Broadcasters 2003: Future Of Over-The-Air TV Up In The Air

By | April 1, 2003 | Broadcasting, Via Satellite

Broadcasters are looking at a changing landscape in terms of technology, market structure, and the interests and loyalties of worldwide audiences. With so many different forces at work, over-the-air TV executives are scrambling to maintain the advertiser-driven model and remain profitable. From a distribution standpoint, satellite is holding its ground for now in terms of live sports, news and special event programming. Such certainty, however, does not surround the contribution and non-real-time TV distribution side of the equation.

The satellite industry has begun its migration to a more hybrid approach, embracing fiber links and ensuring seamless flows of video and data for a wide range of customers. Now, the question is not whether the existing pricing models will change, but how they will be transformed and what broadcasters will require in terms of capacity in the coming decade.

"We see a need for less capacity as we become less dependent upon satellite," says Gil Maxwell, senior vice president of operations and technology at Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. and chairman of the PBS engineering committee. "PBS does not transmit a lot of live programming in the first place. And reducing operational costs is the bottom line here.

"The emphasis from now on is on multicast data delivery. We will be handling everything as data, using IP and doing whatever is necessary to avoid compressing and decompressing video," he adds. "Having said this, I must emphasize that from the standpoint of our existing network topology, satellite is still the most reliable and least expensive delivery mechanism when compared to today’s terrestrial alternatives."

A Cohesive And Systematic Migration

The digitizing of the existing NTSC C-band distribution system and the identifying of new mobile satellite solutions that offer the benefits of two-way data communications capabilities on SNG platforms are the top two items on the list for Richard Wolf, vice president of telecommunications at ABC Broadcast Operations and Engineering.

"While we have been transmitting HDTV in 720p format since November 1998, we remain the last major broadcaster not to have a digital distribution system in place for NTSC distribution. Our analog network has been superbly maintained, and for this reason, it is okay for the next 18 to 36 months," says Wolf. "We have been getting our broadcast plant ready and finalizing our digital origination at our broadcast center in New York City."

The current timetable calls for completion of the retrofitting of affiliate digital downlinks by 2005 in advance of the ABC migration from its existing Loral Skynet capacity to Panamsat exclusively in 2006.

"We are going to do this migration in a cohesive and systematic manner. We have derived a slight benefit both from the standpoint of cost and technology by preserving our analog distribution system," says Wolf. "We have not selected our RF systems integration partner yet, and we are just defining our specifications.

For HDTV, ABC uses Tiernan encoding. Tiernan is now a unit of Radyne Comstream Corp. "For the Super Bowl, we used the Motorola Digicipher 2 HD encoding solution, while we had a Tiernan HD encoder feeding a terrestrial link from San Diego to New York," says Wolf.

Wolf has looked closely at a number of IP-capable SNG solutions from vendors such as Swe-Dish, Norsat and Viasat. ABC already uses an SNG data communications system in the U.S. provided by Immeon, a partnership involving Viasat and Loral.

"How do we connect them to our existing newsroom computer system? We want to implement this so the remote suitcase SNG terminal is tied directly into our LAN and voice networks. This type of mobile area network will allow us to deliver scripts and other material as files over the same link as the video," Wolf says.

"The challenge from the engineering standpoint is working within the constraints of a small antenna and providing a link that is stable and robust at the same time," he adds. "Besides IP data, we want to add IP video to the mix as an ‘in between’ solution as well so that we have the full range of video covered, everything from sat videophones on up to full SNG flyaways."

Still Not An Exact Science

Improving reliability industry-wide is something that Brent Stranathan, vice president of broadcasting distribution at CBS and current president of the Society of Satellite Professionals International, repeatedly stresses.

"While we did not get hit by any major sustaining failures in 2002, we did experience a couple of temporary outages, but they were still long enough to be disruptive," says Stranathan. "The industry seems to be doing its best to address the reliability problem. Everyone realizes that this is not easy to fix, although all the right systems seem to be in place. Unfortunately, despite all the effort, this industry is still not an exact science."

When he met with SS/Loral engineers on the West Coast in December, he emphasized the need to improve their ability to monitor the quality control process as it pertains to subcontractors in particular. "Subcontractors are now producing just about 50 percent of the components used in satellites today. Testing, performance and integration are big challenges as a result," says Stranathan. "The good news is that new initiatives appear to be underway to address this situation."

The core distribution transponders for CBS consist of 10 C-band and two Ku-band transponders on Loral Skynet satellites with some additional Ku-band capacity for CBS News on SES Americom. Besides its leadership role in HDTV, CBS has a responsibility for providing transponder space for the program distribution of Paramount and King World syndicated content, along with its own brokered market for occasional capacity.

