Video streaming: Expanding Destinations

By | March 1, 2004 | Broadcasting, Feature, Telecom

By Peter J. Brown

Beaming Internet Protocol (IP) video via satellite either live or via the store-and-forward method for both fixed and mobile services is no longer a rare event. While the desktop PC may still be the primary destination for video streaming over IP, the range of destinations for video over IP rapidly is expanding. Computer-centric business models for video streaming in the enterprise sector involving corporate training and Web conferencing continue to gain steam, and yet video streaming is gradually extending its reach into new arenas as well, including the whole realm of home entertainment.

So how mature is IP video over satellite today? "Overall, while I think the IP video itself, the process of packaging and displaying the video is pretty mature, the supporting network infrastructure has not matured yet," says DC Palter, Mentat’s vice president of sales and marketing. "Specifically, the QoS [Quality of Service] mechanisms needed to support high-quality video, the signaling mechanisms and the multicast infrastructure needed to support broadcast-like distribution, are all still evolving."

"A very low-cost ubiquitous IP receiving infrastructure is required for economic viability. And that is only stage one-reception," says Karl Rossiter, senior vice president of new media networks at TVNZ Satellite Services Ltd. in Auckland, New Zealand. "Stage two, the return and request path, may have to rely on terrestrial infrastructure for a long time yet. Completely new uplink control technologies would be required to avoid interference if satellite access is to be common place."

Steve Vonder Haar, digital media analyst at Texas-based Interactive Media Strategies, says companies are hesitant to invest in this new technology, and yet, "Many companies are quickly developing an appetite for Webcasting and are seeking additional networking muscle." He adds that satellite providers face a real challenge in the enterprise sector. To date, they have realized only marginal success with any form of enterprise Webcasting over satellite.

"While MPEG-4 Part 10 will probably drive the growth of IP video, it is the MPEG-2 legacy issue that influences MPEG-4 uptake within the established broadcasting fraternity," adds Rossiter. "The supply of affordable receivers with enough processing power is the current limiting factor."

"The issues are much more on the network side than [on] the satellite itself. IP video simply runs over IP, and whether the link is satellite, wireless or terrestrial is mostly irrelevant to IP," says Palter. "However, one of the advantages of satellite is the ability to provide dedicated bandwidth for the connection whereas IP video over the Internet would likely experience quality limitations."

Business Television-related activity is certainly a pivotal force in the emerging IP video realm, and yet there is little evidence of any large-scale migration to IP-based video distribution platforms to date.

"This evolution is happening slowly," says Jon Kirchner, vice president of strategic product marketing at Loral Skynet. "We have to keep in mind that not all corporate cultures have embraced the desktop experience as opposed to the collective or communal TV type experience."

"The dynamic here is pretty obvious. We are talking about two different internal customers. With TV, the buyer tends to be the corporate communications department. When it shifts to IP, that is more slanted toward the IT department where the [chief technical officer] tends to slow it down," he adds. "It comes down to a capital and expense issue. With respect to IT upgrades of this type, we are seeing hints of it, but it is not there yet."

To address the needs of the enterprise sector, in early 2004 Loral Skynet is rolling out its DVB-RCS-based SkyReach platform with hub technology from Montreal-based EMS Technologies. "We want to help organizations create a path for an evolution to IP, and we want to augment the transition by being creative about the enabling capability," says Kirchner. "Our plan is to partner with organizations at the IP services layer rather than engage in developing applications as we move away from SCPC/MPEG-2 to MPEG-4/IP applications."

Video On Demand Is In Demand

From the Ascent Media Network Services’ facility in Burbank, CA, you can follow an IP video path to hundreds of hotels and resorts all across North America. Ascent Media uses a fully redundant HP ProLiant Kencast-based pitcher, Skystream SMR24 IP encapsulator, Radyne Comstream DM240 modulator, MITEQ U-176-3 upconverters, along with Xicom XT-400K TWT amps and an Andrew 3.7-meter uplink antenna to provide a store-and-forward solution to its clients, covering the entire continent with a single 2 Mbs Loral Skynet satellite feed. On the receive side of this service is Colorado-based OnCommand, for example, which now has 1,000 sites equipped with IP video-enabled digital platforms out of its combined pool of more than 3,500 hotel and resort properties.

"At each site, the highly encrypted inbound video file must be captured, unpacked and loaded onto the video server after any inappropriate content is eliminated," says Jose Royo, vice president for new product development at Ascent Media Management Services. "The lack of resources on site is a big issue and OnCommand has put great emphasis on cost and reliability."

Walt Disney Co.’s Movie Beam offers feature films from numerous studios including Dreamworks SKG, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Miramax Films, New Line Cinema, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Studios, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox Studios and Walt Disney Studios. Home Video On Demand (VOD) service starting in Jacksonville, FL, Spokane, WA, and Salt Lake City, UT, also demonstrates that multiple variations of the VOD theme are possible. Movie Beam piggybacks its User Datagram Protocol (UDP)/IP multicast feed on top of the existing PBS satellite and local ABC-TV infrastructures. The Movie Beam team developed its own ultra low bandwidth MPEG-2 encoder running at under 1.5 Mbs, according to Scott Watson, Movie Beam chief technical officer.

