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Data Broadcasting: The Tools and Models Are Changing

By | September 10, 2000

      By Peter J. Brown

      Data is flowing everywhere, and in every conceivable form, from synchronized data to opportunistic data. It is seen as an essential part of e-commerce, t-commerce (for interactive TV) and all sorts of business-to-business (B2B) commerce. The powerful presence of Internet protocol (IP) is unmistakable, but not all data is IP, despite the signs that IP will probably monopolize this market in the coming decade. Regardless, satellite service providers continue to grow the satellite-based networks, adding one more dish wherever it may be needed.

      A number of factors acting in concert are driving the demand for more data broadcasting services.

      “I have said this all along. The biggest thing is the lowering cost of storage, which is so much cheaper today. You can go out and purchase a 10 GB hard drive for $350. As more people can afford to engage in caching, you can expect that more data will be flowing out to fill those caches,” says Joe Amor, vice president and general manager of Microspace Communications Corp., a unit of Capitol Broadcasting Inc. in Raleigh, NC. Amor credits the increased availability of IP browsers and browser-like devices–and not simply the introduction of IP content by itself–as a major contributor to the steady growth of data broadcasting.

      “This is happening not because there is more software or a growing number of applications, but because of the widespread user acceptance of browsers or browser-based screens. And this expansion of the user base is happening because the browser can be so easily interpreted,” says Amor, who sees this reliance upon what is in effect a common interface as pivotal to the delivery of larger and larger files to a broader audience in the future.

      Changing The Data Stream, Not The Channel

      Dr. Solom Heddaya, Infolibria’s CTO, likes to remind readers that while providing live streaming media may seem like the top priority in many circles these days, the same content served up in an on-demand environment may actually have more value for both the content provider and the end-user alike.

      In late May, Infolibria and Intelsat teamed up to demonstrate live edgecasting, part of the broader Intelsat effort to highlight the use of satellite technology in the broadcasting of IP-based content on a global basis. Intelsat is not only taking steps to increase access to the Internet in general, but by bringing more IP content into the satellite marketplace as a whole, Intelsat is providing service providers and end-users an opportunity to achieve lower costs, higher efficiencies and better performance overall at a time when the earthbound Internet is simply not living up to expectations.

      “Live streaming is looked at as a touchstone. It figures in almost every business model, but it is the hardest to do,” says Heddaya. According to Heddaya, Infolibria’s Media Mall (an advanced streaming content delivery platform) receives a live multimedia multicast and makes it available either as a live streaming event or as part of an on-demand service. This transfers the basic broadcast-based value equation for DBS satellites–the more DBS receivers per satellite, the higher the value of the satellite–from the direct broadcast TV realm to the IP realm. With DSL starting to ramp up quickly nationwide, Infolibria wants the satellite industry to pay close attention.

      Media Mall can be integrated with either Microsoft’s Windows Media Technologies, Real Networks’ G2 platform, Apple Computer’s Quick Time 4 or Cisco Systems’ IP/TV streaming media applications. Infolibria offers Dyna Cache–in conjunction with Media Mall or as a standalone device–as the ideal high-performance delivery and management platform for streaming media and Web objects.

      By installing Media Mall in a network, the DSL service provider can add a new tuner to the mix. As a result, if Infolibria has its way, the satellite industry will soon see a strong parallel between every cable headend and every emerging telco DSL-equipped central office. In a nutshell, there will be a compelling reason for distribution via satellite to have an equally strong role in the DSL arena. Heddaya says that as this mechanism is put in place for the delivery of high quality IP content via DSL, the race will be underway, and a fantastic business opportunity will be presented to satellite service providers.

      The Pace Is Quickening

      When Chandy Nilakantan, vice president and CTO of Skystream Networks Inc. in Mountain View, CA, looks around the global marketplace these days, he sees the pace picking up considerably. And while this increasing tempo, and the simultaneous emphasis on the scaling of the Internet, seem to be heading in the right direction, there are many infrastructure issues still unresolved.

      “The lack of adequate advancement in the scalability [the ability to accomodate surges in traffic] of the current Internet infrastructure lies at the root of it all. This lack of a scalable Internet infrastructure constitutes the single greatest limiting factor for the proliferation of rich content delivery to wide a audience of consumers and businesses at this point,” Nilakantan says.