"While we are not in the market today looking to purchase any new large amounts of capacity, we are paying close attention to the ebb and flow of the market," says Stranathan. "The current oversupply is yielding lower costs for end users, while adversely impacting the health of the industry. It affects me. In the long term, it affects everybody."

He is watching the emergence of new hybrid satellites such as Loral Skynet’s Telstar 8, which is going up with a Ka-band payload. "While I have no real interest in Ka-band right now, much depends upon the spotbeam connectivity of a particular system which could be used for SNG, forward distribution and store and forward IP file transfer services in the future," says Stranathan.

"Because we provide much of the end-to-end distribution infrastructure for our services, I like satellites to be plain and simple. I am hearing talk about smaller multi-sats, for example, equipped for frequency re-use. These involve less weight, less complexity and lower insurance rates at launch," he adds.

Looking More Closely At IP Over Satellite Solutions

NBC completed its network migration to Tandberg Television encoders for its Ku-band transmissions more than a year ago. NBC is also transmitting two East/West time zone HDTV feeds. The latest round of transponder consolidation to achieve greater efficiency at NBC involves the pairing of Telemundo, MUN2 and the NBC rain protected C-band feed together on AMC 4.

"We will be attempting to position these cable services in the best possible neighborhood," says Larry Thaler, director of distribution projects at NBC, adding that NBC’s policy is not to comment on market conditions. "We are also continuing to look at how we can get more use out of our transponders using advanced compression techniques."

Thaler is focusing on remote devices for monitoring and analyzing the quality of the satellite signal and the MPEG stream. In addition, NBC is testing the ND Satcom networking over satellite solution known as Broadband Media Network, which is based on ND Satcom’s SkyWAN concept, along with ILC monitoring and control software.

"This unified platform supports voice, video and data applications simultaneously. Its versatility and cost effectiveness make it the preferred choice for any satellite communication operation. Broadband Media Network may be composed of fixed stations or mobile SNGs to transfer videos via IP or encapsulated in DVB in datastreams up to 8 Mps," says Peter Neu, manager of product marketing at ND Satcom.

"This allows them to distribute their contributions live or to exchange their video files on demand. Due to improved MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 video coding schemes, a major proportion of videos are now transferred via IP datagrams with lower and lower bandwidth requirements," Neu adds.

NBC hopes to implement the system for all of its NBC SkyPath stations, including its 14 owned and operated nationwide stations.

"This will enable us to automate our uplink systems and feeds at these facilities. We are always looking at anything that improves our live feeds and our distribution overall, including new compression techniques," says Thaler. "We will be looking more closely at IP over satellite solutions so we can augment our video feeds with data. We are just starting to look at MPEG-4 as well."

Satellite Suppliers Need To Be In The Loop

PBS is in relatively good shape as far as the transition to DTV is concerned, with most of its 200-plus stations nationwide making the May 1, 2003, FCC deadline for DTV transmissions. Now, PBS is taking a hard look at network and transaction management, among other things.

"On the satellite distribution side, we are over the hump with respect to DTV. We need to get the incumbent satellite suppliers, however, into the loop when it comes to network management, asset management and traffic-related issues in general," says Edward Caleca, senior vice president of PBS technology and operations.

Caleca is becoming excited as HDTV gains momentum, and sees the upcoming ESPN coverage of Major League Baseball as providing a further boost to HDTV.

"We will have a consistent flow in HD sports at last. Is HDTV the killer app in this instance? I do not know," says Caleca. "We will continue to deliver HDTV as a 19.39 Mbs stream. While we may lose some efficiency on a 36 MHz transponder, we think it works well. We have not seen any alternatives to this approach which might offer superior operational quality or additional cost savings."

PBS is still developing its edge server strategy, which will determine how much content is pushed on a store and forward basis via satellite, and how much goes via terrestrial links. "When it comes to peer-to-peer file transfers, we have the trial parameters set for both the satellite and terrestrial trials that will be conducted at six stations as part of our broader Interconnection Replacement Program. Things are going a bit slower than we anticipated," says Caleca. "We do not expect anything earth shattering to take place from the standpoint of technology."

PBS is attempting to achieve a balance by looking at what the local stations already have in place as far as equipment is concerned. "Where we can do it, we would prefer to go ahead and just build new software front ends, although we realize it is impossible to write new front ends for everybody," Caleca says.

A Contradiction In The European Market?

