by Pace Media

Separating the hype from reality

Broadcasters rightly approach IP with caution

A casual observer of IBC 2015 would have left with the distinct impression that IP networking and software defined TV was not only inevitable but ready to work off-the-shelf today.

A more realistic appraisal of the market could be found in a survey published just before IBC. It suggested that the market for conventional channel in a box playout systems would continue for some time yet. The survey, of 400 industry professionals by the company now known as SAM, dampened down industry hyperbole about cloud TV and cloud playout.

Broadcasters are right to be cautious about abandoning a technology that works for one that remains to large extent unproven. Nonetheless, interest in Cloud solutions remains high. There was a headline suggestion that only 13% of broadcasters would consider playing out their primary channels from the Cloud immediately, but the survey also registered 61% of respondents saying they would be ready to consider software-only, cloud-based playout with their primary linear channels within five years.

Moreover, a fifth of respondents said they would consider upgrading or expanding with Cloud technologies today.

While there is a mismatch between the general level of excitable marketing around the Cloud and the reality shown by solid testing, it is equally clear that customers are looking for a solid transition to Cloud playout as it matures to become a cost-effective, capable alternative.

IP step by step

The transition to IP will happen at a different paces in different areas. In some areas, such as in OTT and VOD, it is not only the foundation technology but the media industry itself which is at the cutting edge of designing and deploying sophisticated distributed computing environments.

Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), for example, has delivered millions of live streams to subscribers of MLB routinely for a decade. It has done it so successfully, providing a high quality and highly reliable service, that Warner Bros.-owned HBO turned to MLBAM to provide the back-end technology to power the launch of HBO Now carrying season five of Game of Thrones direct to consumers in April. So successful was that, that MLBAM is now being spun-off by MLB valued at $5 billion in order to take on more OTT services for third parties.

MLBAM CTO Joe Inzerillo has declared, “We've been doing OTT before the term even existed. We feel like even Netflix got a boost because we were doing OTT before they were.”

With no legacy of broadcast equipment and with a vision to reach consumers over the internet, MLBAM cracked issues such as as geoblocking, compression, and multi-application delivery at scale long before any one else.

In other domains, however, IP is still an infant technology. In the studio and playout facilities of traditional linear broadcasting realtime synchronous baseband video prevails. The transporting and switching of high-bandwidth realtime video and audio is achieved through dedicated, industry-specific hardware. The facilities themselves are people-intensive and of fixed configuration which are slow to deploy and change but the set-up is guaranteed to work every time.

Broadcasters understand that there is a better, more flexible, less expensive future but to make the first step they require IP technologies to meet the exacting standards of their current infrastructure. Since you can't plug a SDI cable into the back of a virtual machine, the industry must go through a period of transition.

Building on the full promise of IP

This growing up period, already underway, is being handled in two phases. The first phase is focussed on extracting the software applications out of dedicated hardware packages and delivering them as software-only products deployable on commoditised machines in accordance with SMPTE IP standard 2022-6.

This structural shift marks the first stage of transition in broadcast technology from proprietary hardware-based bespoke solutions to open system architecture and flexible software-defined solutions. Since the SMPTE standard effectively mirrors the functionality of SDI in an IP wrapper, the first stage is one where SDI will exist side by side in a hybrid environment with IP.

It does not yet allow for the full promise of IP which is to split the audio and video and metadata into its constituent parts to be recomposed dynamically in sympathy with the end user device or with the final context of the viewer.

This more radical second phase will be the one that really adopts an IP first architecture. It is slowly but surely gaining ground through initiatives such as the EBU/SMPTE/VSF Joint Taskforce on Networked Media.

It is a world where software will define the infrastructure, networks will be virtual and automated simultaneous multi-format playout will reside in and be delivered from the cloud.

Broadcasters could wait for the whole of the IP/IT ecosystem to mature and take a giant leap forward, but in the interim many of their rivals will have embarked on a two phase strategy reaping the benefit of efficiencies that can be made by spinning up pop-up channels and spinning them down as need dictates.

These compelling business reasons accessible in the first phase of the transition to IP. After all, when the SAM surveyed broadcasters about what challenges concerned them most about their playout operation the overwhelming response (of 58%) was cost.