Innovative Broadcasting: Digital Links Working Harder
By Peter J. Brown
When it comes to satellite links, customer satisfaction is assured whenever the link in question performs above and beyond the call of duty. When it comes to innovative broadcasting, efficient content delivery to multiple venues is the name of the game. Add a dazzling array of new display options, and you can see immediately why more satellite service providers are making substantial inroads with global retail and entertainment players.
The pursuit of new revenue streams and the desire to aggressively push brands all across the map are driving big and small ventures into a satellite-friendly mode. Digital cinema and digital signage opportunities are shaping up fast as robust and highly profitable business models are proliferating.
A Sign Of The Times
The rules are changing as high-bandwidth networking takes hold. Satellite transmissions and content distribution have always been an ideal fit, but today there is a growing need to leverage existing infrastructure by putting multiple forms of content over the same network, often flowing to different destinations.
"In addition to the transmission and distribution of content to our clients, we are involved in the acquisition and re-purposing of client assets into high-impact digital signage," says Rick Hutcheson, senior vice president, marketing at Atlanta-based Convergent Media Systems Corp. "We are also leveraging the infrastructure that delivers digital signage by delivering corporate communications and distance learning on the same high-bandwidth network. Additionally, the networks can be further leveraged for frame relay back- up and corporate security."
In early January, Convergent Media Systems and Sony Business Solutions Systems Company, a division of Sony Electronics Inc., announced their agreement to jointly market digital signage products and services to corporate, retail and government end users.
"The point is that today’s best innovative broadcasting services are putting their clients in complete command of their content," says Joe Amor, vice president and general manager of NC-based Microspace. Microspace has been working with StagePost, a new age media and marketing firm that uses Microspace’s Velocity satellite service in its new Excelevision system. This platform is akin to point-of-purchase digital signage on steroids, thanks to motion-activated kiosk displays, among other things.
"Excelevision delivers real-time marketing, training and corporate communication content via satellite to retail and banking locations such as Flagstar Bancorp," says Amor. "The flexibility of transmitting video information in the Internet protocol (IP) gives content managers a huge amount of power over the message they are delivering to their clients."
At Flagstar’s branch locations, Excelevision delivers information to customer-facing units, which allow employees to sell additional services to existing customers, while monitors in back offices train new employees and run human resource applications.
"The beauty of this IP technology is that a server can receive content at one location and then move it around for various applications, giving us a distribution system that works for all of our key audiences’ needs," says Lynn Bennett, president and founder of StagePost.
Because Microspace offers Velocity as either a full-time or on-demand channel using a fixed pricing model, and because Microspace operates on a shared platform basis in its Network Control Center (NCC), costs are much reduced.
"These factors have been successful in reducing the barriers to satellite delivery adoption for smaller customers because it makes their return on investment (ROI) more cost- effective and scalable as they build from a handful to hundreds of sites," says Amor.
While leveraging existing links makes sense, it alone does not address the problems associated with digital signage in general, according to David Hershberg, chief executive officer at NY-based Globecomm Systems Inc. The equipment costs and the lifespan of large screens for digital signage are a factor. That said, he agrees that digital signage overlays on BTV links are a growing trend.
"I believe that many business television (BTV) platforms will be used for digital signage when not used for corporate trading or business. The video will be provided on an Ethernet, and stored and played out to the screens in the store," says Hershberg. "The major advantage we offer is a combination of digital TV and IP content delivery. We have our own product including a server and DVB receiver. We also provide all the equipment install and service."
When it comes to innovative broadcasting, Globecomm Systems has been rolling out a steady stream of hybrid solutions for a number of clients, including hybrid BTV, combined direct-to-home (DTH)/one-way Internet services on the same DVB carrier, and feeds for hybrid terrestrial pay-per-view channel packages with one-way Internet on a single UHF channel. Despite this track record in multi-purpose digital satellite-based networking, Hershberg sees the immediate challenges associated with providing the innovative broadcast services as outlined here.