From data carousels in TV stations nationwide, the satellite-delivered VOD stream driven by dNTSC (data in NTSC video) datacasting technology from Dotcast is able to transmit 10 movies per week to receivers preloaded with 100 movies and equipped with 160 GB hard drives in subscribers’ homes. And the cost per site is surprisingly low. It costs Movie Beam only $250,000 per city to install all the equipment at the local tower, according to Watson.

"There is no question that the TV will remain the focus of long form entertainment for the foreseeable future," says Watson. "Anything over 1 Mbs is plenty for our purposes. We do not really need more bandwidth to move the content in question."

VOD is not the only hot growth area for IP video. In Asia, for example, Skystream Networks Inc. is participating in some of the first deployments of IP over DVB by TV broadcasters. Skystream’s Source Media Router, Edge Media Router and zBand Content Delivery platform as well as the Mediaplex-20 IP video platform are all finding their way to customers in the public and private sectors.

"Besides broadcast quality video and data services for the new digital home market, the top applications in Asia include content distribution for distance learning in remote areas, emergency disaster prevention and recovery services like flood control, and broadcast TV over VDSL," says Bethany Mayer, vice president of product marketing for Skystream Networks. "Streaming or video over IP today is about much more than simply moving video files or streamed video to the PC. In the telco, cable and satellite environments, IP enables broadcast quality video to be transferred in the most efficient manner from almost any origination point to multiple receive devices, including TVs."

Along with entertainment advancements, Internet caf�s/ISP hybrids are popping up throughout the developing world. Doubling as ISPs, and often using wireless remote access, these ventures are seeking ways to ensure they can handle file-based Internet traffic, while offering customers access to Voice over IP (VoIP) lines as well. They use their maximum bandwidth allotment for an average user pool of 10 to 50 video, voice and data customers. At Radyne Comstream, IPSat emerged as a multiservice platform with billing done on the inbound SCPC (Single Channel Per Carrier).

"Many cyber caf�s now offer VoIP phone services on site while serving as an ISP for other customers," says Aaron Ledger, IPSat product manager at Radyne Comstream. "For companies like Direct-on-PC in Nigeria, our single appliance approach via IPSat allows for simultaneous voice, data and video applications, and offers the cyber caf� enormous growth by way of a 1-72 Mbs DVB incoming feed tied to a full SCPC 32 kbs-2 Mb return channel. SCPC is preferred in this instance over a TDMA return because it is more stable."

Africa is also where Hauppauge, NY-based Globecomm Systems will be rolling out its two-way IP multicast-based Skyborne content delivery solution for the Africa Virtual University (AVU) in 2004. Globecomm Systems selected Skystream Mediaplex for encoding and IP encapsulating along with Newtec DVB modulators for this World Bank-financed project. Students at AVU will access engineering and scientific courses at 14 universities via Skyborne.

"With Skyborne, we provide users at AVU with file downloading and robust Internet connectivity via SCPC return paths," says David Hershberg, CEO and chairman of Globecomm Systems. "It is still a question of what you need. IP video is not required for live video broadcasts; however, IP video is the best approach if you want to either stream video to desktops or store video locally. Network management is no longer an issue. Many tools exist to monitor the encoders and IP end- points equally."

Comtech EF Data sees the IP video curtain going up and with it the need for network futureproofing via new transparent appliances and new modems. As the debate rages over how to best proceed with respect to compression and bandwidth savings, the cost-savings offered at remote sites and for digital satellite newsgathering vehicle operators in particular offered by such things as VoIP are only adding to the complexity of the situation.

"What really are the requirements of the HDTV age? Are we talking about 8 Mbs, 16 Mbs or perhaps even 4 Mbs carriers going forward? Figuring out the best way to handle contribution feeds in this environment is critical and we see an urgent need for an ability to offer lower broadcast quality IP video along with the ability to bring it up quickly, enabling real-time collaboration, among other things," says Comtech EF Data President Bob Hansen. "We offer header compression for voice already, and when combined with QoS, the advantages are enormous when you consider that thousands of dollars are routinely spent on remote phone connections.

VoIP is just another application running on our platform, whether it’s done via H.323, Cisco Call Manager or SIP [Session Initiation Protocol]," adds Hansen. "For smaller networks, a straight SCPC works fine, while for larger networks, IP packet switch on demand may be required."

Video Streaming’s Future

The support structure for any widespread deployment of IP video especially on the receive side may evolve quicker than we think. The power of compelling content and a downward cost curve is one thing, while budgets and expectations are something else. IP video makes sense, but there needs to be a shared sense of mission here before any broad transformation unfolds. Multicast mission or not, there is a steady succession of incremental steps in motion here, and IP video is not just a light at the end of the tunnel, it is perhaps the only light.

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

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