      Coinciding with the uptick in all things Internet is the growing acceptance of satellite technology as a welcome and reliable alternative, a well-understood entity with an extremely broad footprint, an abundance of bandwidth, and built-in scalability.

      “Satellite operators are beginning to view their network assets much differently, and not just as an assembly of private networks or DTH-type services. Now, they have the opportunity to become Internet infrastructure players,” Nilakantan says.

      And Skystream is on a roll, announcing deals all over the globe involving its Skystream 2000 edge media router, and DBN series source media routers with forward-thinking content distribution companies like IBeam Broadcasting, Geocast (more on Geocast in a moment) and Edgix. In Asia, Skystream-powered networks are underway with Hong Kong-based Pacific Convergence Corp. (PCC), Shin Satellite in Thailand and a recently announced educational TV venture in China, to name just three.

      Identifying Solutions

      John Stevenson, CTO of Orblynx Inc. in Silver Spring, MD, points out that Orblynx is transitioning from a platform provider to a full-service provider. Orblynx is now using the global Intelsat footprint accessed out of the United Kingdom via a pair of Redwing Satellite uplinks along with an uplink operated by Kingston TLI.

      With the successful completion last year of the proof-of-concept phase of the Internet Distribution System (IDS) service platform under the original agreement with Intelsat, Orblynx is focusing on the fulfillment of a business model based on traffic flowing through the IDS2000 or what Stevenson describes as a full cache-multicast-to-cache configuration. With the full contingent of content management services drawn together in Orblynx’s Internet Jump Point (IJP), which serves both as the command center and central warehouse for all outbound satellite traffic, the goal is to facilitate the deployment of e-business applications worldwide with a user-friendly, turnkey approach.

      “Our IDS2000 service model is built upon a 2 Mbps outbound feed that we will increase to 4 Mbps, or 6 Mbps by the end of the year. Our primary customers are large and medium- sized ISPs offshore,” says Stevenson. “While we originally designed this as a two-way satellite service, we now use a terrestrial return path. It is much faster to deploy this on a satellite receive-only basis.”

      Orblynx is not unique in alleviating the speed bumps that plague congested and dysfunctional networks with an edge-to-edge solution. But it has taken reliable multicasting, and given it a more supportive framework extending from the IJP out to multiple so-called Internet Accelerator Stations (IAS).

      These sites can be deployed in any number, and they are instantly plugged into the same content management engine with complete scheduling and reporting functions layered on as well.

      Orblynx has inked deals already with Auckland, New Zealand-based Nettel, Globe Telecom in Manila, and MEC in Amman, Jordan. Other major customer-related announcements are expected soon.

      The Data Play Looms Large

      Just as we thought we had established some kind of baseline architecture for IP content distribution, along comes the broadcast TV industry. As it prepares to make a transition over the coming decade from analog to digital TV transmissions using a 19.4 Mbps off-air feed–the timetable put forth by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) points to a target completion date of 2006, although many skeptics see this as unworkable–there is an increasing emphasis by broadcasters on an unexpected new potential revenue stream in the form of data delivery.

      With HDTV apparently suddenly running out of steam, the interest in data broadcasting has gained considerable momentum. Several companies including Geocast, IBlast and DTV Plus are active in this market, which is still in its formative stages. Bear in mind that as the ongoing debate in DTV circles over 8-VSB versus COFDM modulation rages in the background, the data broadcasting buzz is intensifying rather than subsiding.

      Sam Matheny, vice president and general manager of DTV Plus, a division of Capitol Broadcasting Inc. in Raleigh, NC, says DTV Plus is using Microspace Communications Corp.’s facilities to feed out a 2 Mbps stream to TV stations. The Triveni Digital Skyscraper data broadcast system has been in place at WRAL-DT since December 1999, broadcasting IP data at 2 Mbps out to homes in the Raleigh, NC, market.