"If we do not have saturated or close to full transponder, the cost is not competitive. It is a chicken and egg problem," says Hershberg, adding at the same time that they fit well with his company’s model of providing a complete range of satcom products and services.
Managed Services Make It Happen
Offering services that include access plans for different content or usage levels on an hourly or per megabyte basis, along with the storing, staging and distribution of customer content makes it all happen. At MD-based Hughes Network Systems Inc., tools such as the Content Audit Tool (CAT) ensure that the content has been delivered and has been playing as per schedule. As part of a managed service menu, CAT combined with the proactive health status monitoring of all equipment in the content delivery chain via a customized version of an off-the-shelf system monitoring package, among other things, has HNS in high gear when it comes to innovative broadcast services.
Companies in Europe like ASDA, LifeChannel and UnitedScreens as well as Regal CineMedia, Best Buy and SignStorey in the United States are using the HNS Direcway solution for the delivery of digital signage and digital cinema.
"There is a growing demand for innovative services, but in reality, it is up to HNS to show the unique selling points of satellite over terrestrial solutions for applications such as digital signage or staff training," says Ken Cohen, assistant vice president of marketing at HNS North American Division. "The natural capability of satellite to multicast information is a huge plus because of economics, operational simplicity and the ability to isolate sub-segments of a retailer’s network (groups of stores, types of devices, etc.) for targeted messaging."
"The major challenge is to reach out to a different audience, that is, we traditionally have been talking to customers’ IT departments, now we are talking more to their marketing, human resources and other departments. In addition, we are assuming a much larger role than that of telecommunications/data services providers," adds Cohen. "While we have accumulated a great deal of expertise in the past five years uplinking more live video every week than the four major television networks in the United States and distributing software and other large non-video content, we have to overcome the image of the VSAT provider, only capable of doing credit and other narrowband applications."
In January, HNS announced an agreement involving two grocery chain customers totaling 250 stores with SignStorey, a provider of customized digital media networks to grocery retailers. Using HNS Direcway DW4020 broadband satellite terminals and Direcway Multimedia Services (MMS), SignStorey will pay a fixed amount per month per site for interactive applications plus a charge per Mb for multimedia content distribution including so-called point-of-decision content, targeted advertising and product promotion messages at the point-of-purchase. In terms of providing more overall flexibility, this HNS multicast delivery solution includes a user-friendly multicast scheduling interface.
Last November, UT-based Helius Inc. and Dish Network Business Solutions (DNBS), a division of CO-based Echostar Communications Corp. announced the formation of a technology partnership that included DNBS in-store advertising and digital signage solutions.
According to Nathan Hatch, senior vice president of marketing and corporate development at Helius, customers are looking for little more than simple, business-focused solutions. OOH Vision Networks, for example, is using Helius technologies to reach an audience of diners in restaurants.
This video network displays a variety of ads, video content and text crawlers on strategically placed plasma screen TVs. OOH Vision sells the ad space, owns and operates the network.
Helius also worked with StagePost and Flagstar Bank to set up a system that integrates business development, training and human resources in a single IP-over-satellite network. The Helius MediaGate Router series enables the integration of broadband IP network services over traditional satellite networks, including the seamless integration of real-time video from satellite to a corporate LAN.
Helius’ MediaStream SST is a remote video playback device with unique addresses that pulls playlists and content from a Helius MediaGate Router. Add a Helius dynamic service multiplexer and advanced packet filtering for a performance enhancing edge, and the customer can seamlessly deliver custom content directly to any display.
So, what challenges is Helius facing as it attempts to expand this aspect of its business?
"In a word, education. Finding customers who are ready to evolve their delivery systems. In some of the markets there has to be a culture in the company that realizes that training and/or digital signage is germane to the bottom line," says Hatch. "Until a company spends time to understand how these solutions impact a decrease in training expense and an increase in sales, it is less likely to make a buy decision. Once an organization understands how our solutions enhance its training and/or marketing ROI, decisions are more quickly made.
