Two identical 12 meter long semi-trailers are serving as an IP testbed for RTBF’s future studio-based productions.
In the Spring of 2019, Jean Vanbraekel, Head of Operations and Distribution for RTBF, was tasked with helping to move the French-speaking public broadcaster into the IP age and he was nervous. Not because he thought it couldn’t be done, but because the required production equipment was not fully tested (or didn’t exist at all). Most devices, like production switchers and replay servers, were available only in SDI at that time.
With aging control rooms at headquarters in Brussels, and more demands for content creation and delivery, Vanbraekel decided that the best place to start was by building two 12 meters long expandable OB Vans that feature a complete IP-Based SMPTE 2110 backbone.
The two identical semi-trailers were completed in early April and September of 2020, and joined its fleet of one larger and three smaller trucks that are working consistently, year-round.
A Need For More Capacity
“We were always fighting to get time in the control rooms at RTBF, so we created these trucks as external control rooms,” said Vanbraekel. “We created two identical OB vans because it’s easier for our crews to move from one truck to the other and feel comfortable working with the same equipment.”
The mobile trucks were designed to be, and still are, used as external control rooms - parked right outside the main building in Brussels to use as an extra control room when required. Connecting the trucks to the facility’s network via IP is a simple matter of plugging a pair of optical cables into the right wall sockets. And turning the two trucks into one giant mobile production facility for high-profile events is also a possibility.
They also handle on-site production of sports like Belgium’s national football team, the "Red Devils", and entertainment projects, like “The Voice” in French. They are now also used for other events throughout the region, such as National Day in Belgium.
Each IP truck, commissioned by NEP Belgium, includes seating for 16 production staff members and the two units can be linked together to create one giant mobile production facility for high-profile events.
Early IP Pioneers
“When we started, we knew we should base our operations and workflows on IP and control it with a 2110 software layer, but the vision mixing (video switchers) and other things were not mature at that time,” said Vanbraekel. “However, we knew we had to migrate to IP due to the elasticity it brings, so we pushed forward and hoped for the best. For us, the magic word was ‘flexibility’.”
[Editor’s Note: RTBF is moving to a new IP-based production facility in 2026, using infrastructure technology from EVS and Lawo. The new broadcast plant, called "Media Square", will feature flexible control rooms based on EVS’ Cerebrum control and monitoring systems. The new building will be part of a wider urban renewal plan for the Reyers area of Brussels.]
Olivier Malevez, Multimedia Engineer at RTBF, who was tapped to lead the truck building project, admitted that moving his company into the IP age made him nervous. Not because he thought it couldn’t be done, but because the equipment was not fully tested (or didn’t exist at all).
“We were asking ourselves, ‘should we go to IP or not?’,” said Malevez. “Jean [Vanbraekel] was saying ‘you have to go do it, but we were afraid it would not work. At that time it was not easy or cost-effective to build an IP truck, but we learned a bit more every day about IP and what we could do with it.”
Malevez brought in system integrator and OB Van builder Broadcast Solutions, which leased two truck chassis to RTBF and helped with the design and equipment commissioning. He also worked with outside broadcaster NEP Belgium to build the trucks and provide on-going engineering support.
Twin IP Experiments
What they built was two identical production trucks that can produce content in the 1080i/50 HD format. Both rigs feature a Lawo VSM software control layer, V_Matrix vm_dvm multiviewers, mc²56 audio consoles, an audio network and digital glue products. They each also include Sony XVS-8000X vision mixers, up to 16 Sony HDC-2500 cameras (with Canon lenses), Sony LMD-A240 monitors, a Riedel Artist Comms matrix, and EVS replay servers. There are also two Arista Networks 100 Gbps IP network switches on board to handle the core network.
Lawo’s VSM control software talks directly to the XVS-8000 IP vision mixer using NMOS-IS04/05 protocols. The twin OB vans support all audio formats in two resolutions (24 and 32 bits), which are mixed using the Lawo audio production console and 512 DSP channels provided by Lawo’s A__UHD Core.
“Each OB Van is designed around a completely new way of working based on a software layer that provides a single UI that is agnostic of the products on board,” said Malevez. He added that the IP trucks came in handy during the pandemic, when there was a limit for how many people could work on board the trucks.
“When we did French-speaking “The Voice” in Belgium in 2020, we had the space, but safety restrictions would not allow us to have so many people so close together. Therefore we had some people work remotely, outside of the truck, but all feeds were brought back to the truck and mixed on site. It was not remote production; it was just people that usually work inside the truck were located at their homes or at RTBF’s main facility.”
He added that virtual production in Belgium is cost-prohibitive for most of the production they do when you factor in the cost of renting fiber lines. That’s why they mostly just bring the truck on site.
Building (And Buying) At Scale
Building two trucks simultaneously also allowed them to take advantage of buying at scale to save cost. And the design work was also made easier by doing it twice. The Broadcast Solutions preconfigured truck platform (trailer) also helped smooth the project’s progress.
An input/output panel at the back of each truck supports all formats. Essences that aren’t IP streams already are converted to ST2110 for internal use.
“We are a broadcaster that builds a new truck probably every eight years,” said Vanbraekel. “So the trucks need to have a shelf life and evolve as our workflows do. We also knew that to be successful, the trucks had to be upgradeable as time went on. This has helped us prepare for UHD production, as we start to see some demand from sports productions to do 4K.”
Each truck has a 3G infrastructure and is built to move to progressive scan UHD when the time is right. The next step, once they reach the end of the lease, is to buy the trucks outright from Broadcast Solutions and upgrade some of the equipment to handle 4K products. There has not been much demand for 4K in Belgium, Vanbraekel said, because most Belgian consumers do not have UHD-compatible sets in their homes.
Network Device Discovery Lacking
For Malevez, there are still a few pieces of technology missing from the ideal system he’d like to deploy. One is more NMOS-compatible equipment, which makes finding and launching a device on a network fast and easy. Thus far only the Sony gear supports NMOS.
“We have to get more products to support NMOS,” he said.
Despite this, Malevez said they’ve achieved all of their original goals for the trucks and, thanks to IP, continue to add new software features and hardware devices as necessary.
“After four years the trucks are still working very well and have not limited us in any way,” he said. “Even though these trucks are slightly smaller than our largest one, we can do any project we want. Some of our staff prefer working in the trucks to working in one of RTBF’s SDI control rooms simply because IP has given them more resources at their fingertips.”
Building The Foundation
Vanbraekel added that the two IP OB trucks are also serving as the first building blocks for its future Media Square facility. Many of the IP lessons learned in building the trucks will serve them well when the time comes to commission the new production facility - which will serve all of its radio, TV and online activities.
“The lessons we’ve learned building these trucks will be used when we start to build our new Media Square production facilities,” he said. “If we missed something with a truck we have to live with it for eight years. If we miss something with the building it will be at least 20 years. So, we’re being careful to get this transition right.”
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