In January 2009, as he prepared to take office, President Barack Obama embarked on a train trip from Philadelphia to Washington on the way to his inauguration. The big American networks vied for coverage of the event and NBC was the only one that was able to broadcast video from inside the moving train.
As images of Obama waving to voters played in the background, the NBC correspondent told his viewers he wanted to tell them about technology called LiveU that was being used to cover the event, permitting the network to use cellular rather than satellite networks for the broadcast. That little 14-second clip became a huge turning point for Israeli company LiveU, then just two years old.
“The clip was incredible,” says CEO Shmulik Wasserman. “NBC was our first client outside of Israel. The next day we got lots of calls from rival media organizations wanting to find out about our technology.”
LiveU developed an easily portable transmitter that connects to cameras and makes it possible to relay high-quality live broadcasts via cellular networks. Seven years after the NBC clip, LiveU’s technology is used in about half of live television broadcasts. The company has 2,000 regular clients including BBC, CNN, Fox News, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association in the United States, along with English soccer teams Manchester United and Liverpool.
“But we have clients beyond media and sports organizations,” Wasserman says. “We have bands that broadcasts rehearsals and rent equipment from us, and even wedding photographers have adopted our technology and offer their customers the option of live-streaming their wedding for an extra fee. It’s become popular all over the world.”
In the record books
LiveU has 200 employees, 100 of whom work at the company’s development center in Kfar Sava, northeast of Tel Aviv. Its marketing and sales headquarters is located in New Jersey, and it also has offices in Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Romania, Hong Kong, India, China and Colombia. The company, which has become profitable in the last two years, says it anticipates revenues of about $50 million this year. LiveU’s investors include venture capital funds Canaan Partners, Carmel Ventures, Pitango and Lightspeed, and private investor Yigal Jacoby. By its last funding round in 2012, it had raised $50 million.
By now, LiveU is a part of most major events. During last year’s election in Britain, LiveU even got into the Guinness Book of World Records for “maximum number of simultaneous live broadcasts” – after Sky News decided to install the company’s system at 150 of the largest polling stations. “Sky News aired it live on television and YouTube and viewers could select which polling place they wished to see and watch their family and friends voting,” says Wasserman.
LiveU was a significant presence at the Rio Olympics as well. Its technology was used in 6,000 hours of live broadcasts to media outlets from 80 countries.
These developments have made LiveU a sought-after strategic partner for Facebook.
Facebook wants to encourage content creators to broadcast their material directly, in high-quality live video. Professionally produced content is watched more and shared more, and of greater value to advertisers. Earlier this year, Facebook asked LiveU to perform automatic integration of its broadcasts systems for Facebook Live. The companies formally announced their collaboration last Thursday.
“This is a huge opportunity for us,” says Wasserman. “This collaboration adds Facebook’s professional content providers - like BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and MTV – to our client list. We believe it will expose us to a new audience of content providers like websites, freelance journalists and cameramen.”
You already interface with YouTube and Periscope [Twitter’s live streaming app]. What will be different now?
“The interface with YouTube and Periscope requires users to put in a series of prior settings. With Facebook the integration will be automatic, with no extra effort on the part of the person filming.”
What is the problem you’re trying to solve?
“Today people want to watch news events while they’re happening, and in order to provide them the speed of a live broadcast, you need a reliable way to enable them to broadcast anytime, anywhere. Cellular networks are not entirely reliable – They’re dependent on weather and on the density of users in an area and so on. For live video, it’s a crucial variable.”
So how do you solve the problems you cited?
“We built a small device that connects to video cameras and contains SIM cards of several cellular companies. All the cards can be activated so the camera can connect to all the networks at the same time. During the broadcast, the video is broken down into small pieces. All the pieces are sent into our cloud, and there’s a program that reconnects them and rebuilds the original picture.”
One cell network with good reception isn’t sufficient?
“No. The idea is that we’re not working on any one particular network, but on all of them simultaneously, and making use of every existing resource in the air.
“We also developed tiny antennas that are inside our devices, greatly improving the recording and broadcasting capability, even in places where cell coverage is poor.”
It must also be a source of more radiation.
“All of the company’s products were tested by several independent and authorized international laboratories, and approved as meeting the standard acceptable radiation level. The output of our units is lower than the standard approved level and also than that of the most popular smartphones. We’ve been asked this question over and over again. Without these tests, no client would agree to work with us.”
Won’t better use of fiber-optics make your technology redundant?
“No. That kind of technology can upgrade the areas where it is deployed, like a soccer field, for example. But in the end, every resource is limited. And in general, most newsworthy events don’t take place in places that have the kind of setup like stadiums do.”
Can you give me an example?
“At the Olympics in Rio, CNN used our technology to broadcast all the things that were going on around it. They didn’t need us for the sports competitions on the fields. They had a contract with NBC for that, but they took our system for behind the scenes interviews and more.
“Or for instance, when a terror attack happens, there’s no time for preparations and the networks want to broadcast on the go. At [former Israeli President] Shimon Peres’ funeral, one of our systems was behind the vehicle that transported the coffin and broadcast while it was driving.”
Ready for any scenario
What makes your product preferable to portable satellite stations?
“The cost and the ease of deployment. We use cellular technology and cellular networks, with significantly cheaper rates. Also, a satellite unit has to be run by a team of people, including a driver and a crew. Just aiming the antenna can take a half hour, by which time you could miss the whole story. Also they can’t broadcast while on the move. With us, any place where you can talk, you can also broadcast.”
Aren’t companies like TVU Networks, AVIWest and Dejero your direct competitors?
“They are competing with broadcasting solutions using cellular networks, but LiveU invented the field of multichannel cellular broadcasting and therefore became the market leader. Our market share is bigger than that of all the competitors put together. Also, we’re the only ones with global reach, with service everywhere and in the local language, on short notice, including 24-hour support.”
Sounds like you think of yourselves almost like a military unit.
“When the big terror attacks happened in Brussels and Paris, or technical team was immediately dispatched that night, distributed equipment to the Sky News, CNN and BBC crews and flew with them to provide them with support in the field. We’re ready for any scenario, anytime, within a very short time. We work closely with the media and understand their needs.”
What about private users? Do you have something for them?
“We have a cellular app (LU smart) that uses the same technology and operates in the background. When the user wants to broadcast live, it makes the device use all the available WiFi and open cellular networks. If the device has two SIM cards, it will use both, and if a hotspot is activated, it will use that too.”
What is your business model?
“PAAS – Platform as a Service, in which we rent the equipment for a year to two years and get a monthly payment from clients. The payment ranges from hundreds to thousands of dollars a month for a package of several dozen broadcasting hours, depending on the type of unit in use. The service includes all the components, like cellular airtime, use of the cloud and 24/7 support.”
Just over a year ago your company appeared to be on the brink of being sold to Panasonic.
“We have a business and strategic cooperation with Panasonic. Our technology is now embedded in every one of their professional cameras, making it a mobile broadcasting unit. We don’t comment on rumors, but I’ll just say that it’s been a year, and we’re still here.”
Where will you be five years from now?
“We’re focusing on accelerating growth and penetrating additional markets while maintaining profitability. We’re looking far ahead. Our goal is to establish a big, profitable company, especially considering that the market we’re aimed at is so huge and varied.”