Remote RF System Monitoring Over IP

Digital technology is changing how and where some mission-critical TV RF engineering work can be performed.

Reliable high-speed internet provided an instant solution for TV broadcast staffs and crews struggling to maintain physical distancing while gathering, creating and transmitting regular daily programming during the pandemic. Many stations switched from doing old tasks the old way to new Digital Century ways nearly overnight.

Before then, any serious news production brainstorming session participant suggesting replacing the tried-and-true old ways with work-from-home ideas would have been told to get out of town. Working from home before the pandemic was widely known as "phoning it in," and tactfully considered somewhere between tacky, lazy and mildly insulting. Not today.

The IP remote monitoring and control trend at TV stations before the pandemic was focused more on remote transmitter facilities than live news interviews via laptops and stand-ups from home. Stations with remote transmitter sites have always been hungry for transmitter remote monitoring and control solutions. Many station engineers designed and deployed their first remote monitoring and control systems when full-time, on-site transmitter engineers were phased out years ago. The FCC requires live control and logging, and some remote TV transmitters can be at extreme remote locations that take time and patience to get to on a nice day.

The Broadcast Bridge recently asked Dielectric and GatesAir about remote solutions their customers were asking for in 2021. Raymond Miklius, Vice President, EMEA Sales and Channel Programs answered for GatesAir.

GatesAir Perspective

What remote solutions are GatesAir customers asking for? Is there a trend?

The primary trend is the transition from GPIO-based remote controls and toward full SNMP support. As RF plants are modernized for solid-state transmission, adding SNMP support opens the door for IP-based monitoring. Instead of using old-school GPIO, we can now send our management information base (MIB) to understand how the transmitter is performing. That MIB structure also supports transmitter control through SNMP. These benefits have inspired most vendors that supply RF systems and components to add support for SNMP.

The vendors that supply today’s monitoring solutions are also supporting SNMP. This makes at least some of the legacy GPIO support requirements obsolete. Engineers can now connect to their transmitters over an IP network, and the associated MIBS are transferred over the network for presentation and analysis over a GUI.

What remote monitoring over IP options does GatesAir offer?

We are interoperable with a variety of monitoring and network management systems. Our transmitters include IP ports to transfer SNMP information, and our user interfaces are all HTML5-capable. Almost any data presented on the user interface of transmitters can be extended through MIBS. That means that our customers can receive alarms, meter values, and overall system status. Also, if an RF engineer sets up the network management system to reduce or increase power from the GUI, that can be transferred back to the transmitter to be executed.

It no longer requires direct access to the transmitter’s dedicated user interface to monitor status and make adjustments, and we no longer have to connect video monitors to a transmitter’s video port. It’s all done over IP, and displays are generated as HTML5 content on our user interface. As an added bonus, engineers can even access their transmitters on an iPhone or Android device and see the same information as they would on a fullscreen UI. That provides the engineer with visual monitoring and control access while on the go.

What are GatesAir customers using now?

There remains a preponderance for the old school in our industry, and especially when it comes to RF. We do still see many legacy monitoring systems in these plants. However, we are seeing a trend where broadcasters are building their own network monitoring systems. Internationally, many broadcasters are outsourcing RF operations to network operators, which have service level agreements to execute on a very tight margin. They were among the first to adopt advanced monitoring systems to ensure that their uptime meets the agreements they signed on to execute.

These network operators are often monitoring hundreds of transmitters, and that’s not possible to achieve economically without an advanced monitoring system. Several GatesAir customers, particularly in western Europe, are monitoring up to 4,000 transmitters now using a single platform, some of which use vendor solutions and some of which have built their own.

Is there newer technology users should upgrade to?

The broadcaster needs to understand what is first possible with the current transmitter in the plant. Foremost, does it support SNMP? If not, it’s time to strongly consider upgrading that transmitter to support full extended MIB capability that is accessible via SNMP. Also, some older monitoring systems had that client/server approach with a dedicated hardware server hosting the monitoring software. That approach is beginning to fade as more broadcasters put their monitoring software into the cloud.

How much control do users want?

That depends a lot on personal philosophy. Some engineers only want to be alerted to major problems, such as the transmitter going off the air. Others with more intensive cost and revenue concerns will want to be notified of lesser issues so that they can make immediate adjustments through remote monitoring and control. However, as older RF engineers retire and become harder to replace, it will be become much easier to centralize monitoring and control to external specialists. Simply put, much of this will also be driven by cost considerations. It’s no longer economically viable to have an RF engineer onsite 24/7.

Any synergy with Burk Technology?

GatesAir has cooperated closely with Burk Technology for many years on behalf of our TV and radio customers. They fully understand our MIB structure, and they can translate that to the transmitter control head. They do an excellent job at providing a strong user experience to their customers when it comes to RF monitoring. We often recommend and have resold Burk systems as part of our customer installation projects.

