 4G LTE, there were times when a candidate would commit a terrible gaffe and radio listeners wouldn’t hear it for a while because remote locations made radio reporting difficult.

Now there’s an instant fix for political junkies.

“It allows us to do live, broadcast quality audio in ways we could never do before,” Mayer said. “We can have somebody with an iPhone 5 talking live on the radio” with little risk of problems.

He said that when NPR covered the Iowa caucuses in 2004, a cellphone using 3G was the primary connection for live coverage. He said the sound was “scratchy” and “faraway.” Not so with 4G LTE and the Comrex Access.

Mayer said it was often costly and time-consuming to do interviews from the field in the past, requiring set-up time, installing ISDN lines or using expensive satellite phones that didn’t always work well.

“On the campaign trail, the candidates will make multiple stops during the day,” Mayer said. “Sometimes we don’t know where the reporter will be. We need to be able to do those short stops.”

In the past, that often meant a report would be recorded, downloaded to a computer and then sent to the studio. “Now, if a reporter is on deadline, they don’t have to take the time to download their report to a laptop,” Verizon Wireless’ Ortel said.

And now if a candidate says something he wishes he hadn’t, we hear it live.

Isn’t technology wonderful?

Michael Zitz: 540/846-5163