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Transmitters Get Smaller and Smarter

Manufacturers are also integrating formerly “peripheral” functions

Established transmitter suppliers have introduced several new product lines this year, with most of the action coming in FM at lower power levels. What other trends are notable in transmitters? We asked several manufacturers.

More watts, fewest cubic inches

Jeff Welton, regional sales manager for the Central U.S. at Nautel, said, “I think that we are not quite finished seeing the ‘miniaturization,’ if you will, of transmitter products, as manufacturers attempt to put more watts into the fewest possible cubic inches.”

He said this will bring challenges that users should be aware of, with respect to moving the heat out of the system, as seen with some of the compact transmitters developed in the past few years. 

“However, improvements in device efficiency and airflow modeling are allowing comparable improvements in equipment design, allowing us to overcome those challenges and provide systems that run cooler and are more accessible from a maintenance perspective,” Welton said.

On the topic of technology helping to improve design, I believe we will also see more movement toward ‘all-in-one’ packages, where it is possible to put, as an example, automation, processing, remote control, HD Radio, etc., all in virtualized or containerized packages running on the controller in the transmitter.”

He said fewer pieces means fewer potential single points of failure, but it also means a greater need for redundancy, or caution during configuration, because failures can result in a higher probability of an off-air situation with less ability to patch around (again, depending on configuration). 

“It will change how we do things but will offer power and flexibility that we could not have even dreamed of 10 to 15 years ago,” Welton said.

“We could potentially have almost the entire facility housed virtually in the transmitter chassis, to provide a complete off-site backup in the event of a studio failure, for one thing. If there is one thing that COVID taught us, it is that we have the tools to provide our customers more options to help them deliver their content today than they ever had before and it is our job to show them how we can help them leverage that freedom.”

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Nautel’s recent product introduction is its VX Series of FM transmitters, with 11 power levels starting at 150 Watts up to a just-added 6 kW version.

Consolidating peripherals

David Houze, Ecreso product manager for WorldCast Systems, said that during the pandemic, radio organizations reinvented their studio architectures to simplify remote operation and maintenance.

“Virtual and cloud solutions emerged to replace hardware equipment, resulting in a scalable, cost-effective, easy-to-deploy and highly available architecture.”

Expect the same trend at transmission sites, Houze said.

“FM transmitters must evolve to be capable of hosting new features and remove peripheral equipment at the transmitter site. This transformation has already started with the ‘premium’ manufacturers. Their transmitters already integrate hardware modules that replace physical devices,” he said.

“Manufacturers must go one step further to offer to the market a unique solution that can replace all the peripheral equipment with software features embedded into the transmitter.”

Houze said WorldCast’s AiO series reflects this direction. “This new transmitter is the first on the market that embeds an audio over IP decoder, sound processor and full RDS encoder as a software.”

He said the benefits include economies in operating expense, lower costs of components and a smaller footprint. “Maintenance is drastically reduced; only one product has to be verified instead of four as in the past.”

AoIP to the site

Ted Lantz, product line manager for GatesAir, said, “With the challenging economic environment, reducing operating expenses continues to be the trend and focus in FM transmitter designs.

“Maximizing the overall efficiency, reducing the overall footprint using the latest RF power devices and highest efficiency components are the strategic thoughts that go into the latest designs for FM transmitters.”

Such components, he said, include very efficient power supplies, variable speed controlled fans and low-loss combining techniques.

“Other features that assist in reducing expenses are providing FM transmitters with integrated options, such as AoIP, audio processing and GPS receiver for SFN applications.”

GatesAir in August introduced a line called Flexiva GX, analog FM transmitters in power levels up to 10 kW.

Dennis Pieri, CEO of Bext Corp., says like all industries, broadcast transmitter makers are always looking to innovate.

“At most times we’re talking of small incremental improvements, mostly refinements, like higher efficiency, friendlier user interface and things of that sort,” he said.

“But there is one specific strong trend that took off a while back and seems to continue to expand at a fairly rapid pace. That trend is transporting the audio content to the transmitter site by audio over IP. 

“While there are still many stations using more traditional methods such as microwave STLs, where stations have a reliable high-speed internet connection available at their transmitter sites, sooner or later they start inquiring about digital audio transport through the internet, which makes perfect sense.”

He said Bext offers such capability on its broadcast transmitters, including most if not all of the multiple, often competing, digital audio transport platforms. 

“Bext feels that in the interest of being less confusing for the broadcasters who approach this type of audio transport for the first time, it would be better if the wide array of audio over IP choices was a little less fragmented and if there was better compatibility among them,” Pieri said.

“That said, this trend is definitely a positive one and we believe the broadcast industry will continue to benefit from it.”

Bext makes solid-state FM transmitters across a range of power levels, but Pieri says there has been particular interest of late in its XL 6000, a 6 kW transmitter in a rack-mountable enclosure that occupies only four rack spaces.

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Transmitter, heal thyself

Perry Priestley, CEO of Broadcast Electronics, notes the challenge stations face in finding qualified engineers who are both reliable and available. 

Especially in that context, “Complete remote visibility 24/365 of the operational status and health of your transmitter is an absolute must,” he said.

He laments that radio decision-makers often focus on the initial equipment purchase price, with little consideration of the long-term cost of ownership. 

“Running a radio station is a day-to-day operation, and unexpected costs can make the difference between making a profit or going broke.”

Priestley said that with the cost of engineering services increasing, he believes making transmitters “self-healing” will be the next big leap. 

“Deeper diagnostics, as already available in BE-Elenos transmitters, will become paramount. Incorporating AI and Big Data into the internal monitoring and diagnostic systems, coupled with greater redundancy, will allow transmitters to diagnose problems, fall back to redundant systems, and notify operators of needed repairs before the transmitter suffers noticeable failure.”

Priestley said a key goal for future development is to build transmitters that can be analyzed and repaired by a non-technical person. 

“Imagine diagnosing and safely resolving an off-air emergency with simple, intuitive, alerts and a plug-and-play module. Our goal is to restore full operation in a matter of seconds by any member of the radio station staff, without the need for detailed component or board-level repair.”

Important current features, he said, including user-friendly web-based remote control, SNMP and remote firmware updates, which are key to reducing costly site visits. Reliable audio over IP, backup audio playout systems and integrated audio processing are also important. Users, he said, should also look for vendors with locally manufactured, stocked and available spare parts.

“The initial cost of a transmitter and its operational efficiency are certainly important considerations, but the 1 or 2% difference between options or a big color screen is not going to matter when you’re off the air. The truly important factors are your on-air time and minimizing any low-power events. Transmitters that support fast, intuitive, low-cost problem diagnosis and recovery is the evolutionary trend that is happening now.”

This spring BE introduced the STXe-5 and STXe-6 models to its STXe lineup. 

You can read more on trends in transmission in a free Radio World ebook published in late 2021.