"We believe that innovation in our industry is the leveraged channel model. We are comfortable with the concept sometimes called ‘co-opetition,’ whereby a partner on one client engagement may be a competitor for another," Hatch adds. "By partnering with a multitude of different vendors that compete with each other in the market, we are expanding our reach. In addition, providing opportunities for vendors in the market to work together to deliver complete solutions the entire market will benefit. It is through this tried and true model that real education is happening and real needs are being met."
"We are seeing a dramatic shift to innovative services using satellite in the United States and in Europe," says Bill McNamara, general manager of BT Broadcast Services (BTBS), the Americas. "BT Digital Screen Media (DSM) is a digital signage solution that can deliver every aspect of digital signage, tailored to a customer’s precise requirements. This includes the acquisition of content, the formatting and distribution of video and data signals to stores, branches or service stations. We also provide on-site installation of plasma screens. BTBS can also manage the network centrally so that there is no additional burden on staff or management."
In November, BTBS announced a DSM solution for the O2 Centre in Finchley Road, London. Any outlet within this shopping and entertainment center seeking to attract greater numbers of shoppers, and increase purchasing and loyalty through new channels can now add DSM to their promotional mix.
"BTBS DSM provides retailers, bars, restaurants and entertainment venues within the O2 complex with an innovative method of reaching customers, which complements existing in- store marketing programs," says McNamara. "The solution comprises a network of 11 plasma screens located around the complex’s concourse, which play out a compelling mixture of tailored advertising, offers and promotions."
Digital Cinema: End-To-End Solutions Emerge
Last summer, NJ-based Access Integrated Technologies, Inc. (AccessIT) announced that it had completed the re-commissioning of a majority of the more than two dozen digital cinema systems acquired earlier in 2004 from Boeing Digital Cinema. Christie Digital Systems, Inc. has provided technical support services to AccessIT’s during this process.
"AccessIT is utilizing the benefits of satellite distribution (multicasting) in a new application for the digital cinema market. The innovative part involves unifying the traditional transmission technology with front-end movie booking and distribution software and back-end theater management applications, to completely streamline the entire process and provide an end-to-end solution for clients," says AccessIT CEO, Bud Mayo.
According to Mayo, satellite distribution activities for AccessIT’s digital cinema service are principally conducted through its FiberSat distribution unit in Los Angeles. This full-service data storage and uplink facility employs several different systems, including an occasional-use 36 MHz Ku-band transponder to transmit encrypted 50 Gbs to 80 Gbs digital movie files to screens in North America.
"AccessIT has developed and is testing a proprietary digital file transmission scheme that will substantially reduce the time to transmit large digital files," says Mayo. "Certainly, there is a growing demand for innovative services over satellite in the realm of digital cinema, as it enables all types of new content to be delivered to different venues, such as movie theaters.
"In regard to digital cinema, we believe and are demonstrating that the traditional uplinking and downlinking of satellite services have to be supplemented by innovative value- added solutions to meet varied and changing needs of the marketplace," adds Mayo. "While not a challenge, the reach of satellite is a major consideration, as line-of-sight issues in certain geographic areas limit its use, especially in dense cities with high-rise buildings. Our network supplements satellite delivery with fiber connectivity and a variety of other options to provide complete distribution coverage."
According to a digital cinema industry executive, NYC-based Regal CineMedia is way ahead of the pack in the Unites States in terms of delivering non-feature film supplemental multimedia content via satellite –pre-show material and advertising– to all of its screens nationwide.
Image quality and financing of the digital cinema equipment on site no longer present major obstacles to launch true digital cinema in North America. Instead, according to this same executive, uncertainty about projector formats –2K vs. 4K– along with the timetable for the projected deployment of any Hollywood-based Digital Cinema Initiatives LLC (DCI) compliant systems and digital rights management (DRM) issues involving content owners and theater operators are the major issues that are delaying the rollout of digital cinema at this point.
While satellite offers distinct advantages over terrestrial distribution options especially as the number of screens being served via a specific broadcast multiplies, the sheer size of the files in the 4K projector format in particular, which are estimated to be in the range of 125 Mbs to 150 Mbs, makes a real-time satellite feed a daunting challenge. Instead, it opens the door to either non real-time physical content delivery, that is disks, tapes or fiber transfers via ultra-secure MPLS-based VPN tunnels.