At the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the process of identifying a viable hybrid traffic model for video contribution material is well underway, according to Paulo Pusterla, head of marketing and sales in the EBU’s department of operations, who could not disclose the terrestrial partner in the trial in question. In addition, the EBU is pushing ready-to-air European content in multiple markets as well.

"Our goal is to package distribution and content rights in a one-stop shop approach which has a particular appeal in the sports and news domains, for example," says Pusterla. "The EBU is extending its reach. We now have over 600 Mbs available which is spread over several transponders on different satellites for contribution purposes."

Pricing in the European satellite market and the ongoing consolidation involving large satellite fleet operators are two things that Pusterla is quite concerned about. "I am puzzled by the attitude of certain satellite operators. There is a paradox here as operators are prepared to discount for newcomers to the apparent detriment of loyal, long-term customers," says Pusterla. "There is a contradiction in the market, and operators need to take steps to avoid distorting this situation and possibly alienating their long term customers."

"In Asia and Europe, we see service expectations out of balance as people start to believe that every other month the price is going down, and they can somehow renegotiate contracts and agreements at any point in time," he adds. "Of course, this is not true. Although from a price perspective, this is definitely a buyer’s market."

Eutelsat’s future ownership remains open to question. While Panamsat declared in early 2003 that it no longer intends to pursue a tie with Eutelsat, the trend involving consolidation is unchanging. Among other things, Pusterla has a nervous eye on the status of the occasional use market, and the availability of short term capacity, which the EBU depends upon for its special events distribution channels.

"Consolidation is good to a certain extent and it does have a certain logic, such as when an operator combines with a direct broadcaster. But it can go too far," says Pusterla. "It simply means there is less opportunity to find alternative suppliers. A mix of large operators is a reasonable scenario."

Counting On Customized Solutions

In Europe today, Eutelsat is focused on consolidating its position in broadcasting to cable and satellite homes. It has achieved an 80 percent penetration rate among the 132 million cable/satellite households throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. According to data gathered last year by Eutelsat in 38 countries surveyed, 104.2 million homes receive channels via Eutelsat’s Hot Bird satellites and via Eurobird 1.

"In Europe, pay TV via satellite experienced a 15 percent increase over the past year. This has been driven primarily by DTH which now represents 78 percent of this growth in pay-TV reception in comparison to 22 percent for cable," says Volker Steiner, Eutelsat’s commercial director in Paris.

The Eutelsat fleet now delivers 1,250 video channels from six orbital positions, including the five co-positioned satellites collectively known as Hot Bird, along with Eurobird 1, Atlantic Bird 3, W2, W3 and W4. In addition to delivering programs directly to homes, Eutelsat’s satellites feed Europe’s entire cable infrastructure, almost without exception.

"This demonstrates that we partner with multiple distribution methods in order to reach the widest audience. We are seeking similar synergies with DSL technology, which is currently being trialed," says Steiner. "We also believe in a convergence between broadband Internet and TV, notably through the extension of storage capacity at the home, either through personal video recorder or PC."

Steiner describes Eutelsat as managing the negative implications of downward pressure on its pricing due to the oversupply in capacity in certain markets by offering customized solutions. Eutelsat says it maintains its competitive advantages via a multi-satellite neighborhood that can offer bundled services, specific seamless routes with steerable spotbeams and onboard multiplexing services.

"We often act as a catalyst for our customers, innovating projects and providing end-to-end solutions where space segment is just one element of the offer," says Steiner, adding that Eutelsat plays a strong support role in numerous technology initiatives ranging from broadband IP and digital cinema to VOD with IP streaming push services.

Eutelsat has developed its Skyplex technology that allows broadcasters to uplink their services directly, thereby bypassing the need for a terrestrial contribution link in order to reach on-ground multiplexes. Its new OpenSky platform allows Internet users with a modem-based connection to surf the Internet and download content at very high speed.

"Once the OpenSky client software has been installed on the subscriber’s PC, access to the program guide and reception of the streamed content for downloading are possible without any need for a live Internet connection," says Steiner.

Covering All The Bases

With 20 percent of its total revenue derived from video, Intelsat is focusing on comprehensive occasional use services, among other things, and is adding end-to-end bookings as part of its video offerings via its GlobalConnex hybrid infrastructure. Intelsat’s Occasional Video Solutions (OVS) is an important part of this transformation of Intelsat into a full service provider.

"In the past, we only offered space segment and we did not handle end-to-end bookings. In doing so, customers relied heavily on third party resellers to book Intelsat capacity as well as the end-to-end components," says Harry Mahon, vice president of sales for Worldwide Video Services at Intelsat. "With our new capabilities of teleports and fiber infrastructure combined with the Video Operations Center, we can manage end-to-end bookings with our own facilities as well as third party facilities."

