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Cover Story: Satellites: The Best Bet For Broadcasters

By | April 1, 2002

      Peter J. Brown

      The broadcast TV industry has entered a critical new chapter in its history with its transition to digital technology extending right down to the viewer. How dependent is the broadcast sector on satellite technology today and will we see any substantial changes going forward? The satellite industry needs to take a hard look at what is unfolding in the TV industry in order to maintain and strengthen its close relationship with the broadcast TV sector.

      Despite all the talk of a looming TV industry migration to fiber, there is no stampede underway. Instead, a balancing act is unfolding as hybrid fiber satellite (HFS) networking shifts into high gear. The appeal of an HFS infrastructure is obvious. TV network executives and engineers want multiple options for reasons of cost and performance. They are becoming quite accustomed to accessing satellite feeds–for either outbound point-to multipoint or inbound point-to-point traffic–and terrestrial links at the press of a button.

      Changes Are Underway

      The recent success of Roswell, GA-based Pathfire–in terms of expanding its service lineup from the delivery of news content distribution for ABC and NBC, along with promotional and ad content, and now syndicated TV programming distribution for Warner Brothers–underscores the tremendous change underway in the TV industry as a whole.

      “The objective here is nothing other than fully distributed networking. The TV networks will choose the most efficient pathway, satellite or fiber, as they go about engaging routinely in everything from point-to-point unicasts to IP multicasts,” says Floyd Christofferson, Pathfire’s senior vice president of broadcast. “Our Digital Media Gateway (DMG) now in place at ABC stations, for example, is not just a single purpose news application. It incorporates user specific work flows which ride over the top of our core architecture.”

      Pathfire can see all of the TV networks addressing the tremendous challenges posed by the unavoidable integration of live operations into the Internet Protocol (IP)-based store and forward operations. At the same time, according to Christofferson, the TV engineers are chasing increased bandwidth efficiencies based on opportunistic data flows.

      Today, with cost cutting and consolidation proceeding at full throttle, networks are moving rapidly in the direction of dynamic bandwidth access and even the pure bandwidth on demand model. Intelligence has to be built into the network as well, so that any non-real-time File Transfer Protocol (FTP)-based traffic can be throttled down in an instant in order for higher priority live TV feeds to pass over the same network.

      “Broadcasters are trying to figure out what to do with their archives as well as how to process new content and reclaim bandwidth. They are grappling with workflow integration that extends from the content source to the desktop. They are looking at every possible way to eliminate waste, and the reduction of linear content delivery is a top priority,” says Christofferson.

      Looking To The Next Generation

      The TV broadcasters are closely watching the next generation of satellites. What they see are larger and often more sophisticated payloads, including Ka-band. As these satellites are slowly making their way to the launch pad, a curious juggling act is unfolding. The satellite industry is attempting to balance its need to tap into new markets using new technologies with its need to reassure broadcasters by maintaining the status quo due to reliability concerns.

      Is a more conservative approach the best way to avoid unwanted anxiety in certain circles?

      “Our baseline services have not really changed over the years except for the increased power per transponder and the reach of the satellite’s footprint. Reliability is still our chief concern. We have already been through catastrophic failures with both Galaxy 4 and Galaxy 7,” says Brent Stranathan, vice president of broadcast distribution at CBS.

      “How will the growing complexity of new payloads affect our bread and butter feeds?” he asks.

      CBS maintains nine transponders on Loral’s Telstar 6, including a full transponder assigned to HDTV, along with back-up capacity on Telstar 4. Digital compression is done via Motorola’s Digicipher 2 Plus with uplinking handled on the East Coast by Liberty Livewire–formerly Group W Services–in Stamford, CT. Atlantic Satellite, another unit of Liberty Livewire, provides a back-up uplink facility in New Jersey. CBS maintains its own uplink in Los Angeles as well.

      “Any economic advantages for fiber when it comes to multipoint affiliate or outbound distribution are simply not there. Local loop costs are still very high. With satellite, one feed gets you nationwide coverage,” says Stranathan. “Using an automation and control package developed in concert with MicroFirst in New Jersey, we can send commands via satellite to every affiliate’s receiver rack in our network to perform program switching and control.

      “We are using microprocessor technology, and not PC technology today to accomplish this,” adds Stranathan.

      Rather than live to air, CBS Newspath is flowing via a store and forward model created by CA-based Bitcentral, which is competing in this space with companies like Pathfire. This network implementation at CBS is now well beyond the halfway point.

