Saturday, October 29, 2011

The wireless photographer always connected…Be your own Hotspot or live news agency!

I remember years ago at a baseball game looking at the SI or other big news organizations photographers. They had wireless uplinks to their news organizations and as they shot their pictures they made it back almost instantly for publishing. Some of the configurations were complex and proprietary, often custom made and involving wearing some laptop or other device in their jackets. Surprisingly, this is something that can be done by anybody, really easily these days. As always, I’ll show you an easy, quick way so you don’t have to read the whole thing, and a detailed more sophisticated alternative.
Easy, quick and wireless:
Let’s get something clear from the start; although some of the newer smart phones can be shared as a Hotspot you can't consider that as a best alternative for one simple reason: Power output. The RF (radio frequency) output for any cell phone is around .3 watts. This is way much lower than for any of the dedicated 3G/4G devices. Such devices have a power output above 1 watt and that’s a huge difference. We’ll go back to that later, for now there two main things you need:
1.   Camera enabled with WiFi or a card that will add the WiFi capability: Let’s assume your camera doesn’t have WiFi as the majority doesn’t, so to add WiFi is a simple as to get an Eye-Fi card like the following models:

2.   WiFi Hotspot: You can do that two ways:

a.   If you get the Pro version of the Eye-Fi, that gives you access to many public Hotspots hence as long as you're close to one of those, you're up and running. Still it's better if you have your own Hotspot, that way you don't depend on other people's ones.
b.   Your smart phone with a Hotspot feature; you can connect your Eye-Fi to it and you’re up and running. However, I don’t like this because of the lower power output of phones and quite frankly, the phone somehow limits the whole thing.
c.    Get a dedicated Hotspot device: There are many alternatives, but one of the most inexpensive ones is the MiFi 2200 available from VirginMobile. It’s about $150 for the device and the service has no contract and is “Pay as you go” hence you can simply get access as needed. Here’s the info:

I’m not going to go on details on how you set them up as there’s plenty of information on how to do that. The general idea is you setup your Eye-Fi to recognize and see your MiFi device and as long as it has a connection, your photos will be uploaded as you’re shooting. A secondary benefit of the Eye-Fi is the option to upload to devices such an iPad so you could actually do a live preview of your pictures as they’re taken. Clients love to see the picture ASAP, and there's nothing faster than as they're been shot. That’s pretty much it, you’re mobile and wireless!

A truly more reliable and powerful way

Figure 1: Something different? Picture shows the antenna on a Kata 3N1 series backpack which hides a fully secured and reliable Hotspot wireless setup based on a Cradlepoint PHS300 mobile, battery powered router with a 3G/4G wireless device connected to an external antenna to boost ERP RF signal strength. As pictures are made and saved to the camera's Eye-Fi card, it sends them through the Cradlepoint, then 3G/4G to a home server or any service of your choice such as Facebook, Flckr, etc. The PHS300 can securely handle up to 16x Wi-Fi devices simultaneously!
As we mentioned before, the smart phones have a lower power output. Dedicated broadband devices not only have a higher watt output but on top of that most of them have external antenna ports. If you add such an antenna to any of them, you'll bump your antenna gain, bumping your ERP (effective radiated power or equivalent radiated power) probably borderline FCC illegal depending on what type of antenna you’re using. More details on this at the end.
We’re going to focus on a secure and powerful hardware combination to achieve this as partly shown in Figure 1. Key word here is Cradlepoint which is a secure device manufacturer:
Cradlepoint’s are mobile routers which offer and unparallel level of security and capabilities and they can be the base of your mobile Hotspot network. Not only for Photography, but for your car, RV or even as a home backup for Broadband access, hence a versatile and reasonable priced solution.
In that case the typical situation is that you're in an activity and as you work information is feed via Wi-Fi to the device and from the device to the 3G/4G connection out. The following table shows you how each of the devices compare to each other. Remember that the Cradlepoints are routers, hence you still need a wireless device for 3G/4G access. The important thing to remember that the sum of the parts is way much more than the parts by themselves:

3G/4G Device
Mi-Fi 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot Device
USB Mobile Broadband Router
Multi Device Mobile Broadband Router
USB/PCI express dongle (any)
Mi-Fi 2200 (Virgin, Sprint), Verizon Hotspot 4G LTE
Cradlepoint PHS300
Cradlepoint CTR500
Number of simultaneous devices
1 direct plugged
5 via Wi-FI
16 via Wi-FI
32 via Wi-Fi
250+ via Ethernet.
1 USB for 3G/4G device, Wi-Fi access to users.
1 USB for 3G/4G device, 1 PCI express for 3G/4G, Ethernet port. Wi-Fi and/or Ethernet access to users.
Tied to wireless carrier and/or contract
Tied to wireless carrier and/or contract
Completely independent, can be reconfigured to support any carrier's device on the fly.
Completely independent, can be reconfigured to support any carrier's device on the fly. Supports Cable, DSL and Satellite modems via Ethernet.
$50 to $100 plus monthly fees.
$100 to $300 plus monthly fees depending on provider.
$90 from OEM direct.
$200 from OEM direct.
USB stick or PCIe card.
Cigarette pack.
Cigarette pack. Optional AC/DC adapter.
Cigarette pack plus AC/DC adapter.
Connected device dependent or limited
Basic (WEP, WPA)
Multiple encrypted solutions
Multiple encrypted solutions
It's a stick, you have to plug in to use. Very limited.
Battery powered, but limited number of users and tied to the wireless provider.
Battery powered, support double digit users, Needs an USB 3G/4G for Internet connection.
Needs AC/DC source, but provides maximum possible number of connected devices. Allows for 3 different alternatives of WAN connection (USB, PCIe, Ethernet) which can be used independently, as backup redundancy or a shared load balancing system. Networks can  be  joined or independent. Can be used with cable, DSL, Satellite, etc. modems or simply share a Ethernet connection. For 3G/4G needs a USB and/or PCIe device.

