The Essential Guide to Connecting Your Set to the Internet
These days, shooting a movie, television show, or commercial production isn’t really viable without fast internet access.
Take a look around a modern set and you’ll see numerous cloud-connected devices, many of which are integral to the filmmaking process—particularly if you’re employing a Camera to Cloud workflow and use devices like the Teradek Cube 655 or Sound Devices recorders.
But getting adequate internet coverage on your set isn’t always straightforward, and, like most things, there are many different solutions to choose from. So which is right for you?
In today’s article, we’ll look at how you can deploy fast, reliable, and resilient internet coverage for your next production. Whether you’re shooting a feature film across a dozen locations, or a run-and-gun documentary, we’ll cover everything you need to get started.
The emergence of 5G and inexpensive satellite networks means that solutions in this space are changing rapidly. But right now, the three most practical methods of remotely accessing the internet from set are bonded cellular modems, LTE hotspots, and in-house internet.
Bonded cellular modems
Bonded cellular devices combine several cellular modems in a single device to provide higher bandwidth for the user.
This additional speed also comes with a layer of redundancy, as these modems often allow you to use SIM cards from different wireless providers, and can actively switch between them as coverage changes.
Bonded solutions are often the most robust option, but also the most expensive. Because of this, they’re typically a rented item, and most rental vendors will supply the SIM cards and wireless carrier accounts.
Some bonded cellular modems require dedicated, stable power, and while they often feature integrated WiFi routers, it’s generally recommended that you connect them to a separate router to better manage the network distribution to your on-set devices.
5G and LTE hotspots
A hotspot is a small, inexpensive LTE or 5G modem that you can purchase from a wireless carrier with a data plan.
Like bonded modems, they have limited WiFi capabilities, but the key difference is that hotspot devices use a single SIM card from a single wireless carrier. Since they’re designed for consumers and entry-level business use, hotspots tend to be simpler to configure and cheaper to operate than bonded alternatives.
Many hotspots have USB ports for both power and data, which makes them easy to use with a variety of devices.
For example, they can be connected directly to a WiFi router, laptop, C2C device, or just about anything else that allows networking over USB. This directly-attached, wired connection is easy to manage compared to a pure wireless setup, and, because hotspots are so small, they can be physically mounted on or next to host devices.
Because their WiFi capabilities are fairly limited, it’s recommended that you use one hotspot for one or two Cloud Devices. And if you’re using it as a USB modem, you should disable the modem’s WiFi (since it won’t be in use).
For a true run-and-gun, minimal approach, you can create a hotspot on your smartphone, and share your phone’s data connection to other devices over a private WiFi network.
Phone hotspots are great for quick, ad hoc solutions, but can’t handle several devices very well. This can also chew through your phone’s battery pretty fast, which is far from ideal.
But on the plus side, your phone is small and can be carried in your pocket, and it’s equipment that you already have.
Both iOS and Android phones can be used as a hotspot, but you may be limited by your carrier, so make sure you check your data plan T&Cs before you get on set.
In-house internet is internet access that’s provided by the stage or location where you’re shooting.
These WiFi networks tend to be heavily managed and may require a sign-in (which usually makes them incompatible with Camera to Cloud Devices), but they’re ideal for non-critical use such as crew email and communication.
In-house internet also comes with the risk of unexpected heavy traffic, which will bottleneck critical processes. So you should avoid uncontrolled, busy public networks where possible.
That said, if the location offers a hardline ethernet drop, you can use this to connect to a router and create your own, managed network. This will help to avoid issues with WiFi congestion, and gives your on-set devices a better connection with the available network bandwidth.
Building a network
This brings us to the second half of the problem—distributing your internet access to all the devices on set that need it.
As a general rule, each set should have two protected WiFi networks: one for general use (emails, communication, etc), and one for mission-critical use, like cloud-connected production devices.
Additionally, if possible, those two WiFi networks should also have their own dedicated internet connections. Separating the networks helps ensure a stable connection for the most important devices, and prevents more mundane tasks from stealing bandwidth from mission-critical operations.
Mesh WiFi is similar to traditional WiFi networks, except they use nodes that extend the network over a large area.
These nodes are similar to access points in an industrial WiFi solution (like a hotel or an office), but they don’t need their own ethernet run like a traditional access point.
Instead, each node will “pick up” part of the network coverage and relay the signal from the router to its area. For best performance, they should be arranged in overlapping zones to blanket a large area in coverage. Should your coverage need to be expanded, new nodes can be added.
With its single network ID, Mesh is a far simpler approach than using a conventional WiFi network extender or bridge to relay the WiFi signal. Because extenders and bridges use new network identities (SSIDs), they require multiple logins/passwords, making it less effective for your production set.
Assess your set
While budget and crew size both play a role in determining what type of solution is best for your production, so does the location itself.
Before production day, you should thoroughly research where your closest cell towers will be, what carriers have coverage, and compare the signal strength of different carriers. If connectivity isn’t already part of your location scouting, it should be.
Open fields, mountains or hilltops, large stages or warehouses, and small homes or stores all have different requirements for both getting an internet connection and saturating the set with WiFi. To start with, if multiple WiFi networks are present (mesh or otherwise), you should make sure they’re configured to operate on different channels to reduce signal congestion where possible.
