In a roundtable hosted by BroadcastPro ME and SAM, regional broadcasters discussed the pros and cons of IP-based systems and how the new technology will steer the broadcast industry forward Broadcast over IP is perhaps the most discussed topic in the industry today. It was a key topic at IBC this year, and quite a […]
Broadcast over IP is perhaps the most discussed topic in the industry today. It was a key topic at IBC this year, and quite a few discussions centred on how and when IP will become mainstream in the broadcast space.
Its almost a cliché now to say that the broadcast industry is experiencing a paradigm shift. The change has been especially noticeable in the past five years with workflows and processes increasingly moving towards software-centric architecture. Gone are the days of proprietary hardware, as manufacturers now aim to design more open and modular equipment to cater to the needs of the budget-conscious end user. The industry has evolved tremendously as the requirements change and we enter the age of the all-powerful user. While technology in broadcast is making strides, content still remains king.
There is no denying that IP is slowly making inroads into replacing traditional infrastructure but is it there yet? Are broadcasters ready to ditch their patch panels and move to an all-new virtual workflow? We put these questions to regional broadcasters at a roundtable organised jointly by BroadcastPro ME and SAM (Snell Advanced Media).
End users including broadcasters and telcos offered their perspectives on the transition to IP. Also discussed were the challenges of end-to-end adoption of IP and whether it was commercially viable or just another cost for the end user. IP seems to be the route broadcasters are readying themselves to take, but the question is when. While some have definitive plans in mind to switch by next year, others have already started making the move by revamping some infrastructure. The panellists shared their experiences, expectations and concerns around the new technology and agreed unanimously that IP is the technology of the future.
Tim Felstead, Head of Product Marketing at SAM, opened the discussion. The panel included Saleh Lootah, Head of TV & Radio Engineering at Dubai Media Incorporated; Frank Kerrin, Director of Technology Support and Projects at OSN; Yusuf Al Buti, Acting Head of Engineering and Technology at twofour54; Eyad Al Dwaik, Senior Engineering Manager at Intigral; Peter Van Dam, Director of Technology at LIVE HD Broadcast Facilities a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media Company; Muhammad Methar, Senior Director Teleport Planning, du; Nick Barratt, Senior Broadcast Manager at MBC Group; Oosman Kader, Vertical Propositions Team Lead Business Marketing Managed Services, Etisalat; Afzal Lakdawala, Head of Technology Planning and Projects at Dubai Media Incorporated; and Omar Alzoubi, Senior Manager Engineering Systems, Dubai Media Incorporated.
The economics of transition from SDI to IP
Tim Felstead briefly spoke about how IP is increasingly becoming a hot topic of debate, and introduced the panellists. He opened the discussion with the question of the economics of transitioning to IP and whether it is a problem for the industry or an opportunity to evolve. Will IP simplify workflows and streamline complicated processes, or is this change simply an added cost, he questioned.
Saleh Lootah said he envisioned an organic transition and that broadcasters need to understand that it is an opportunity in the long run.
Eventually, we will all transition to IP, although we are not sure when that will happen. The question thats bothering most of the broadcasters today is if this move is just another added cost. IP is the way forward, especially when working with UHD and higher resolutions. To do that over our current infrastructure would incur tremendous costs. Right now, its expensive to deploy IP as there is no fixed or final product that will allow us straight into IP; many areas are not quite defined in that space.
MBCs Nick Barratt agreed with Lootah on the advantages of moving to an IP infrastructure.
From a distribution standpoint, traditionally we have always had these massive blocks or routers that last years. A move to IP would help consolidate the broadcasters assets. In the long run, yes, I agree, it will be cheaper compared to what one would pay for updating legacy systems. It is most definitely the way forward and the time of transition can be anything up to ten years or less.
He pointed out that in the current scenario, a lack of agreed standards is deterring the adoption of IP. No one knows for sure what is required.
I think its important that the move to IP involves tighter integration and a certain amount of consolidation where everything involved is software. You only have an input and an output and get rid of multiple 3Gs flying all over the facility. That consolidation lends itself better to the data centre concept. Yes, it is an opportunity for us, but I am looking at it from a long-term perspective.
Eventually, broadcasters may be forced down the path of IP. The trigger here seems to be 4K.
Do you go multiple HDs and SDIs, or do you instead choose IP and do it all in one stream? Thats an opportunity, as you get all advantages of IT hardware, Barratt added.
Omar Alzoubi pointed out that the move to IP will have to be incremental to take full advantage of the technology and have a cost gain in the long run.