OVS involves 10-minute minimum commitments with no ceiling in terms of restrictions on maximum duration on standard configurations of 8.4 Mbs and 15 Mbs using 3/4 Forward Error Correction. All of the requisite conversion, encoding, decoding, conditional access and switching processes are bundled into the OVS offering as well.

The Asian region is experiencing an increased demand for broadcasting services, and Intelsat is looking at a range of new TV distribution opportunities. With Japan emerging as a second major HDTV market, for example, Intelsat is paying special attention to its relationship with NHK, among others.

"We are working with NHK. They are using Intelsat 902 for contribution services from Europe back to Japan. We see their use of our capacity growing," says Mahon.

Panamsat is preparing to add new satellites to its fleet, including three new C-band satellites and a C-/Ku-band hybrid. "Our new satellites offer increases in power in the 3 dB to 4 dB range, which means the power is more than doubled. This will allow broadcasters to take advantage of compression and boost their efforts to provide new applications such as HDTV and VOD, along with store and forward content," says Jim Frownfelter, COO at Panamsat.

On the ground, a transition to virtual teleports will enable Panamsat to connect and consolidate its six existing U.S. teleports. Level 3 is providing a Multi Protocol Label Switching or MPLS-based terrestrial network, with Epic and Broadwing providing redundant paths.

When this process is completed, the mix of four teleports featuring interconnected hubs with Sonet rings at each location and access to multiple Points of Presence (POPs) worldwide will give customers simplicity of transport. To upgrade, customers only have to access the nearest POP, eliminating the need to use a satellite to gain access to this new hybrid network.

"What we have created is a state of the art, MPLS-based network geared for data transport," says Frownfelter. "Our emphasis is on reliability. Our customers will not have to rely on the old architecture any longer.

"In nine months of testing, we passed billions of bits over this MPLS-based network, and we never lost a packet. As we marry MPLS and satellite distribution, we see lots of opportunities," he adds. "For video customers, we are eliminating data corruption issues, including the bit errors and the lost packets which have long been associated with conventional ATM networks."

Panamsat is also consolidating its entire compressed digital video services group into Atlanta as the market heats up for HDTV and store and forward services. It is partnering with video and VOD server vendor, SeaChange International, to expand its ground footprint at headends.

"With store and forward, the initial focus has been United States to international and international to United States for customers like Discovery, which has found our network to be the ideal way to transfer files to Singapore," says Frownfelter. "Seamless VOD and HDTV represent growth drivers for us as well. HDTV in particular is going to use a lot of bandwidth."

SES Americom is also taking the necessary steps to address changes in traffic as real-time, direct to air TV transmissions make way for a move to the edge or the store and forward approach according to Carl Capista, SES Americom’s vice president of satellite services in North America.

"We are providing more ground segment services. As more of our customers embrace store and forward delivery over their enterprise distribution networks, we are offering to design and build, or design, build and operate portions of these networks," says Capista. "As this unfolds, how much network does the broadcaster need to own? While each of the broadcasters [is at a different level of digitization], all of them are seeking to reduce broadcast operations overhead."

For broadcasters, things like multiple live to air time zone feeds are no longer necessary. They must adapt to other changes as well, including the distribution of more HDTV content, the growing role for centralcasting operations, and the rolling-out of more compressed platforms by major media companies. All of these developments are being addressed by satellite service providers.

"More customization at the affiliate level by doing things like dividing time zones into sections is seen as desirable. The trick is to tie the mix of real-time and store and forward programming together with the scheduling system," says Capista.

For UHF and VHF broadcasters who are confronting troublesome terrain issues and who want improved links with their repeaters well within their legitimate DMA, or perhaps to upgrade their B contour cable system feeds, SES Americom is offering a satellite-based alternative.

The Audience Holds The Key

If consumers start to embrace HDTV at a much quicker pace, all bets are off. Broadcasters will scramble to adapt their HDTV transmission plan to whatever the market deems necessary.

Neither the TiVo or PVR revolution, nor the datacasting side of DTV is likely to generate any significant upside for the satellite sector, although both could have a dramatic impact on the TV viewing habits of younger viewers in particular.

Regardless, for the satellite industry, the priorities remain the same. Keep things simple for broadcasters, and keep stressing reliability above all else.

While tremendous changes may lie ahead, the point-to-multipoint distribution arrows remain pointed at the sky. Broadcasters like satellites, while the satellite industry knows that taking such affection for granted can be very risky indeed.

Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia & Homeland Security Editor. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

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