Brian Claypool, senior product manager, cinema at CA-based Christie Digital Systems, Inc., a leading supplier of DLP cinema projectors, notes that the market has nowhere to go but up. Although many satellite service providers are interested in getting into D-Cinema, thus far, few examples of satellite distribution being done on a regular basis exist.
"D-Cinema is still such a young market that I am not sure how much work has been done with error correction technologies, for example, beyond what is currently practiced with other data distribution models. D-Cinema is just encrypted picture data wrapped in an MXF package that will ultimately get loaded on a server for playback," says Claypool. "Most business plans going forward include scalable networks capable of monitoring D-Cinema equipment performance. This service is provided through a low bandwidth backchannel purchased and controlled by the exhibition facility’s owner."
Skip City And More
Frank Stirling, former head of Boeing Digital Cinema, is CEO and president of LA-based Breakpoint Digital, a firm specializing in digital distribution of cinematic content to new and existing platforms, resolving and simplifying the current state-of-the-art in digital distribution.
"Multiple means of distribution are necessary to efficiently and effectively move large files securely and safely, and the most efficient means of data file transport will be satellite distribution using hybrid network architectures," Stirling says. "The complexity of satellite delivery of large terabyte files should not be underestimated. The scalability of the architecture was always a design challenge, particularly with regard to the file size, which is dependent upon the quality specifications. The size of these files and the transmission rates required will stress current capability significantly."
Stirling points to China, Sweden, UK, France, Singapore, Korea, Germany, Italy, Brazil and others that have initiated testing and delivery of movies over satellites. Companies like AccessIT, Avica and Microspace are experimenting with delivery of movies by satellite and other means, according to Stirling. The China Film Group is also delivering movies to their deployed architecture throughout China. Adlabs in India is doing delivery of content to theater sites. Stirling sees light at the end of the tunnel thanks to both the new DCI specifications, which will require 2K and 4K file transport and exhibition with bit rates up to 250 Mbs, and bandwidth efficient modulation.
"In our testing of this technology in our operations, we found the potential for significant gains in bit rates through existing satellite transponders. More bandwidth from satellite transponders will also help," says Stirling.
In early February, Stirling was a keynote speaker at a symposium on the status of digital cinema worldwide held at SKIP City (Saitama Kawaguchi Intelligent Park) in Tokyo. SKIP City was created to contribute to the evolution of the audio-visual related industry as a core industry in the modern era. He was joined by experts from China, Europe and Singapore, among others. The complex that consists of industrial, administrative and academic facilities, opened in early 2003. As the nucleus of SKIP City, the Sai-No-Kuni Visual Plaza consists of facilities such as studios, an audio-visual hall and editing suites.
Making Content Work For You
While recent satellite failures have raised transport credibility questions, Hutcheson at Convergent Media Systems views them more as challenges, not roadblocks. The economic conditions of the past three years represent more of a barrier, according to Hutcheson for all B2B companies. Still, Hutcheson sees networked digital signage as an innovative broadcasting service that fits easily into his company’s conventional business model.
"Is there a value added? If by conventional model you mean our BTV model, the answer is yes," says Hutcheson.
"The power, scalability and flexibility of satellite can be a very compelling business proposition for companies as they add the next generation of applications to their tool kit," says Cohen at HNS.
Amor at Microspace sees the satellite industry continuing to fight a long uphill battle. The technology is seen as expensive, unreliable and somewhat less than user-friendly. That said, the demand for solutions involving addressable transmissions flowing content to any number of displays is curving upwards
"It is the issue of innovative concepts typically needing innovative technologies. That is where science meets art to enable the technology to meet the needed business functions," says Amor. "In other words, you can make the content work for you. You do not have to have it in one flavor anymore."
Peter Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia & Homeland Security Editor. He also volunteers as a satellite technology and communications advisor to the Maine Emergency Management Agency.