Traditional broadcast cannot handle certain areas, such as 4K, multiple format, VOD, more content creation, where IP seems to be the only solution. Through good standardisation, IP will be adopted for high resolutions.
Afzal Lakdawala also agreed that 4K was the biggest driver for the adoption of IP.
The higher we go in resolution, IP becomes more and more relevant. We will not stagnate at HD or 4K, we will keep growing in technology and SDI has its limitations in terms of scalability where resolutions are concerned.
He pointed out that file-based workflows are based on IP infrastructure.
We are already in it. The challenge is the live production side with real-time operations and minimum latency, where IP is still not mature, but I believe that will also come with time.
Eyad Al Dwaik added that despite his love of patch panels, a move to IP was looming large and he couldnt wait for the time when he could route his signal by just plugging in a single cable, to replace unwieldy racks of patch panels and loads of cables under the raised floor.
With IP, I will need to make changes to the infrastructure and need main/backup IP routers instead of a single SDI router, I cannot just go with a single router, which will increase the cost. The current IP infrastructure cannot support a full 4K signal on a single cable. Its still early days for 4K.
We need more content, more devices to view 4K, and it seems like a long transition to 4K. However, IP is just around the corner, as early as next year for me. We plan to make our entire facility IP-based in the next five years.
According to dus Methar, DTH multiplexing has input in IP but the output decoder is SDI, while databases are IP.
Van Dam said that broadcasters are much further in some parts in IP than they think.
In a cloud environment, there will be less hardware. 4K for me is the next step, but we need to future proof the demand for 4K. IP seems to be the only way, commented Van Dam.
Etisalats Oosman Kader took the argument forward, stating that bandwidth is an expensive commodity in the region, which increases the cost of delivery to the end user.
Switching to IP is easy, but you will need 4K standards to transmit over IP. When you have to deliver this service to the end user, you have to have enough bandwidth to be able to do that. Thats an additional cost that we as operators and end users are considering whether to undertake or not.
Market surveys show that users are already complaining about content and service being expensive, whether for internet or TV services in the region, which is one of the serious considerations. Felstead asked Kader if operators need to upgrade more fibre to the home (FTTH), which might raise their infrastructure investment. Does Etisalat bear the cost of upgrading as a telecommunications provider?
99% of our customers are already connected through FTTH. On the distribution systems, however, we still have to consider the high investment we need to make to adapt to these new standards that keep coming up. Starting off with SD, where we were delivering 200 channels over 1G fibre, to where with 720p and 1080 in play we needed a 10G fibre to deliver the same number of channels, that exponential investment happens with every change in technology; and as an operator, we might never be able to recover this investment in the long run, he replied, reiterating the importance of standards.
Its a challenge for telcos to keep investing in infrastructure and keep upgrading it every time a standard changes. Therefore, decisions are made to stick to evolved technology rather than experimenting with new standards.
Yusuf Al Buti gave another perspective to the debate by pointing out that a move to IP involved a strategy change.
There is more than meets the eye when implementing IP. Its not limited to an investment in technology, but also in application. The move will lead to newer business models for telecoms and broadcasters. New technology will give a new way of thinking. It wont be an exaggeration to say that IP will open a whole new world of content and distribution models. It will lead to smarter use of multicasting and broadcasters will have newer ways to play with content, enriching it and transmitting it over thousands of boxes from homes to moving cars, and a lot more.
IP has a lot of applications which will come to the fore in the near future, he added, saying that telcos and broadcasters need to cooperate and work closely for easier distribution of content.
I expect to see new standards by next year. Having said that, I would like to mention here that at the end of the day, everything revolves around how cost-effective the solution is. You need return on your investment.
ADMs Peter Van Dam questioned the return on investment point, saying that technology-wise, IP is excellent to deliver more content in better quality, but will consumers pay for the millions of dollars that will be invested in the technology?
I dont think that a majority of people will readily pay more for a 4K signal. As a normal consumer, I am not sure if I will pay more for 4K, he commented.
Customers will see where they get more content, the content that they want to watch. If we offered our customers a 4K channel, for instance for $100, and offered them the entire season for the same amount in full HD, they will choose the latter. As for government entities like DMI, ADM, twofour54, we need more content in 4K. On multi-camera outside broadcast production, the technology is not yet ready to produce and transmit 4K for live sports productions or TV shows.
OSN’s Frank Kerrin pointed out that every technology in its first few years is expensive.
