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Resistance Is Futile: How Broadcast and Cable Are Embracing IP

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While broadcasters are a long way from junking their digital terrestrial antennas, cable networks, and transponder space, they are embracing the internet to reach consumers. BT TV’s move to launch a 4K channel is predicated on its entrenched broadband infrastructure. HBO’s decision to risk severing established ties with cable by launching HBO Now is part of a tidal wave of OTT offerings from traditional media. U.K. satellite pay-TV giant Sky is another. It runs noncontract VOD service NOW TV and mobile offer Sky Go and uses Elemental software to deliver them.

“OTT is mainstream, no question,” says Joe Inzerillo, CTO of Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM or BAM), which powers HBO’s streaming service. BAM is being spun-off from Major League Baseball in order to take on more OTT contracts.

Broadcasters are moving to compete with the global scale, local reach, and rapid response of Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu. The transition to IP and software-defined video (SDV) infrastructure will eventually see them move from bricks and mortar to cloud-based content suppliers.

BBC CTO Matthew Postgate is responsible for changing the fabric of the corporation so fundamentally that the vision is for it to become a “datacaster,” not a broadcaster.

“Digital first is about what it feels like to work in a data-driven organization which competes with Netflix or Amazon in content,” Postgate says. “It’s about swapping out the network across all of our bureau to be more IP-centered. It’s about introducing more commodity IT equipment. All the time we are driving down cost and giving editorial more options.”

New Efficiencies and Opportunities

Outsourcing operational processes to private data centers offers broadcasters not just capex and real estate cost savings, but the strategic ability to flex up or down to launch new ventures, respond to short-term demand spikes with pop-up channels (e.g., around major sporting events), and change aspects of channels in real time. The goal is to spin up a channel in hours, not months, as is currently the case.

With processing, storage, and networking infrastructure as pooled resources rather than dedicated independent infrastructures, a software as a service (SaaS) model delivers economies of scale and replaces manual workflow with automation.

Virtualization removes the geographic dependencies that have previously limited video playout. No longer reliant on cost-prohibitive satellite bandwidth, broadcasters can achieve regionalization, localization, and even hyperlocalization of channel content. While internet-based media organizations have incredible opportunities to inject targeted advertising into programming, this is not yet the case for broadcast. That could change with IP.

Instead of storing assets on-prem in proprietary tape archives, a cloud-based approach enables broadcasters to alter content on demand and reformat it far more effectively to compete for VOD and multiscreen delivery.

Current versioning workflows can involve multiple organizations, located in different parts of the world. A software-defined network located in the cloud unites these processes and links ad sales, scheduling, traffic management, and video servers into a single workflow accessed from desktop browsers.

This vision has been in the works for over a decade. Nonlinear editing packages were untethered from turnkey computing hardware in the late ‘90s. The first file-based (XDCAM) camcorders arrived in 2003. The migration from tape to server-based systems continued with the proliferation of file-based workflows that now embrace all aspects of production.

Playout is becoming part of the equation. Tata Communications has just launched a global cloud-based playout service using a new software-only system from PlayBox Technologies called CloudAir. Its design includes the array of traditional on-prem-based hardware functions (ingest, source transcoding, quality control, MAM, production, post-production, subtitling, scheduling, and transmission) and can be operated in automated mode with the option of making schedule alterations or live inserts at any time in response to late-breaking news.

“The CloudAir platform is one of the most exciting new developments in broadcasting since the transition from tape-based to file-based content management and playout,” says Don Ash, managing partner at PlayBox Technologies. “This is a real game changer, with the potential to empower literally thousands of new program streams, quickly, easily, and very affordably.”

IP for transporting and contributing live video is well-established among broadcasters. News departments increasingly use IP to deliver feeds from more places than was possible with costly outside broadcast equipment.

During the U.K.’s May general election, Sky News claimed a Guinness World Record for contributing 138 concurrent live feeds from various constituencies over LiveU’s cloud to the web. (Bear in mind there are 650 parliamentary constituencies, so there’s some way to go.)