Anything relevant in the GatesAir product development pipeline?

We are constantly adding feature sets to our MIB structures. That's the primary driver as to what we have in our current development line for transmitter monitoring. We believe there are plenty of compelling and professional options out there from vendors that specialize in monitoring and control. We are focused on providing the highest efficiency and highest performing transmitters on the market, and offering interoperability for versatile monitoring and control options and systems as part of that strategy.

Dielectric’s Antenna-Down Perspective

The Time/Distance Arc Distribution screen helps RFHawkeye users visualize and localize RF arcing incidents over time.

The Time/Distance Arc Distribution screen helps RFHawkeye users visualize and localize RF arcing incidents over time.

The following similar questions were answered by Keith Pelletier, Vice President and General Manager of antenna and feedline manufacturer Dielectric.

What new monitoring solutions are Dielectric customers asking for? Is there a trend?

The broadcast tower is generally at least several miles from the studio, and there are several situations that can make it a challenge to access a site on short notice. RF engineers have long been able to tap into their transmitters remotely using an IP connection to monitor performance and analyze trends. They now want to extend that reach into RF systems beyond the transmitter and remove the guessing games that historically make monitoring antenna systems far from an exact science.

Historically, end users are notified of an issue when the transmitter starts to trip. Once the transmitters shutdown it is far too late to catch an early weakness in the system. Our customers have asked for a device that catches the early signs of an ailing system to prevent the typical burnout of multiple parts. That will also avoid the costs of rigging crews, field technicians, and station personnel trying to track down the extent of the damage.

When was RFHawkeye introduced? Why?

RFHawkeye was introduced in 2019 to address the historical challenges of remote RF monitoring. Coaxial transmission line systems, an expensive and essential component of any broadcast system, are subjected to a wide variety of environmental and operational conditions that can lead to previously undetectable, undesirable and potentially damaging changes over time. The key benefit of RFHawkeye is that it can discern small, undesirable, and potentially damaging changes in the transmission line, as well as small benign changes in the antenna while the station is on the air. RFHawkeye also provides insight into performance trends over time, which help engineers better predict when a problem might arise.

What are the RFHawkeye features, advantages and benefits?

RFHawkeye performs continuous time domain measurements of the RF system while the station is on the air at full power, providing advance warning of deterioration to local or remote operators. This enables early corrective actions without taking the station off-air. RFHawkeye delivers readily accessible and accurate results since it continuously collects real-time data under real-world conditions and compares it to the baseline measurement. RFHawkeye also detects arcs inside the line and provides the time stamp plus the arc’s location.

The ability to understand and pinpoint the exact location also saves money for the broadcaster. Armed with information from RFHawkeye, tower crews will know precisely how high to climb on the tower, and where to pull the system apart for faster and safer inspections. Along with reducing the need for expensive VSWR sweeps, engineers can go right to the trouble spot on the transmission line, for example. This removes the need to take down most or all the system for maintenance. Labor is therefore substantially reduced, and off-air downtime is essentially eliminated.

Dielectric can also send new connectors, connector parts, or new inners to the tower site in advance. This ensures that that the tower crew can repair the system immediately upon inspection. The typical delays and costs of waiting to find the site issues and create a bill of materials, are eliminated by this technology.

RFHawkeye's Realtime Degradation Analysis screen displays SWR trends to isolate when anomalies occur.

RFHawkeye's Realtime Degradation Analysis screen displays SWR trends to isolate when anomalies occur.

What are users saying about it?

Multiple large groups have adopted the technology at major markets. They are excited at how data is taken from their systems to prevent the typical burnout that leads to major off-air events and expensive maintenance bills. The RF system is a major component of revenue generation and the over-the-air business model, and broadcasters lose money every minute they are off the air. The fact that most TV stations have limited RF engineering resources ensures that everyone can sleep better at night. RFHawkeye is truly looking over the health of the entire RF system.

Any other monitoring over IP gear in the product development pipeline?

We expect RFHawkeye to become the RF monitoring system for years to come, and we continue to refine the software and add new features as part of an ongoing development cycle. For example, Dielectric just added a new GUI that strengthens the predictive analysis side of the solution. Engineers now have direct access to actionable and meaningful performance data directly within the GUI.

RFHawkeye also lays the groundwork for a future Dielectric managed service that can enable monitoring of the RF transmission line system on behalf of the customer, with all remote 24/7 monitoring support done from Dielectric’s Raymond, Maine facility. With an appropriate service contract in place, Dielectric will be able respond to problems from its service center, proactively warning local personnel of the need for inspections and repairs, and coordinating efforts on behalf of customers to keep a safe and healthy operating system.

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