Orbit Showtime Networks, broadcast, TV
When Orbit Showtime Network (OSN) was formed last year, the pay TV network expressed its intention to retain its broadcast operations in both Dubai and Bahrain. According to initial plans, playout operations were meant to be split between the two centres with Bahrain handling general entertainment (GE), News and the Arabic channels while Dubai was tasked with playing out movies, sport and VOD services. This meant migrating thousands of hours of material along with the corresponding metadata and subtitles from Bahrain to Dubai and vice versa.
In July 2010, however, the network decided to shut down its Bahrain operations in view of the costs of maintaining two facilities. While some technical aspects that came out of the merger remained untouched such as the decision to migrate all channels from 25 degrees to 7 degrees, which was to be the new home of the OSN platform, several other crucial decisions required significant change.
Two digital transponders and the network’s Conditional Access Security (CAS) operations will be relocated from Bahrain to Dubai along with several other elements. In addition, the Dubai facility will have to be expanded to accommodate operations that were previously handled in Bahrain.
"The new decision means we have to increase our production and channel capacity in Dubai," explains Mike Whittaker, vice president of Broadcast Operations & Technology, OSN.
“In addition, this facility is about five years old so it was due for a tech refresh anyway. We already had a plan to replace our production servers. We replaced our archive last year. We had a Sony Petasite but have now switched to Front Porch Digital. It was cheaper to replace the Sony Petasite than get it properly supported,” he adds.
Several key blocks within the workflow will be replaced or upgraded in the course of this year including the facility’s production system, its central router as well as its playout.
“This upgrade presents the perfect opportunity to put in 3G capability. This is not essential at this point as we have already tested 3D on our new HD box and it works fine the way we have designed our systems. You need the bandwidth, no doubt and when there is an opportunity to replace old equipment, it makes commercial sense to introduce the new,” adds Whittaker.
OSN is currently working on several other projects as well. For instance, the pay TV network is presently swapping its old boxes for new HD set-top boxes (STBs). The new STBs will enable subscribers to view HD while also keeping illegal subscribers from accessing the OSN bouquet.
Parallel to this effort, OSN is also slowly working to upgrade entirely to MPEG4.
“The move from MPEG 2 DVBS to MPEG 4 DVBS2 is due to happen in the coming months,” confirms Whittaker.
“We will move everything to MPEG4. Our HD channels are already MPEG4-DVBS2. We have begun upgrading our muxes to eventually migrate everything but this is tied into the new HD boxes. So, if I turn the OSN series to MPEG 4 and our viewer does not have a new box, they will not be able to see our channels any more. Depending on when we have completed the box swap, whether it’s later this year, or early next year, we will migrate everything,”
The move to MPEG4 will enable OSN to gain extra bandwidth to launch new HD channels. HD is OSN’s USP at the moment and the network has been trying to increase its HD offerings in the region. So far, its HD bouquet includes 10 channels and Whittaker adds that the network’s current architecting plan is to increase this number. Bandwidth efficiency plays an important role in achieving this objective.
“The switch to MPEG4 will give us 20% bandwidth efficiency. DVBS2 will give us an additional 20% bandwidth on top of that. Of course, this involves buying a lot of expensive Harmonic equipment but it will make us more efficient in terms of launching HD,” explains Whittaker.
The new Harmonic equipment will replace the existing systems, and enable greater efficiency and picture quality, explains Whittaker.
“The old equipment used to occupy a rack and a whole bay but now, it’s just half a bay for two transponders as the new mux and code equipment is much smaller. Just as the equipment has shrunk, the encoding algorithms have also become much better, so just by using new equipment in MPEG2, you can see how much better the picture quality is in HD,” he adds.
For now, OSN will have to continue showing both SD and HD content until it upgrades its playout operations.
Whittaker explains: “We have an SD and HD copy of Avatar presently because we cannot downconvert from HD to SD. When we upgrade our playout, which is part of the expansion plan, we will be able to downconvert HD to SD. On our HD service, of course, we can upgrade SD to HD and this works when we are running ads or promos. But the important thing people want to see in HD is the physical programming, and we’re going native with 1080i.”
The new playout solution will be designed to be completely tapeless from the point of ingest. The OSN facility in Dubai has always been tapeless, maintains Whittaker. However, the new upgrade will eliminate all traces of tape.
“Tape is a liability for us. We do have a very small tape library. Once we have ingested something from a tape, then we are tapeless. We are not just tapeless; we also have redundancy and duplicate playlists so should something go wrong, there’s always a backup.”
The next year, once the boxes have been fully swapped, OSN will also undertake Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) subtitling on its HD and SD services.
“Anything branded OSN presently has subtitles. However, because we are sort of a retail platform in that we don’t know what boxes people currently have, you can’t turn the subtitles on and off. With our our new closed boxes, the customer can choose whether to have the subtitles on and we have the opportunity to offer multiple languages whether English, Arabic or something else,” explains Whittaker.
OSN is working on several parallel projects from migrating all the media to relocating some parts of the operations and HD investments from Bahrain to Dubai as well as upgrading and expanding the Dubai facility and launching its new HD PVR. Whittaker, however, has a large team of engineers under him and more will join from Bahrain.
Having a strong team meant OSN was less dependent on one vendor to provide all the solutions and instead, designed and architected its own designs and undertook most of its integration in-house.
“We have quite a sophisticated architecture that is integrated with various solutions that include the Omneon server, Pebble Beach, Harris Broadcast Master, Screen Subtitling Systems and so on. We have picked the things that are right for the job and represents the best value. At this point, it’s a great opportunity to refresh and revisit our workflow again,” adds Whittaker.