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Level 3 Talks Vyvx, Expansion

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In an article on the cost of live large-event streaming in the April/May issue of Streaming Media magazine (the online version of which will be available soon), I mentioned one of the pitfalls was the inability to access even basic internet connectivity in most venues.

The lack of connectivity is rather ironic, in one way, given the installed base of Vyvx VenueNet. Vyvx-a Williams Communications fiber-optic technology package that was rolled out as an analog-only solution in the late 1980s and then acquired by Level 3 in 2005-allows 1.5Gbps point-to-point broadcast connectivity but no simultaneous sideband internet transmission.

Level 3 focuses on professional sports venues with the Vyvx line of products, with many broadcasters using a point-to-point delivery from large venues to their own network operations center during a live broadcast game.

According to Level 3, more than 100 professional sports venues in the United States use Vyvx, culminating in impressive 2009 transmission numbers:  18,000 sports feeds, for more than 140,000 hours of live video transmission. The company also recently celebrated its three millionth Vyvx reservation.

In the economics of live events article, I'd interviewed several Level 3 representatives, who talked about why Level 3 is focused on sports events, in no small part due to the popularity of Vyvx.

"Sports is by far our biggest segment for events," said Mark Taylor, VP of product, content markets, at Level 3. "We are starting to see a combination of free to air rather than pay-per-view content, with a lower-quality free stream (or limited, free content) plus a paid higher-quality stream or more content."

Vyvx VenueNet+ Upgrades
To get to that higher-quality stream requires a separate internet connection, and Level 3 thinks its VenueNet+ upgrades will make it both easier for venues to add high-speed connectivity as well as easier to bundle voice and much higher broadcast transmission capability.

The next generation of Vyvx technologies supports native uncompressed 1080p high definition (HD) video via an appliance that sits in the VenueNet+ closet. Using the HD-SDI (high-definition serial digital interfaces) standard that broadcasters use to connect HD video devices for short uncompressed runs, VenueNet+ will double transmission speeds back to a broadcaster's network operations center to 3Gbps from the current 1.5Gbps.

In addition, another appliance with an integrated H.264 codec will enable on-site high-quality video compression directly at the venue, allowing for IP transmission of HD video content in an MPEG-2 Transport Stream.

"We see the addition of codecs and appliances as a way to make it easier for our venue and broadcast customers to enable digital file-based workflows directly from the venue," said Taylor, during an interview at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show in Las Vegas last week.

Finally, besides the 3Gbps video transmission, Level 3 will also bundle enterprise voice services (VoIP) and 150Mbps bi-directional internet connectivity. The latter will be critical for the kind of side-band transmissions discussed during a panel discussion at NAB called "Stream or Die" moderated by StreamingMedia.com editor Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen and sponsored by NewTek.

Level 3 has already announced its VenueNet+ upgrades will be rolled out based on groups of sporting venues: 2010 upgrades will be available in time for football and hockey leagues to use the expanded service in their 2010-2011 seasons, and the company also anticipates early 2011 expansion availability for professional basketball and baseball leagues.

Why the methodical rollout in particular sports leagues?

"When we make VenueNet+ available to one league venue," said Mark Taylor, Level 3's VP of Product Development, "the broadcasters expect an equal level of connectivity and features at every league venue, in place and tested well before the first day of the season. So the simultaneous upgrades within a specific league, followed by a stepped approach to upgrades across other leagues is the best methodical approach to guarantee the consistency venues and broadcasters expect from Vyvx."

Further Expansion Plans
Beyond the 100 professional sporting venues in the U.S., Taylor said Level 3 is carrying out a two-fold expansion plan.

In the United States, with the professional venue market fairly saturated, the company is looking for less expensive ways to connect up college sports venues, from fieldhouses to football fields.

"We see a significant addressable market in college sports," said Taylor, "but we need to find ways to make the initial connection less expensive. We're committed to offering the same VenueNet+ quality to colleges and universities as we are now offering to professional leagues."

In the NAB interview, Taylor offered one area of expansion and another of potential consolidation. I'll cover the latter in a workflowed.com blog post next week, as it relates to smaller CDNs in Europe and the U.S.

Level 3's expansion into Central Europe, specifically into Prague, expands the company's European presence. Telecommunications provider Dial Telecom, based in the Czech Republic's capital, is using Level 3's Vyvx to route content from Radio Free Europe/Radio (RFE/RL) directly to the United States.

"Level 3's international IP backbone and Vyvx infrastructure were critical to Dial Telecom bringing RFE/RL's content to new audiences in the United States," said Tomas Strasak, chief of Sales at Dial Telecom, in a company press release.

"We're routing through our London Vyvx point of presence," said Taylor, during the interview. "The benefit to Central European broadcasters is a direct link between their London, Washington, DC, and domestic broadcast studios." 

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