Antenna placement of antennas for both your cellular modems and WiFi devices also needs to be considered. Metal building construction, in particular, can block signals both inside and out. On the inside, positioning mesh WiFi nodes or repositioning your router can help work around walls that may be blocking signals.
If your cellular modem reception is weak, you might need to put it (or its antennas) near a window or on the roof. Or deploy additional, high-gain antennas directed toward the cell tower. Additional external factors like power transformers, geography, or other signals from outside the set may also cause interference and should be considered.
In some circumstances, you might need to get an internet connection from a nearby location and then connect that to your set. There are several solutions to move a network over geographical space using specialized antennas, fiber cable, or even simply ethernet cable.
Antennas on some modems can be extended, especially if they have standard connections, but it’s best practice to place your modem as close to the antennas as possible to reduce line loss. So position your modem and antennas for optimal reception, then bridge them to your WiFi network.
WiFi signal interference
There are now more WiFi and network-enabled devices on set than ever before.
It’s likely every crew member has a WiFi-sucking phone in their pocket, not to mention all the RF noise the cellular radios are blasting out. With so many devices in such a small area, the airwaves can get pretty busy, which often results in cross-device network interference.
For example, your camera team may be using a WiFi-based wireless video system (like the Teradek Bolt XT). Maintaining high visual quality in this digital signal is critical for good communication between operators and assistants, as well as for maintaining optical focus. But if signals from other WiFi devices are too thick, the Bolt’s signal will be degraded which can slow down the crew, lead to mistakes, or halt production altogether.
Any device that emits an RF signal can potentially lead to interference, so it’s critical that you plan accordingly. Even something as seemingly innocuous as the microwave on the craft service table can become an issue if placed in the wrong spot.
Wireless devices should be set up apart from each other, and not blocking the line of sight from one device to the other devices it’s communicating with.
Production network kits
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look at some recommendations for network gear kits, for large deployments all the way down to barebones setups.
Bear in mind, there are a lot of solutions and options out there, so these recommendations are not gospel. They’re based on currently available technology, our in-house experience, and the most common types of productions. Pricing, availability, location, carrier selection, and many other variables may impact your choices.
Large production kit
For the biggest sets, this large production kit is a viable option.
It includes an industrial-level modem with failover connected to a mesh network for mission-critical operations, and a second network with a discrete internet connection for production crew. It also considers how wireless video systems interact with the rest of the network.
Medium production kit
If your production needs robust coverage for numerous devices, but you can go without an industrial modem, the medium production kit is a good option.
In this setup, internet is delivered through a hotspot connected to a WiFi router, and the production crew devices can either piggyback on the main network or use studio-provided internet (if it exists).
Small production kit
For lighter productions that are constantly on the move, this small production kit is a great choice.
Each Cloud Device has a dedicated hotspot, and production crew devices can either use studio-provided internet or their own data connections.
Barebones production kit
And if you need to stay light for a stripped down, run-and-gun production, this barebones kit might be what you need.
The barebones kit is just a mobile phone in hotspot mode. This would be the camera/device operator’s mobile device, which potentially makes the added cost $0 (assuming they already have one). As mentioned earlier, hotspots from mobile phones don’t handle multiple devices very well and consume a lot of battery power, so it’s recommended you use portable/backup battery for the phone.
The cost of data
In addition to the hardware in the kits, you need to consider the cost of the data connection.
Telecom plans vary across locations and providers, and, depending on the coverage, you may want to opt for one carrier over another. Most major carriers have some data-only plans geared towards business or government use that prioritize your traffic, so be sure to check out these options.
But keep in mind, the cost of this data isn’t trivial, especially for smaller productions. The amount of media being created on set needs to be considered when choosing a plan.
Thankfully, estimating bandwidth usage for mission-critical operations, like cloud-based dailies workflows, is fairly straightforward:
Hours Usage per Day x Data Rate x Devices x Shoot Days.
For example, if you have two cameras, each with a Teradek Cube 655 recording at 3Mbps and uploading to Frame.io, and you record for two hours per camera each day for 20 days, you’d be looking at a total usage of 108GB.
2 hours usage per day x 3Mbps (1.35GB per hour*) x 2 devices x 20 days = 108GB
* 3Megabits per second / 8 = .375 Megabytes per second; .375MBps x 60 seconds per minute x 60 minutes per hour = 1.35 Gigabytes per hour
Calculating your total data footprint for the whole production (108GB) as well as your daily usage (5.4GB) can help you determine which carrier plan to chose. Not to mention it will help you avoid excess data blowouts or unexpected service termination mid-shoot.
Getting robust and fast internet access to your set can be tricky, but it’s getting easier.
It’s up to the production team to decide who has the responsibility of setting up and managing the network. That might be an existing crew member, like a DIT, or it may require a specialist. Locations that require beaming, bridging, or otherwise moving the internet connection over long distances are particularly complicated, so professional consultants might be called in to assist.
But as productions evolve, so too will our solutions and crews. Every day mobile networks are becoming faster, more dense, and more reliable.
Which is great, because that will allow us to build even better workflows that help us stay creative and efficient.