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The Buzz: Installation Spotlight: Austin Independent School District, Austin, Texas

Sep 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Garry Wilkison, Austin Digital Media

Upgrading for the Future


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As part of a space overhaul in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Austin Independent School District had Austin Digital Media simultaneously upgrade the Board of Trustees auditorium and its 25-year-old television production studio for proper cable broadcasting and to prepare for the district's eventual loss of its transmission pathway to local cable-television providers.

As part of a space overhaul in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Austin Independent School District had Austin Digital Media simultaneously upgrade the Board of Trustees auditorium and its 25-year-old television production studio for proper cable broadcasting and to prepare for the district's eventual loss of its transmission pathway to local cable-television providers.

The Austin Independent School District (AISD) has been a leader in technology in the Austin, Texas, community for many years. In 1982, AISD was one of the first local entities to sign on with an educational access station — one channel at the time. AISD TV's production department offers educational and informative programming from 7 a.m. to midnight on cable channel 22. Programs range from school-board meetings to district-wide events such as student concerts, press conferences, and high-school graduations. As a systems-integration firm familiar with the dynamics of designing and implementing AV systems in govermental entities, Austin Digital Media (ADM) was a natural choice when AISD needed an upgrade, because the company had been responsible for adding an additional channel on one of the local cable-television provider's systems several years earlier.

Austin is a very politically minded town. Voters want access to their public officials and to the information about how government and, in particular, their schools are run. The AISD Board of Trustees is very sensitive to voter demands. However, the district's administration center presented an obstacle to the board's good intentions. Located in downtown Austin in a converted condominium complex, the auditorium where the board holds its meetings had six columns in the center. This made it challenging to install cameras, monitors, and other equipment to ensure the audience in the room and at home could see what's going on.

The district already had plans to upgrade the space to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so at the same time, the district decided to mitigate the room's limitations as a public venue. Among their goals: Install a more flexible, effective, and easy-to-use live-presentation system; upgrade the 25-year-old television production system; and replace the sign-language interpreter with a closed-captioning system.

At the same time the renovation of the auditorium was being considered, the district was grappling with two other issues. First, the television studio was located in an old classroom environment with space limitations. Replacing it was a more flexible facility located in a remodeled junior-high-school gym. Second, it was time to plan for the district's eventual loss of its transmission pathway to local cable-television providers.

The two projects — the auditorium and the television studio and production system — were undertaken independently, but in tandem. The school district's team and ADM spent many months preparing equipment and system solutions on a tight budget and timeframe. As with all education entities, budget and long-term solutions are the bottom line. The previous production system was a quarter-century old and still functional. However, with a 2004 bond package, AISD was able to upgrade for the future in a big way.

During the spring of 2007, we had less than three weeks to finalize the design and specifications. Using NAB 2007 as an educational resource, we were on the floor day in and day out making decisions and writing specs as our two-week timeline was fast approaching to submit our final specs to the architect.

For the auditorium, we installed robotic Sony BRC-H700 HD cameras. We selected a For-A production switcher because it was one of the most affordable and it was able to support our multiformat operation. Source video monitoring is done on an Avitech multiviewer with two large-screen monitors. We chose the multiviewer because it's more cost-effective than HD video monitors. For audio, we are still relying on a legacy analog mixer from Lectrosonic.

Due to the space limitations and functionality of the AISD auditorium, we built in an AV system that uses Sony Bravia monitors, a Canon projection system, and a Da-Lite screen; all these rely on an Extron switcher. We also installed an innovative solution to captioning within the auditorium that relies on a Museum Technologies text display that is separate from the viewing screens.

At the heart of the new system are two Utah Scientific Utah-400 routing switchers — one for the auditorium and one for the studio. In considering what to install, we recognized that we had to support legacy formats and computer and presentation feeds, while still being able to transmit both standard definition for the cable company and high-definition signals for use inhouse. Signals in the studio are still analog, but the auditorium signals have been upgraded to digital. We were designing with the future in mind, so the modular design of Utah Scientific's equipment was a plus from our standpoint. The routers can be expanded with the addition of cards or transitioned from one signal type to another with the replacement of cards. This can be done within the confines of an existing frame and without new wiring.

With all our purchases, we also considered the resiliency and reliability of the equipment and what kind of maintenance it would eventually need. Of course, any buyer does this, but a school district has to be especially cost-conscious. This is particularly true for a school district in a town such as Austin, where voters are paying such close attention. We wanted to make sure that the equipment we bought would still be operational many years from now. The Utah Scientific routers met that test, as one of our counterparts in government could attest by the simple fact that they still were using a 20-year-old Utah Scientific router and were fully supported.

All signals originating from the AISD auditorium are now HD. We are able to transmit from 3 miles across town on a municipally owned fiber network to a playout server located at the studio facility in the former junior-high-school gym. With the current upgrade, school-board meetings are produced and digitally archived in high definition to a second server, but the limitations of the local cable company mean that the playout server downconverts the signal to SD before sending it on for cable transmission.

The final goal we were trying to accomplish in the project as a whole was planning for the day in 2011 when the cable companies are no longer mandated by law to provide us with a transmission network. Due to the foresight of seven governmental and educational entities in the Austin area, we have a municipal fiber network that was built many years ago that should serve the purpose for distributing our signal to the cable companies. AISD's new system relies on that fiber network to send its signal from the auditorium to the studio production facility — a step toward more reliance on the municipal fiber network.

I've been an engineer forever, and I've been designing AV systems since 1986. I've developed a niche working with school districts throughout the south and southwest. I live in Austin, though, and the physical idiosyncrasies of these facilities made this project one of the most challenging that I've faced. It was a glad moment for all of us when the AISD auditorium renovation was completed in time for the school board to meet in prior to the start of school in 2007, and then six months later, in February 2008, when the studio facility was completed.

While the project was difficult, we also had some luck. Prices for upgrading to HD have come down in the last five years while quality has gone up. Today, as more people get into HD, I can build a solid-quality studio for $200,000. A few years ago, it would have been twice the cost. At AISD, the need for ADA compliance gave us the opportunity to do a thorough renovation of the broadcast system, investing in gear that will be easier to maintain and upgrade for the future.


Garry Wilkison is owner and systems engineer of Austin Digital Media. He has more than 30 years of experience in the AV and television industry.

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