      “Applying the news distribution platform to syndicated content will require some software changes, and it could yield substantial cost savings as we shift to a more file delivery-based approach for syndicated programming. We would no longer have to feed a show twice a day as an analog or digital feed in a linear fashion. We could encode once and then set up an address list in each station server so that three to five shows are forwarded to multiple receive sites at once,” says Stranathan.

      “The key is aggregating content providers, and I definitely do not want to own the servers in question,” he adds.

      At CBS Newspath, there is no question that this transformation is in full swing. There are 80 fixed analog uplinks around the country that need to be upgraded to digital.

      “These uplinks, located at our affiliates, have been around for a while and many are starting to fail. It is definitely an appropriate time for us to complete our conversion and replace the hardware with a more efficient, and economical package,” says Gary Kennerknecht, director of technical operations at CBS Newspath. “We are currently managing our Ku-band transponders on AMC-5, and T6 with 10 SCPC carriers. We have had as many as 17 channels in MCPC mode.”

      With its partner, Bitcentral, CBS Newspath is trying to best identify what the affiliates want their single receiver boxes to do so they can receive and extract clips from files in the most efficient manner. Kennerknecht is developing a browser-based solution using a combination of an ASC server in the studio along with encoders from Scopus and Tiernan. At the affiliate sites, IBM Netfinity servers equipped with Broadlogic cards are used to handle low resolution MPEG-1 files at 200 kbps, along with high resolution MPEG-2 files at 5 Mbps, as well as all the necessary metadata.

      “We fire an element with its own unique ID over the system in advance of the audio/video file. It just sits there. The user can play back the low-res version, and if the user then wants to use it, he or she just clicks on that version to immediately access the high resolution version in its native format. The MPEG-1 version is stored for eight days, while the MPEG-2 version is stored for 48 hours,” says Kennerknecht. “We will make a greatest hits version in file format as well.

      “This system has to run with full redundancy including a redundant headend here in greater New York City, and geographic redundancy between uplink facilities in NYC and Washington, DC, which are linked by a terrestrial DS-3 pipe (45 Mbps),” adds Kennerknecht. “This has been designed to be much quicker than other file-based systems. We will still use live digital A/V feeds for breaking news.”

      Intelligent Choices

      At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, NBC used two AT&T DS-3 (45 Mbps) fiber links broken into 17 pathways to its production facilities in New York City, 10 out and seven back. At the same time, NBC News tapped four satellite uplink trucks. This underscores the way in which HFS strategies are unfolding at all the TV networks. This is a practical and ongoing effort, especially at fixed venues where there is either ample lead time to put the HFS infrastructure in place on a one-time basis, or where continuing coverage of events at the same site justifies the expense.

      NBC’s transition to digital is now completed at the NBC Skypath affiliates where racks containing five Tandberg receivers, Evertz digital to analog converters and Miranda switchers have been installed, according to Larry Thaler, NBC’s director of distribution projects. At NBC facilities in New York and Burbank, Tandberg encoders as well as Andrew automation software are in place. NBC uses three Ku-band transponders on GE 1, and has purchased equipment to enable an upgrade to 8-PSK modulation.

      “For transmitting information to many places at one time, nothing beats satellite. Our long-term contracts include C-band as a back-up and feed to other markets,” says Thaler. “We transmitted HDTV coverage from the Olympics, along with three transponders for standard definition TV.”

      As indicated above, NBC’s Skypath service is in the midst of an upgrade. Thaler indicates that NBC is revising its backhaul processes, and planning for the replacement of the control system installed in 1983 at remote uplink sites, among other things.

      “We are looking at efficiencies across the board, and the improved use of bandwidth. This is all about the file versus tape environments, and implementing digitized processes resulting in a reduced workload,” says Thaler. “Digitalization allows you to significantly reduce operational processes, while improving overall system performance.

      “When the big satellite providers built their infrastructure to support IP, they made intelligent choices about where the technology could go. It is a question of timing. There are still technical challenges, for example, surrounding MPEG over IP,” adds Thaler.

      At NBC News, a new two-way satellite transmission grid consisting of two discrete paths and a return channel is in place using Andrew 4.6 meter dishes and capacity on Loral’s Telstar 12 satellite.