The BBC is also ramping its use of IP to contribute feeds from live events such as the Glastonbury Festival, increasing the available coverage. So IP has been part of the media value chain for some time, but not implemented in end-to-end workflows.

“When properly implemented and managed, IP technologies for media distribution match the quality and latency standards required by the broadcasting industry,” says Nicolas Bourdan, senior vice president of marketing at EVS, which makes servers for live production. “Early adopters like those in sports, with the financial means and the need for ultra-fast and responsive live remote production, are paving the way for others. But all-IP workflows are still quite a few years off. It’s just not practical at this point for most broadcasters.”

Roadblocks to Adoption

There are many reasons for this, including doubts about the triple-9s reliability of signals sent over IP, lack of interoperability between vendor systems, and a reluctance to invest until standards for 4K over IP are settled. Many broadcasters have only just migrated to file from tape, and don’t have the funds to make another leap yet. Some argue that the biggest source of inertia is the cultural impact of change.

There’s a general feeling that IP technologies need to mature, or that certain areas are more mature than others. In the former camp are live production workflows from studios or venues, which is solidly based on coaxial copper cables and serial digital interface, though heavyweight broadcast kit vendors, such as Sony and Grass Valley, are launching cameras, vision mixers (switchers), and routers with IP connectors to future-proof investment.

The heart of the matter is whether trust in the deterministic, virtually foolproof signal integrity of SDI can be matched by IP. Will resolutions, frame rates, and audio be synchronized all of the time? And how is control over IP to be managed and monitored by broadcast engineers unschooled in IT?

“IP networks were never intended for video,” says Alexander Sandstrom, strategic product manager at Net Insight. “The brittle, time-sensitive nature of video does not play well with the proven but lossy nature of IP—even less so on shared and unmanaged networks like the internet. The varying delay and constant packet loss of the internet play havoc with every video stream traversing it unprotected.”

Live production is fraught with on-the-fly changes—a late breaking news story with live link via satellite, for instance, or a camera alteration at a track and field event. The risk of on-air black holes or a missing commercial makes for cautious adoption.

Depending on which vendor you believe, real-time IP switching is either not yet possible, or already happening. Snell Advanced Media (formerly Quantel Snell) has reservations. “The control systems don’t [yet] exist,” says head of product marketing Tim Felstead. “Where SDI routers were very reliable with straightforward verification of what was happening, IP systems are more opaque. This creates a lack of confidence.”

Imagine Communications management, on the other hand, talks with certainty and points to perhaps the most high-profile reference site for broadcast over IP in the world just now, that of Disney ABC, which just happens to be based on Imagine products.

“Disney is showing the unlimited possibilities that virtualizing part or all of a network in the cloud can bring to this industry,” says Imagine CEO Charlie Vogt. “A lot of folks don’t realize Disney ABC is doing virtualized playout and automation for live linear programming.” Disney is not, however, producing live event coverage over IP.

Other first movers that are producing live sports from site to studio (though not necessarily from camera to mobile facility) include Pac-12 Networks, which uses T-VIPS and Nevion links to transmit talkback and telemetry to and from sports venues up to 2500km away, and ESPN’s Digital Center 2, which opened November 2014 built around a J2000-based Evertz router.

“The key is to migrate to IP at a [broadcaster’s] own pace and ensure they have the ability to evolve in a hybrid SDI-IP infrastructure,” Vogt says. “Many have made a huge investment in baseband and SDI. We need to help them to migrate to enable their new business models.”

Imagine’s key technology is the Magellan SDN Orchestrator, which provides control of all the company’s hybrid IP and baseband products. “The whole concept of a hybrid architecture is to have everything look and feel like a router because the operator needs to walk up to a control surface and do everything they need to in their day to day business,” says product manager Paul Greene. “They need to select the destination and the source and activate the file. Whether it’s in an IP or baseband domain—whether it’s HD or Ultra HD—the control system abstracts the original function from the underlying technology to make it all very familiar.”

Interoperability Is Key

This speaks to the element of change management that may be making some broadcasters risk-averse. CTOs are wary of ripping out a working SDI infrastructure and replacing it with a technology for which new expertise is required.

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