The University of Kansas Keeping Up with Technology While on a Budget
A Lesson in Cost-effective HD Video Distribution. HD modulators deliver high-def content over existing coax cables for the University of Kansas’ sports complex.
The University of Kansas has more than 600 television displays throughout their athletic facilities on campus, including the Memorial Stadium for Jayhawks football, the Anderson Family Football Complex, and the Allen Fieldhouse. From 2006 to 2008, the athletic department has been doing large on-going renovations that included installing flat-panel displays next to the concession stands and displays in the reception halls for team dinners. That is when it became overwhelmingly apparent that the old analog signal was not maximizing the possibilities of the new displays. “during that time we had reviewed HD distribution options but it was too expensive,” says Brad Bieker, manager of information systems at University of Kansas athletics department.
Meanwhile, an integration company, Front Row Audio Video had recently upgraded the equipment rack and a/v system at a restaurant and sports bar local to the university. The bar had up until that point had been running a 25-year-old a/v system with an unkempt equipment rack and a jungle of wires everywhere. “This mountain of unsightly equipment between their projector screens became the running joke,” says Bieker. “But we went in one day and observed the drastic transformation.”
The mess of cables was gone, there was a new rack of gear and new televisions with HD distribution. Bieker was so impressed that he asked the manager who did the work. This was the first introduction of Front Row audio video to the University of Kansas, letting front row’s work speak for itself. “I did some research and learned that front row had done a lot of other work here in the Lawrence area,” he said. “so I touched base with them and we started the process of converting our cable TV headend to HD.”
The Control Room
The Allen Fieldhouse is home to the school’s basketball arena as well as all the a/v equipment. The signal is distributed from the Allen Fieldhouse control room to all the displays therein as well as the other two main buildings. Attached to the Allen Fieldhouse is the Wagman athletic department, with offices for the coaches and a practice facility with weight rooms. on the opposite side of the campus, about a mile away, is the football stadium. “all of these three buildings had been fed off an old bank of analog television modulators,” says Patrick Cain, project manager for front row audio video. “So they had about 50 old basic cable boxes with analog channels, complete with static and snow. It wasn’t high-def, it wasn’t widescreen, the system had none of today’s standards for television viewing.”
Three years ago Bieker and his team upgraded the video board at Memorial Stadium to HD. The following year they were able to modulate out one channel of HD throughout the stadium. This year they upgraded their video board to HD in the Allen Fieldhouse. “We had our cable TV headend upgrade back in May, that made that the transition to pushing that HD feed out to all of our displays much more doable,” says Bieker. “With the HD upgrade, we were able to eliminate the very few ‘boob tubes’ we had left here in our facilities.”
Cain had decided to upgrade with ZeeVee HD encoder/rf modulators based on his experience with the product on installations at newer facilities. The HD distribution products from ZeeVee use the old, existing infrastructure at the University of Kansas athletics department. “it’s all the same coax cable,” says Cain. “What they used for analog works for digital: the same signal splitters and amplifiers. That was a deciding factor in going with the ZeeVee product.”
The ZeeVee HD encoder/rf modulators take audio/video in, encode it and send it out over coax. “In many instances, it is an existing coax cable,” says Melanie Rodrigue, Technical Support at ZeeVee, Inc. “So for older systems, it is not necessary to pull new cable. But if it is a new install, you can run new cable as well.”
The spectrum supports 135 channels. The athletic department required about 50 channels. “The fact that we’re in that lower half of the frequency range of a cable system is good,” says Cain. “The higher you get in numbers the more susceptible the signal is to poor connections and line loss. Channel 2 is a lot more robust than channel 100, for example.” With many analog modulators, it is necessary to skip channels, which eats up more of the spectrum. “you had to run channel 2, 4, 6, etc. because of interference,” says Cain. “With ZeeVee, you don’t have to skip channels. The result is a more professional user experience.”
With older analog modulation, one channel would be known to spill over into the channel next to it. “So it was recommended that you skip a channel between each one with analog modulation,” says Rodrigue at ZeeVee. “With our product, because it is digital, it is a very clean signal. each channel is well-defined, so you can have the channels next to each other: 2, 3, 4, 5, all the way up to 135.”
Working out the Bugs
With more than 600 displays, it was not feasible to check every channel on every TV during the installation process. as more students and staff were using the TVs through the summer and then fall, Front Row Audio Video got more feedback regarding the most remote part of the system — at the football stadium about a mile away.
This was the biggest challenge for Bieker and his staff at the athletic department with the upgrade. “The headend is connected to a good portion of our facilities,” says Bieker. “But for two facilities that are across campus, we had to go over with ber. We had some issues with bad ber termination that made for some pixelization or channels that dropped out. We did not have to run new ber, it was a matter of just re-terminating some ends.”
Front Row went in with a digital cable meter to rectify faulty connectors and a couple of splitters a couple of months after the installation. “It was a problem that did not present itself with the analog distribution,” says Cain. “Digital is either there and perfect or not there at all. There is no in-between with static or snow. We went back through and there were quite a bit of cable connectors throughout the place. They found about half a dozen different connectors they replaced.”
Tips for Effective HD Broadcasting
Two critical components in how the signal is distributed are amplifiers and splitters. ZeeVee does not provide amplifiers and splitters and they count on the installation company to know what they are doing to keep the signal at the right level.
“With digital, if the signal is too weak, you won’t get it to the end point,” says Cain from front row audio video. “and then going the other way, a typical cable TV meter might show the signal as strong because it is just reading a level, like a volume level on a speaker. Just because it is loud does not mean that it is clean.”
When feeding a large system, one amplifier will be connected to another amplifier. if the input is over-amplified, the signal can be distorted. a strong signal might reach the end of the line and it might be strong, but if it is not of good quality, the picture is not there. “Just being strong and powerful isn’t necessarily the rule like it was in the analog days,” says Cain. “you have to pay attention to the quality of the signal, rather than the level of the signal. That’s the number one thing that has affected our installations. it’s important to get it in that sweet spot. It is pretty simple other than that.”
Return on Investment
There are a few factors that contribute to the return on investment for this installation and decision to facilitate HD. “It is a nice upgrade for our donors at the football stadium to have HD television in the suites, and it is nice for our student-athletes and our staff in general,” says Bieker.
Running HD throughout the vast athletic facilities will open up some revenue streams for the department. “We will be able to modulate out some digital signage and will possibly start selling ad space throughout our venues,” says Bieker. They are looking at replacing the menus at concessions with TVs and then modulate out a digital signage channel and do rotating ads along with menus. “We will see some return on investment that way.”
Another new door now open with the new HD distribution system is the ability to modulate DVD players on to the network. “Prior to this we only had one modulated DVD channel, but now we have four, so we are able to have a wider variety of content on the many TVs in our museum, the Booth Hall of Athletics, which is attached to Allen Fieldhouse. We are able to loop DVDs throughout the day and display content.”
For Front row Audio Video, it was a straightforward process to install the ZeeVee devices with very few unexpected expenses. “We put in about 50 modulators at $1,000 per piece,” says Cain. “$60,000 in equipment, then the labor costs for troubleshooting, the site survey evaluating the infrastructure to make sure it was going to be functional for the new modulators and other equipment.”
It was an easier job than Cain expected. “We were nervous about whether their infrastructure was going to take the signal and carry it,” he says. “We plugged it in, did some preliminary testing and the new signal just propagated through the old network on its own. fortunately, it just works.”
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