      “This allows NBC bureaus in London, Moscow, and Israel to network on that satellite. Now, London can help our bureau in Moscow to edit spots. We can shift the editing around when the workload is heavy,” says Stacy Brady, vice president of network field operations at NBC News. “We can adjust the bandwidth from 9 Mbps to 4 or 6 Mbps using the Tandberg encoders.”

      As part of an upgraded internal communications package, data flows out of New York via satellite along with interrupted foldbacks (IFBs), which allow the on camera talent or newscaster abroad to hear the programming in New York. A built-in party line (PL) permits the director to talk to camera operators overseas as well, eliminating the need for separate phone lines.

      Brady reports that while nothing monumental has taken place, she continues to see improvements on the remote side as portable satellite news gathering (SNG) equipment gets cheaper, lighter, and easier to transport and deploy. NBC recently purchased another Advent 1.8 meter carbon fiber flyway, for example, to augment its coverage of the war in Afghanistan.

      “There have been vast improvements over the years, but what I would still like to see is global satellite coverage on a one-stop basis. When we recently went with Loral on T12, for example, we extended our footprint to Iran and Iraq, but this did not help us at all when all the live TV news coverage extended into Pakistan and Afghanistan,” says Brady.

      A New World Order

      The core TV plant is going to look like a data operation center tomorrow, according to Richard Wolf, vice president of telecommunications at ABC Broadcast Operations and Engineering.

      “We have to find a bridge to combine the data and TV processes. It is not going to happen overnight,” says Wolf. “Our reliance upon teleports continues to be important. Today, teleports provide important services, including back-up uplink services to ABC New York, primary satellite networks and peak load occasional uplinking and downlinking services.”

      Storage and other content management services may be offered by teleports in the future, according to Wolf.

      “We are still learning data techniques on the transport side. Attributes like latency and Quality of Service (QoS) may be comforting terms for traditional data applications, but for mission critical television applications, the highest level of priority and service must be provided,” says Wolf.

      As the TV programming distribution model becomes more clearly divided into real-time and non-real-time streams, the door is opening to a more data-centric approach, but not without concerns about what exactly this entails.

      “On the transport side, data transmission still has unique attributes that analog video does not have, and attempts at integration require a long learning curve as a result. What complicates this further is the growing presence of rich media, especially in the growing mix of repurposed content, where the rich media itself requires special treatment over and above what is required for lower order data,” says Wolf.

      ABC is taking its time when it comes to a network-wide transition to digital. Wolf is focusing on ways to lower unit costs by getting the most out of bandwidth. Whether it involves digital compression hardware or other vital links in the digital chain, Wolf is excited by the strides in terms of user-friendly satellite gear for remote news gathering as well as the broader content distribution.

      “ABC’s present distribution model is still analog because we view the preservation of our existing analog satellite distribution system as a positive, thanks to a strong management, maintenance and support arm which [is] making a firm commitment to keeping it whole,” says Wolf.

      ABC’s transition to digital has already begun, starting with the digitalization of the broadcast plant, the distribution of HDTV, and adoption of digital TV production techniques, according to Wolf. ABC News’ affiliate news service known as News One has partnered with Pathfire in order to migrate to a store/forward file transfer process. This is further evidence of ABC’s transition to digital.

      “The FTP model may be a very effective transport model, particularly as file servers become more entrenched in the broadcast plant. These processes should drive down the cost of transport and improve work flow and content management processes for media companies,” says Wolf.

      “If we wait, we will be able to take advantage of lower costs. We have to be pragmatic with the continuation of this transition, invest and deploy wisely in order to protect our current business, while paving the way for new opportunities ahead,” adds Wolf.

      ABC’s full-time satellite assets are located on Loral’s Telstar 4 and Telstar 5 satellites, and these long-term contracts will sustain ABC well into the middle part of this decade, when ABC will begin its migration to the Panamsat fleet. ABC’s 720p HDTV format is loaded in a single 36 MHz C-band transponder at a data rate of 45 Mbps for those affiliates capable of transmitting HDTV over the air.

      The View From Above

      Satellite industry magazine articles usually entail a networking or transmission or transport angle for obvious reasons. Here, we will use a broader brush to try and sort through the technological maze of digital TV. This is not easy. Yet, we need to take stock of important emerging themes in the TV industry well away from the satellite feeds.

