I have said it before, and I will say it again: I would rather have my speakers sound tinny during tech and have my intercom work flawlessly. I would rather the speakers buzz. I would rather they were on fire. I would rather have an ear cold and have my speakers on fire. I would rather the console discharge two volts every time I touch it, have an ear cold, have buzzing speakers in flames, and have a pencil stuck in my eye if it means that the intercom is perfect.

The reason is quite simple: I can always apologize for sound problems. I can always say, “The fire department is on its way, and we will mix again once we can touch the console.” But no one wants to hear any excuse about the intercom. If it doesn't work, nothing can happen, and you have made no friends. That is why I am constantly looking for newer and better intercom solutions. With wireless intercoms, we have some hurdles quickly approaching. Once we switch to DTV, and we are kicked out of the white spaces, we have less of the spectrum for our wireless intercoms. Clear-Com is obviously aware of that, and the company has released CellCom®, a new product that brings some impressive features to the wacky world of intercom, and it works in the cellular domain, so frequencies are not an issue.

What It Does

There are two versions of CellCom. CellCom10 allows 10 beltpacks to be used simultaneously. CellCom50 allows 50 wireless beltpacks to be used at once. CellCom is a locally distributed wireless network that operates license-free in the 1.9GHz frequency band, free of interference with other wireless products such as PCs, talent microphones, IFB, and in-ear monitors. The system connects to party-line and digital matrix intercom systems, using CellCom beltpack-to-beltpack, where group communication is possible within a wireless system in full duplex. Each beltpack can continuously detect and automatically select the best connection to the matrix via the Active Antennas for up to 1000'. Each beltpack can be programmed with up to six com channels, and each also has a call alert with vibration function that makes me drool. Batteries can also be remotely monitored.

The use of cellular architecture allows for low-cost active antennas. Users can seamlessly roam between cells, and there is no need for frequency agility or changing channels. CellCom also features full duplex 7kHz “commentator” bandwidth for high-clarity and for fatigue-free communications. To keep your calls private, transmissions are digitally encoded. The beltpacks can be programmed on the pack itself or using software from your PC. CellCom uses rechargeable Nickel Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) cells that typically allow for eight to 10 hours talk time, and the packs will also accept disposable alkaline AA batteries.

How It Came To Be And What's Next

Bob Boster, director of field sales for North America, says, “It was originally designed to create a wireless system with greater party-line functionality than other wireless systems.” CellCom is not for everyone. It is an impressive and robust wireless communication solution, but it doesn't work everywhere. “CellCom has less RF rejection than some other wireless solutions,” Boster says. “It is pretty easy to see if it is going to work well in an environment by running some RF tests. Someone from Clear-Com runs a test to make sure it will work in an environment before selling it. There is a bit of a complexity to setting up the antennas. It is a permanent install solution, and it can be used on a touring show if the person has been trained and has the time to set the system up and test it.”

Bolster adds that software improvements are in the works for a January 2009 release, including the ability to handle 20 beltpacks instead of 10. “There will also be improved performance in party-line configurations,” he says. “Also support for IFB — you can use CellCom as an IFB transmitter or receiver. That could be attractive once we lose frequencies next year. Currently, most IFBs are located in that UHF band, and after the digital TV switch, people may want something outside of that frequency footprint.”

What End Users Have To Say

Todd Reynolds, lead audio engineer for the LA Opera, the nation's fourth largest opera company, explains the challenges he faced when choosing a new wireless intercom system. “You wouldn't think a communication system for an opera would be such an issue,” he says, adding how communication is essential to running a perfect show. The stage manager has to be able to communicate with everyone, and many of the opera's technical crew members cannot be tied down to a hard-wired base station, as their duties require them to move about the stage.

Reynolds says the CellCom10 wireless beltpacks not only provide reliable mobile communication but additional programming flexibility to meet individual crewmember needs as well. “We've been able to give the electricians a button so they can talk to the head carpenter in case there's an issue, which we didn't have before,” he says. “Now, heads of departments can talk to other heads of departments without interrupting stage management.” For crewmembers that never need to communicate back into the intercom system, the CellCom beltpack can be programmed to ignore any button push that might accidentally key the mic.

Audio/video supervisor for the Santa Fe Opera, Dave Dillman, knows com all too well. Productions keep running smoothly only when everyone's in touch, and that means ensuring that crewmembers can hear each other. “We had a situation back in 2005 where we had a show with very large moving set pieces on stage,” Dillman says. Because the opera's existing wireless intercom system was so limited, stage crewmembers inside those set pieces depended on mobile radios for communication with stage management. “The problem with mobile radios is that they're not two-way all the time,” adds Dillman. “If there is a transmission, it blocks all other transmissions, and the stage manager's instructions could be stepped on without them knowing it.”

When the Santa Fe Opera decided to upgrade to a new wireless intercom system, the CellCom wireless intercom system fit the bill, but it wasn't the first time that Clear-Com products had been used there. “Elements of it go back to the late ‘60s or early ‘70s,” says Dillman. He says he's impressed with the systems’ ruggedness. “They're all still working. That was one of the factors in our decision to go with CellCom.” While the opera's previous wireless system was limited to six wireless beltpacks, it purchased 10 CellCom beltpacks. “We have three cell sites on stage left and stage right where we have the majority of our traffic and then one high overhead at upstage center to take overlap traffic and to allow wireless communication into our set storage area, which is down an elevator shaft. Because they're on CellCom beltpacks, the assistant stage managers can go all the way down the dressing room corridor if they need to, to speed up talent and confirm they're on their way — whatever they need to do,” says Dillman. “But the biggest attraction we had to the system was the ability to program the beltpacks in groups, in addition to the main intercom channels.”

Dillman notes that, in the 2007 summer season, his own group was doing projection during a production. “We had a separate group for ourselves to coordinate the projection, and it kept that traffic off the production intercom channels, which are very busy by themselves,” he says. “That's really a stellar example of why CellCom is a good solution.” The CellCom system was interfaced with the existing Clear-Com party-line system prior to the beginning of the 2007 summer opera season. “We had a bit of a shakedown,” adds Dillman. “We had excellent support from Clear-Com, and the installation was quickly up and running.”

For information, visit www.clearcom.com.

Editor's Note: CellCom®and FreeSpeak®are different brands representing the same digital wireless intercom system (with minor technical differences). Due to trademark limitations, CellCom10 and CellCom50 are only available the USA and Canada; and FreeSpeak10 and FreeSpeak50 are available in all countries other than the USA and Canada.