Cradlepoint has even more powerful models that are considered "Mission Critical Class". These provide connectivity through multiple Ethernet connections and to even 5 simultaneous 3G/4G devices and can be used in extreme environments. So your Hotspot can be as complex as you want it; there’s a solution to get you there. Potential usage scenarios are:

  1. Users in remote locations: You have several guys on travel. The need Internet access. Rather than paying an exorbitant fee at the hotel or using a slow connection at an unknown site, they could use 3G/4G if available and share such connection.
  2. Site meetings or events were you have no or limited connectivity, or have attendants that can't be in our network, yet need Internet access for whatever work is been done. You can provide such access without any interaction with our network, while our users could VPN to ours. So the networks are not, joined.
  3. Your mobile office: Rather than finding a location with connectivity, bring the connectivity with you; a Cradlepoint router can be used to either share an Ethernet connection via switch or even Wi-Fi to the internal network, linked, share an unlinked 3G/4G connection for both wireless and wired systems, or it could serve totally wireless solution, for unplugged mobiles while at a secure area, avoiding mixing environment, but allowing Internet access.
  4. Roadwarrior, lone wolf: Covering news or potentially dangerous events? Have your pictures stream as they're shot, just in case you don't make it, at least your photos can make it to a location of your choosing. You can also think of it as insurance policy, just in case your camera get's lost, confiscated, broken, etc. Gives another meaning to the concept of pictures been your ultimate witness...
Finally, the Cradlepoint's firmware algorithms make your connection faster than if using the device directly. Don't know how they did it, but I've measured it to be around 5 to 15% faster depending on the connection (the stronger the link the faster they go). Most important it's safer as you're elminating the wireless vendor own applications that manages the device. One application less to run, a lower lever of risk involved. Also the Cradlepoint routers have a well documented and powerful set of tools to handle such situations.
Initially there's a shock factor and the router and SIM card add an initial cost. As an user of this configuration I assure you that not only serves as redundacy backup, but as a facilitator of connectivity. See Figure 2 for my actual setup. This is a simple, proven, reliable and powerful way of making your own live news, or simply as insurance policy depending on your style of photography. Either way, give it a try and enjoy. As always let me know if you have any questions or suggestion.

Figure 2: A Cradlepoint PHS300 router with a 3G/4G USB wireless device plugged in. Notice that rather than using the wireless device built in antenna an external antenna is plugged in to boost reception and power output. This setup provides a discreet yet powerful setup that will allow you to live feed your work to your desired media outlet.
About RF and ERP

We talked before about ERP and what that means is Effective Radiated Power (or Equivalent Radiated Power). In simple terms it is the way that Radio Frequency (RF) signal output is measured using the standard units of Watt (everybody has heard that word before, so hopefully we're clearer now). Here's some more detail on ERP from Wikipedia:

There are multiple sources that will show you how to calculate ERP and antenna gain. This is a sample calculator:

Also here's a table that shows the effects of ERP based on power input and antenna gain. Notice that if you keep the power input into the antenna constant, for example as what's coming out of your wireless device, notice how the antenna gain affects the output. Hence the more antenna gain, the higher the output therefore range of your device:

Antenna Gain (dbd)
1 Watt Input
Keep in mind that each country's RF regulations are different hence you need to make sure that when you match your antenna to your device you want to keep it legal, hence look for what's the maximum allowable ERP output. Again, this is just to help and give you an idea. The information here is provided for informational purposes and at the end it's your responsability on using it properly.

Note that the PHS300 model has just been discontinued, but you can still find them in eBay for around $50. The other current alternatives are more powerful in features, although not battery powered. You can always use an external battery source or a 12V car adapter depending on what you're doing. The CTR500 for example can handle 3x simulataneous broadband connections (Ethernet, USB and PCIExpress) so you loose some, gain some...

Added Bonus: Home Backup or Redundant Connection

If you get the CTR500, as pointed in the chart above is its capacity to handle 3 types of simultaneous connections. These can be set as backup or even do load balancing with the 3. Most important is that when properly set, the CTR500 will keep you connected as long as there's a wireless connection available. Check Figure 3. Item 1 is where you tell it where to find your main connection or broadband gateway. Item 2 is where you tell it what operation mode you want it to perform. Finally Item 3 shows the active connections.

Figure 3: CTR500's Failover/Load Balancing setup allows you to configure the router as a backup unit with your existing broadband setup. These versatile units have a wealth of configuration options and features and work well with others or as standalones.

No comments:

Post a Comment