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Video Compression: Squeezing The Most Out Of The Bandwidth At Hand

By | April 1, 2002

      Nick Mitsis

      In the early ’90s, digital video compression empowered the global broadcast market with the capability of taking content to a new level. At the forefront of this revolution stood satellite companies that nurtured this trend.

      The quick take-up of this technology allowed a variety of users to dramatically squeeze more bandwidth out of existing satellite transponder space, resulting in a dramatic expansion of new video services, including business television (BTV), broadcasting and cable distribution. In addition, profit margins increased for both upstream and downstream participants within this innovative business chain.

      Now, the continued emphasis rests on video compression technologies that are enhancing signal-encoding capabilities and further pushing the digital image envelope. All of this is happening largely because of the sophistication of clients’ requirements in regard to system features. Luckily, system integrators and equipment manufacturers are answering the call–and now see this industry segment moving in a more complex fashion–by satisfying specific needs within a given market segment.

      Calming Cable’s Anxiety

      One of those segments becoming savvier with their transmission wish list is the cable industry. More than ever, video compression, particularly through satellite technology, is red hot in the cable distribution arena. Innovations made here empower cable programmers to pass on more content via their leased transponders and that is exactly what they want.

      “Typically, when we are originating cable networks to a digital platform, we are able to group as many as 12 channels together,” says Jim Schuster, senior vice president of satellite services for Crawford Communications. “This way, our clients have a stronger chance of obtaining carriage from the cable systems, when the cable system can picks up the entire digital platform and then pass it through to the set top box in one transaction. This helps them increase their subscriber base and in turn helps them to save some money on transport cost.”

      Knowing the specific needs of the cable programmers vary, the Atlanta-based satellite transmission provider supports many video compression platforms. “The equipment manufacturers are making huge enhancements with their technology,” Schuster adds. “For example, with this growing trend toward piling many channels in a given transponder, various systems are able to look at that video and determine on the fly which carrier needs more bandwidth, and it fluctuates according to the video that is being processed.”

      At least one of those platform manufacturers is meeting the growing list of demands from the cable community. “They are always pushing us to be able to reduce the different areas of bandwidth for various amounts of video programming without sacrificing video quality,” says Marty Stein, director of marketing for Motorola Broadband. “As everyone gets smarter about content, we are able to implement more advanced technologies to refine the compression process.”

      Key to Motorola’s effort is its new generation of video encoding technology called Pure Pixel processing. This MPEG-2 video encoding enhancement provides adaptive spatial and motion compensated temporal filtering, look-ahead picture analysis, advanced special event processing, enhanced motion estimation and buffer management. “If, for example, you take an existing programmer that is transmitting eight channels on a transponder costing $1.5 million, and through enhanced technology they are able to increase the number to 10 channels without incurring significant infrastructure costs, then that is a major advantage for them,” says Stein.

      Ushering Broadcast Programming Into The New Century

      Broadcasting special programming to a global audience can often seem to be a Herculean feat, especially when equipment manufacturers collide with various distribution technologies when the single goal in mind is to transmit crystal-clear content to the eyes of the world. In addition to the Olympic Games, the World Cup soccer championship is one of the most watched global sporting events–an event that is as prime for satellite technology transmission as its Olympic cousin.

      And satellite industry players not only recognize this fact, but also take to the playing field themselves when awarded the chance of offering a competitive solution to this content distribution challenge. Case in point: Korea Telecom selected Scopus Network Technologies to provide the digital transmission of the FIFA 2002 World Cup games from South Korea (Korea). The Israeli-based digital compression equipment provider has supplied Korea Telecom with end-to-end broadcasting systems to digitally transmit the events related to, and including, the 2002 World Cup commencing this May and June.

      “This was a highly complex system to implement,” says Mickey Mushinsky, vice president of China and East Asia Operations for Scopus. “The whole project is dealing with more than 200 compressed video channels through a complex array of multiplexers and de-multiplexers.”

      Scopus will transmit nearly 20 digitally compressed channels from each of the 10 stadiums across Korea where the games will be played. These live feeds will then be transmitted via SDH links to the International Broadcasting Center located in Seoul. There they will be routed and re-transmitted via SDH links to three earth stations in Korea and then uplinked to a satellite for its global broadcast.