      At PBS, four projects are underway, and each of the four warrants close scrutiny. Together, they are intended to meet a variety of needs at this network, while propelling PBS into the 21st century. The list includes a centralcasting project, also known as the Advanced Digital Distribution Entity (ADDE) project; the asset management project, involving content in production as well as archive material; the Digital Television Automated Traffic and Programming (DTV/ATP) project; and the new–and all encompassing–interconnection system, which includes existing satellite capacity.

      “Although at ground level these look like four discrete projects, at 50,000 feet, they look like one project,” says John Tollefson, PBS vice president and chief technology officer, adding that in the end, ADDE will probably incorporate a terrestrial file transfer format.

      “Here at PBS, we will not be bleeding edge, because we simply cannot afford it. In engineering, I have come to understand that knowing when to buy something is the biggest challenge, not what to buy,” he says.

      ADDE as a centralcasting concept has its roots in the Northwest where KWSU-TV in Pullman, WA, has become a hub, sharing master control functions and links to programming databases, among other things, with a total of nine stations, down from 22 stations. Centralcasting is expected to come in several flavors, and at PBS, a pilot involving a centralcasting system for two or three stations is also underway.

      “As storage costs come down, storing all content for all stations in a market becomes feasible, and centralcasting will make a lot of sense in many markets. There are a lot of political and business issues that need to be addressed, so this may be a few years out. However, this type of shared arrangement is already in place on the RF transmission side, and soon we will see shared transport with master control,” says Tollefson.

      In the digital asset management realm, a pull-driven model has emerged as the clear winner as opposed to any push-driven alternative. On the production side, this means that how end users can access the content is built into the formula from the start. TV content is now being mapped as a sequence of clips. There are descriptors built into the metadata or very detailed digital tags that describe all the characteristics of the content in question. Together with the content in question it can be ingested into a digital asset management system almost as quickly as the images pass through the lens of the camera.

      “It means that production teams do not need to shoot scenes such as the White House, for instance, over and over again. Achieving documentary cost savings, and enabling people to instantaneously access clips are both things that PBS sees as top priorities,” says Tollefson. “How the movement of clips or content will be handled is open to question, although it is more likely to be done via HFS.”

      The first phase of the DTV/ATP system at PBS is named Orion after the constellation with three stars in its belt. “Orion involves the creation of three portals for PBS staff, program producers, and non-PBS program distributors to access the existing databases at PBS,” says Tollefson. “The existing databases include program information, scheduling information, and rights.”

      When completed, the DTV/ATP system will bond all the content in the PBS asset management system with all the metadata attached so that everything from close captioning to Web triggers, along with the entire chain of items in the category of digital rights management (DRM), can be delivered to a desktop on request.

      Finally, the Interconnection Replacement Office (IRO) at PBS has been charged with making a decision by this spring about where PBS is heading with respect to the core design of its distribution network, a situation that Tollefson describes as “a very tight timetable.” Exploring HFS, along with the dynamic allocation of bandwidth is part of this process. At the same time, Tollefson stresses that PBS is extremely pleased with the service provided by satellite service providers to date.

      “You have to keep in mind that 90 percent of our programming is non-real-time,” Tollefson says. “Our existing six channel per transponder Digicipher 2 system works fine. We are using half a transponder on GE 3 to transmit HDTV using Digitalvision encoders with built-in preprocessing, while four channels of SDTV using Scientific Atlanta’s (S-A) Powervu Plus 2 encoding as well as S-A’s multiplexer are being carried on the other half of the same transponder.”

      A New Routine

      The transition to digital TV is much more than rolling out HDTV, datacasting and centralcasting. Getting a new set of workflows established, while interweaving live TV programming with its cousin on the Internet points to an increasing dependence on automated processes.

      The flow of highly synchronized yet soon to be routine file transfers between hubs and multiple remote receive sites is just one dimension of this new TV regime. One cannot overlook the growing influence of video on demand (VOD) and even subscriber VOD (SVOD) services as they ramp up, too.

      A number of contracts for satellite capacity have been signed by broadcasters, and they extend out well into this decade and beyond in many instances. So while centralcasting, dynamic bandwidth allocation, IP multicasting, and MPEG over IP are important themes in the broadcast TV sector that bear watching, the satellite industry can proclaim that business in general is steady.

      To keep that revenue stream in good shape in the future, the satellite industry will have to ensure the reliability of its next generation of satellites. Everybody realizes that this is top priority. As for any new content distribution strategies or techniques, the time is right for creative juices to flow.

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

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