HD and 4K are now becoming mainstream. People will adopt the new offering if the difference in quality becomes more noticeable. Most of us are watching HD on UHD TV screens, and TV manufacturers are pushing for more 4K content.
Lootah of DMI drew the panels attention to the backhaul aspect and said that satellite is another platform being looked at seriously for 4K. Muhammad Methar of du, however, disagreed saying that 4K distribution is more likely to be over fibre and will remain a niche offering to select high-end customers who will have fibre connectivity.
Parallel traffic for SD and HD signals will be via satellite, to reach a larger customer base scattered across the MENA. It will take five years-plus for fibre to reach every home, he insisted.
In order to watch UHD on TV, the viewing distance is important, as is how many homes can afford it, Methar added.
MENA is not a uniform region, it is quite diverse. Many people still watch cathode ray TVs; LEDs are not everywhere yet, so 4K for all still seems like a distant dream.
MBC’s Barratt interjected to say that one needs to be careful about who is leading whom.
TV manufacturers are driving the adoption of 4K for now. 4K production is doable. The BBC did the Commonwealth Games last year. However, 4K for the majority of people in the region is a long way away.
Kerrin informed that there is 4K transmission on Hotbird and other channels, and people are buying big 4K TVs as well.
Alzoubi said that bandwidth requirement for 4K will not be less than 12Gb/s, and this cant be done through traditional SD. Neither will the 10Gig E link do the job.
Although the 40Gig E can do this it’s not economically viable. Also, the new 12G-SDI will carry only one single video over coaxial cables and will have distance limitations.
Van Dam pointed out at this stage, about how the market dynamics are changing, with consumers dictating where technology development is headed. It was the other way around earlier, when engineers used to innovate, make new technology, and offer it to consumers.
Japan is already doing 8K. There was a time when TV manufacturers relied on us to lead the way based on new innovation. Not anymore.
He drew the panellists attention to remote production, which is gaining traction due to its flexibility and cost efficiency.
Six years ago, I was asked to build a 3D truck with 20 cameras, but that never happened. It faded away. For me as a broadcaster, I can do a remote production over IP from the regular venues where I shoot about 20-30 times a year. Remote production over IP is a promising proposition and poised to be a major saving for us. That is where I see IP as a solution in the near future.
Having said that, I am not eliminating the role of OBs, but they will be used in a different way. Its the same for the new fibre-based platforms, not to eliminate the SNGs, but to use them again more as satellite newsgathering facilities and less to support long-duration outside broadcast productions.
Standards in IP
Will people produce content and ignore standards? Are production standards unrelated to the delivery standards, and is this part of the IP transition as well? Felstead asked the panellists to shed light on the status of 4K and how it linked to IP.
It emerged that the transmission part of the 4K chain is still unanswered. Broadcasters can handle the post-production of 4K material but need to then downconvert to HD to be able to deliver it, Lootah and Al Buti noted. Alzoubi pointed out that broadcasters cannot transmit 4K unless compressed, and that concerns around 4K go beyond expensive routers and high frame rates.
IP technology can accommodate more content compared to SD. The main advantage of the SMPTE 2020 standard is that it allows us to squeeze many uncompressed video signals over a single IP port. For example, a 10G E link can carry three 3G channels, or six 1.5G channels, or 33 270Mbit/s channels, Alzoubi said.
Al Dwaik added that the ecosystem has other limitations too, such as the prevalence of old set-top boxes.
All broadcasters can do HD, but users have old boxes, ten or more years older. OSN, beIN Sports and Ooredoo have introduced new set-top boxes into the market, the HEVC-capable ones to compress files, in the future. They can implement HEVC in the future to reduce bandwidth and start transmitting in UHD, but to recover their capital costs they will have to charge people more for 4K delivery. On the other hand, FTA players like MBC cannot do that. End users are not ready even for HD signals in many parts of the MENA.
Is the end user ready to pay for better quality?
Barratt said that the end user wants good content.
While quality is important, broadcasters would rather put their money on more content. Wheres the driver to spend a substantial amount of money for a slightly better picture quality? he asked.
Some years ago, at a previous company, the last episode of a programme was misplaced and the only copy we had was an NTSC VHS, which we used on air. Although it didnt look good, people still watched it, Barratt noted.
While content reigns supreme, a number of factors impede technology deployment, especially in the MENA region, owing to its diverse demographics and economics.
In Egypt, which is a huge market for us, the challenge is to convince people to change their set-top boxes. Quite a large number of viewers in some parts of the MENA and Africa have CRTs. Its a hard sell for us, for the extended region of GCC, noted Kerrin.