      “The system will have full redundancy to maintain 100 percent accessibility around the clock,” Mushinsky explains. “In addition, we developed two levels of network management systems modified to meet Korea Telecom’s requirements. This was a one-of-a-kind project for us.”

      Scopus will provide Korea Telecom with complete end-to-end systems based on its CODICO product line, including E-1000 professional 4:2:2 encoders, RTM-3800 statistical multiplexers, Scopus demultiplexers and 2800 professional Integrated Receiver Decoders (IRDs).

      Another supplier of encoding and transmission equipment, Radyne Comstream, is also honing in on the advanced requirements within the broadcast market niche. “In April, we are going to introduce an enhanced version of our standard definition encoder product line that will add expanded support for vertical blanking interval data,” says Brian Trexel, director of video products for Radyne Comstream. “In addition, we will add a feature for Basic Interoperable Scrambling Systems that enhances signal security for our clients.”

      Most recently, the Phoenix-based company distributed HDTV programming from the winter Olympics to the National Broadcasting Corp.’s. (NBC) U.S. affiliates. Through its Tiernan THE1 HD encoder and TDR-6 IRD, NBC used the DVB QPSK demodulator in the IRD to best match transmission power with downlink dish sizes.

      “Everyone wants more capability for less money and we have evolved our products to do that,” Trexel adds. “The TDR-6 IRD used for the Olympics has advanced signal processing to allow 8-PSK and 16 QAM modulations that substantially reduce satellite bandwidth, an important feature for the growing number of high bandwidth HDTV signals.”

      In addition to saving money, broadcasters are also enhancing their content, further challenging the equipment engineers. “Customers are now interested in interactive television applications,” says Howard Barouxis, North American sales manager for Thales Broadcast and Multimedia. “Such applications range from gaming to enhanced sports applications.”

      Thales is meeting this challenge with the development of its Coral platform. This server is an interactive data flowstreamer that broadcasts interactive information such as athlete statistics during a sporting event. Among its characteristics, Coral can process up to 50 interactive applications with 40 Mbps of throughput and manages iTV data coming from files or networks.

      “End users will be able to pull up customized information on an athlete at the same time they are watching the game or get customized weather and news on their television sets,” Barouxis adds. “This year, we plan on evolving some of our platforms and our Amber remultiplexer will come out with a new platform altogether.”

      Compression Technology And BTV

      Corporate headquarters no longer merely want to rally their employees for a quarterly executive meeting. In fact, the changing needs of BTV applications are increasing companies’ interest in video compression technology advancements. “The latest application that is in need of content storage in the satellite receiver is in the BTV arena,” says David Wheeler, senior director of marketing media networks for Scientific-Atlanta. “They are now exploring possibilities of caching local programs such as a news clip or advertisement in the local headends.”

      In addition, Wheeler adds that a one-time-through application is also growing in demand. “We are launching a new modulator product that allows the client to achieve a higher throughput from the satellite and does not require them having to swap out all the receiving antennas.”

      Another BTV arena that is heeding the call of cutting costs and the role video compression can play in that process lies outside of corporations. In fact, you can say that it has gone off to the races.

      “We have more than 70 different horse race tracks and a few dog race tracks that are using our products to maximize content distribution while keeping costs down,” says Keith Smith, president of Wegener Communications Inc.

      The company’s Envoy Digital Video Courier encoder/modulator is a DVB compliant, EN 300 421, multi-mode modulator. It supports QPSK, 8-PSK and 16QAM standards. Higher orders of modulation such as 8-PSK require less transponder space, which saves on lease costs and increases revenue by allowing more carriers to simultaneously transmit video. The modulated output of Envoy is a variable carrier between 52 and 88 MHz for full transponder network.

      “With Compel Bandwidth on Demand, the user is able to select what is needed when it is needed, which saves transponder time and wasted bandwidth. This product saves them money,” he says.

      2002 And Beyond

      With video compression having proven its importance in cutting costs, the future points toward enriched content delivery. If indeed this is the case, that can only translate into good news for an industry that continues to grow its transmission pool with more varied programming, information and solutions for both work and entertainment.

      Nick Mitsis is Via Satellite’s Associate Editor.

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