NFL in-game communications go digital, finally

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When it comes to embracing technology, the NFL at times behaves like grandparents with a microwave that has been flashing “12:00” repeatedly, for years.

In one respect, that’s finally changing.  This year, the coach-to-player communications system is going digital.

The Associated Press has compiled a wide variety of accounts regarding the strange things that happened with the analog system, including frequencies that overlapped with airlines, police radios, and even rehearsals for a Madonna concert.  It’s unclear whether the new system, which was tested last year in the preseason and during the Pro Bowl, will better avoid the challenges of overlapping frequencies, but it should provide a much clearer connection.

“There wasn’t any of the static in there that you got sometimes,” Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn said after using the technology in the preseason opener. “With the other system, the coach had to hold down a button for a second or so, and some coaches would start talking just when he held the button down and you would miss half of what he said.”

The old system also resulted in periodic glitches, which when happening to road teams often resulted in whispers of foul play.  Last year, problems when playing on the road prompted 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to ask the league off for an explanation.

“We never got the answer, but we had problems in a couple particular road games where it would shut off right in the middle of a play call,” Harbaugh said.  “Happened multiple times in one particular game.  I couldn’t tell you what the problem was because I was never given a response to the question.”

Maybe they pushed the button down to soon.

20 responses to “NFL in-game communications go digital, finally

  1. Digital isn’t always better than analog. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. Especially in sound. Any tech geek will concur.

  2. anybody in emergency services knows that you have to key up a radio for 2 seconds before you begin speaking. That allows the radio to identify itself to the repeater. It’s sad that the coaches that preach attention to detail and communication between players on the field cannot grasp that critical concept.

  3. bbrophy1 is dead on. 30 year radio tech here. In older systems they used CTCSS codes (two tone like an telephone) and newer FM commercial/public systems use DPL (digital private line) codes. Even though the radio is analog, the code is digital. It is a 1-2 second burst of unique information that identifies your radio and opens your private network to the rest of the radios programmed in your system….hold the button down for a second, coach, before talking.

  4. In sound, traditionally analog is better than digital, but I doubt coaches care about getting a maximum audio resolution. They just want something that makes their calls effectively.

  5. Please allow me to share some things about wireless audio with you folks, as it always bugs me when I read something about this topic that is so inaccurate. 1) Wireless microphone technology will never be digital because RF is analog. The devices may be digitally controlled via laptop and may spit out digital signal post receiver to the control room, but the communication between the microphone and the receiver is analog (BTW, digital radio is also not digital, it’s RF, which is analog). There are some advances being made with the technology now that help with finding open frequencies in an area or zip code, and it has been a big help because it 2) prevents the morons, who are mostly unqualified to use this equipment, from jumping on frequencies that are already in use. You know what happens when someone who doesn’t understand how this stuff works starts randomly going through frequencies to find an open channel? They screw up the signal for someone else’s device that is already in use (think older cordless home phone with microwave in use). This particular problem has become so bad, the government and military had to get involved to protect their own operations. 3) These frequencies can be interfered with from as far as half a mile away. 4) Now let’s factor in all the different and simultaneous instances of wireless microphones that occur around an NFL event. Are you going to tell me all the TV, Radio, Stadium, Performances, and peripheral coat-tail hangers-on audio crews are communicating with each other to share which frequencies they are using? No, these events are a free-for-all with the audio crews because video people don’t care or know enough about audio to spend any money on it.
    So the NFL can do everything correctly, find an open frequency before the game starts, use that frequency and have several back up frequencies ready to go, but nothing can prevent someone from jumping on that frequency and interrupting the signal in the process.
    With all that in mind, the best explanation is that frequencies get interrupted by a host of other users trying to share what is now (thanks to the “rezoning” of RF by government agencies) a very limited range of available frequencies per region. I have noticed the more rural an area (like Foxboro), the fewer frequencies are allocated. Now put an NFL event in that area and the need for more wireless frequencies than are available. My guess is those are the areas where the coaches complain. But don’t let facts get in the way if you want to hate.

  6. This makes for a more reliable signal as far as sending and receiving it, and is far more efficient. But it won’t help interference. People misunderstand, these things, like cell phones, are still just glorified walkie talkies. They still rely on radio frequencies which is analog. That’s why the change to this technology is minimally important. End result is the digital signal will be crisper, clearer and more easily heard by those using it. It’s more about sound quality, and has nothing to do with stopping radio frequency interference.

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