Lakdawala steered the discussion towards IP in live production, commenting that a lack of standards in live production is holding it back.
There are no set standards for live production, which has slowed down a widespread adoption of IP to a certain degree. At IBC this year, many vendors advised us to take it easy and wait until year-end next year to start doing something in terms of IP based-production. Standards will be more defined by then, people expect. However, a hybrid approach is good to start with, he suggested.
The panel agreed that the adoption of IP will be incremental. Broadcasters dont expect it to be an overnight transformation, but a gradual shift.
Lakdawala explained that whenever there is a technical upgrade, they create islands and gradually switch from the old one to the new one.
When HD was introduced, we had two scenarios where HD was less and SD was more, then we gradually began to increase the former. Eventually, this will be the case with IP as well. In the next five years, IP will take over.
Felstead asked Lakdawala about DMIs case in particular, and how the switch took care of the investments the broadcaster made, considering the current environment and infrastructure.
It is complex, but broadcasters are not replacing their existing SDI infrastructure with IP. We are all considering a hybrid environment, where we continue to be in an SDI world and all the new investments we are making will support SDI as well as IP. Most of the vendors are supporting hybrid and the option to have SDI and IP together, answered Lakdawala.
To this, Al Dwaik added that he plans to replace SDI between racks next year with IP infrastructure, keeping SDI contained within racks and having IP as the core switch for routing.
Al Buti commented that most encoders and decoders do not support IP just yet. The standard for HD in an IP environment is stable; however, the problem comes with the 4K format. SMPTE 2022 is the format of the future, but it is not suitable for 4K over IP. There is a grey area for standards.
Speaking about standards, Alzoubi mentioned that the two most open standards, Ethernet and Internet Protocol, are increasingly used in the broadcast environment.
Our existing file-based system’s ingest, playout, graphics and editing are mainly based on IT and IP connectivity. In other words, IP technology is already available, but the migration to the IP world will need to move gradually, island by island, each island with related encapsulation and de-encapsulation of the SDI signals. Both SDI and IP will have to move together side by side in a hybrid workflow environment, until IP becomes more mature and includes real-time baseband with the implementation of SMPTE 2059 and the ongoing standardisation, to tackle some of the technical issues.
Barratt reckoned it would take at least a year to decide standards, and that it may take some time to see how mezzanine standards will shape up in live production. Kerrin interjected to say that there is no general agreement on what mezzanine format standard is.
Felstead, at this point, asked the panel about the financial aspect of compression and consumption of bandwidth in IP infrastructure. Uncompressed videos consume enormous bandwidth, and compressing them 10 to 1 or 5 to 1 will make a huge difference.
Al Dwaik added that mezzanine for 4K requires compression on the switch level, which adds complexity and a point of failure. 4K needs to run uncompressed within the facility.
Unavailability of standards is a key issue, pointed out Kader. Different vendors have their own proprietary standards, and equipment interoperability is lacking in this space.
This affects our end users. Services such as Amazon video and Netflix do not reach the consumer in the absence of a robust bandwidth. Consumers are demanding more interactive services and more content on the cell phone. We cannot deliver it, because regulations and regional licensing do not support distribution of these services.
As an operator, we are then faced with the question of whether to reinvest in the existing infrastructure or to utilise the same, using compression standards that provide us adaptability to be able to deliver using the same or equivalent facilities operating under the regulatory norms. We have a five- to ten-year infrastructure amortisation window, but IT infrastructure is changing very fast, and therefore investments have to be made to keep up with the technology evolution.
Despite having a FTTH infrastructure ready, we were not able to deliver HD content to our end users for more than two years, because customer end delivery systems were not ready. We still delivered SD to match customer requirements and had to gradually phase out SD systems, moving to HD, maintaining both the platforms. That resulted in a huge additional expense for us.
Kerrin agreed that telcos cannot be expected to change the network every few years, but whats driving it needs to change. Kader responded by saying that the changes and upgrades happen at the headend.
That change is more dynamic, when our engineering teams get involved in delivering new technologies and integrating new systems. We need to cater to the bandwidth requirements on the network side of things also, which is a huge investment, as well as cope with the platform and standard changes every couple of years. We have migrated the customers from 1G to 10G and are already talking 40G bandwidth for media content delivery.
The cable doesnt change, only the end terminal does. That’s where the main ROI decision and willingness from the customer side lies, to invest in a new box every time the service changes.
According to Lootah, there is a missing link between the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) and the telcos. Standard telco structure should be made mandatory. Al Butis solution for this was to opt for Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB). If there are standards, everybody will be forced to follow them.
Van Dam said that IP will come in handy to deal with the sheer volume of media generated in HD and 4K production.
Remote production is a great way for us to connect, for instance, a gallery based in our TV campus with a remote site like a football stadium. We will only bring cameras, microphones and commentator facilities to the stadium. Outside broadcast trucks will be replaced by a gallery situated at our TV campus in Abu Dhabi. This way we can utilise the crew and gallery for more than one production within one working day. Only cameramen and basic technical crew will be on location.
Al Buti reiterated that IP will indeed make equipment easily scalable for adding more channels. Everything comes in a packet, but the risk is keeping it secure.
Going back to the importance of setting standards, Felstead opened the post-coffee session with the question: What do the manufacturers need to do with standards such as TICO, Network Media Interface, ASPEN, VC2, SMPTE 2022-6, which were discussed extensively at IBC?
Lakdawala said that manufacturers should agree on a common standard.
As end users, broadcasters are not sure about which standard to follow. If we decide to go with Aspen, we won’t know if the other vendors will support that. If they dont, then we are in a situation where we have committed to a standard not supported by the vendors. Interpolability is a problem, which is the reason the panellists agreed that these standards need to be formulated officially and agreed upon officially for fixed standards for the industry to move forward.
Felstead said that, in terms of the commercial issue that creating a standard presents to people, there is a high fee for setting standards. Does the cost of setting standards worry broadcasters?
The panel agreed that the cost is more of a problem for the vendor. As for the end user, it is built into the product.
Barratt said that there have been predefined standards in the SDI domain. Broadcasters around the world put their heads together and agreed with manufacturers to chalk out a set of standards that defined workflows in SDI. With changing technology, these standards need to be reviewed, and broadcasters and manufacturers need to define the same for IP now.
Are we using IT processing across the board? Are we just going to be putting all of our playout and production facilities in underground data centres and worry about air conditioning?
Data centre status
Felstead asked if broadcasters and media companies viewed themselves as data centre owners.
Barratt responded that there would be a partial transition to software-driven stuff with IP and moving content to robust and secure data centres. He said that Amazon or Google data centres would be useful and more cost-effective in the future, but one main concern for the MENA region was connectivity.
I see a lot of progress next year, and we will see more products in the IP space. By NAB and IBC next year, there will be more developed products, Barratt said.
Methar of du added that a conglomeration of data centres seems like the right approach.
Within our company, we will build a data centre to share with customers; du is doing that already. SD to HD IP transition will be in full mode three to five years from now. Broadcasters have started implementing IP based in isolated systems for the time being, but in five years connectivity will be much better.
We will have the connectivity; its a matter of time. There are latencies driven by machines, our connectivity will not lead to any delay, Methar explained.
Al Dwaik recommended building private data centres.
Having a blade server at the headend and a virtual machine should do. This will combat connectivity issues.
Kerrin said: Surely the level of bandwidth available is better suited to the purpose-built data centre. Big IT players such as Cisco and Microsoft can spend far more than we can. If I do 4K remote production, I would still pay for connectivity to my building. If thats lowered, I will definitely opt for it.
Al Dwaik pointed out that its not merely a connectivity issue; the TRA imposes a heavy fee on IP, unless you are in a free zone data centre.
If you go over RF, however, they dont charge as much and only charge for standard video delivery. All my signals are encoded and masked into different transponders and converted into L-band feeds, so I created my own small L-band range and sent them over single RF over fibre. That way, I am able to send up to 6G/s for the price of a few thousand dollars, against a few million dirhams for IP.
Al Buti raised the concern that while the idea of moving data to public clouds seems promising, government entities may not subscribe to it, as broadcasters are not allowed to save content outside their premises. To this, Van Dam said that telcos should build private clouds for broadcasters.
If I build my own cloud, it will cost me a massive amount of money. Google data centre for storage nearline will cost me much less, but the cost of connectivity will be quite high. Du promised broadcasters a data playground in the previous roundtable, Van Dam pointed out.
It emerged that IP can make production more flexible and more cost-effective. However, broadcasters still have many concerns, including the ability of IP to deliver the deterministic performance required, the support for key features like clean-switching and the investment levels.
There was a consensus that IP is still in infancy and needs more time to implement, though our panellists agreed that, given conducive conditions, the move could be faster.
However, one major obstacle is the high cost of bandwidth in the region. Among other challenges are end user preparedness for 4K and whether viewers will be willing to pay more for improved quality.