      Besides Princeton Junction, NJ-based Triveni Digital, formerly LG Electronics Research Center of America, DTV Plus has been working with Intel’s Center for Datacasting Innovation (CDI) in Santa Clara, CA, and Skystream Networks on a number of data broadcasting demonstrations. In particular, an elaborate data broadcasting demonstration at the NAB show incorporated all four companies. DTV Plus is currently working with Princeton, NJ-based Wavexpress, which was created by Sarnoff Corp., and Wave Systems Corp. to test data broadcast e-commerce applications.

      “We are talking about a classic network/affiliate model where satellite ties in the national feed, while local content, which is best produced only at the local level, remains just that. Satellite is used to constantly push out data, and update content. We are conducting everything from full software downloads to file transfers including full motion video files and MP3 files,” says Matheny, who indicates that much of this activity is centered on traffic in the 500 kbps range.

      “Data broadcasting in this fashion is still quite new. None of it is data synchronized with the video programming, not yet anyway. How fast this becomes available to the public depends upon how quickly TV stations roll out DTV, and how fast card manufacturers produce receivers (for PCs),” says Matheny. He indicates that DTV Plus is about to enter its second phase, where the focus will be on more advanced data broadcasting applications.

      Progress with respect to both the Advanced Television Systems Committee’s (ATSC) DTV Application Software Environment (DASE) initiative and the broad effort underway at the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) is being watched carefully, too. These two groups have tackled a whole series of tough standards-related issues that will influence the data broadcasting market enormously.

      At New Jersey Public Television Network’s (NJN) digital broadcast facility in Trenton (Channel 43), Wavexpress has been using Skystream Networks hardware to produce a local data stream from a Triveni Digital hub to a Broadlogic satellite receiver via a satellite feed off GE 3. Tests have involved a 2 Mbps outbound Wavexpress IP data stream at the NJN facility using a Triveni Digital Skyscraper card as well as at Sarnoff’s research facilities in Princeton. There, a Hauppauge WinTV-D card has been installed in a PC.

      Charles Jablonski, vice president of network engineering and operations at Geocast, indicates that Geocast is currently using several Mbps on GE 4 to distribute Geocast content directly to TV stations, and perhaps eventually directly to other platforms as well. Interlink Communications in nearby Mountain View is providing a 7 meter Ku-band uplink service to Geocast which has tapped Skystream Networks as its IP encapsulation platform. At press time, Jablonski says that a satellite receiver manufacturer had not yet been selected.

      “We want to provide a plug-and-play solution using the MPEG 2 transport in the ATSC stream. Eventually we will have a full 36 MHz transponder running MCPC, although we may end up splitting it in half in the event we have to develop a return path for local content, or we have multiple stations in a single market,” Jablonski says.

      While Geocast plans to distribute content to TV stations nationwide, Jablonski says that there is an internal discussion underway that may lead to a direct Geocast feed to an end-user in instances where broadcast TV reception is marginal.

      Peter Lude is head of broadcast engineering at Los Angeles-based IBlast Networks, which is reaching 83 percent of U.S. TV households through its recently created national DTV- based data broadcasting infrastructure. Lude says that, while the specific satellite-related plans for IBlast are not ready to be announced at this time, there is an obvious reason to use a satellite feed.

      “Most of the 150 or so TV stations which make up our national network will distribute the same content across the whole footprint. We will roll out a hybrid backbone network, and we will probably find that a half-transponder or 18 MHz will be adequate for our purposes,” Lude says.

      A Data-Intensive Exercise

      The millions of viewers who congregate in front of the TV sets each day require lots of up-to-date information about all the programming choices which are available, including pay-per-view events. Providing this data on a 7×24 basis is no easy task.

      The TV Guide Channel reaches 54 million TV households via 2,700 cable TV headends nationwide from its central transmission and post-production facility in Tulsa, OK, which also serves as one of two local content data ingestion points, along with one in Radnor, PA. Currently, the TV Guide Channel is uplinked both out of Tulsa and out of the National Digital Television Center (NDTC) in Denver, CO, using two transponders on Satcom C4.

      “We are currently in a bridging mode as we transition from analog to digital,” says Madeleine Forrer, senior vice president and general manager of the TV Guide Channel, which recently completed its $7.1 billion sale to Gemstar, based in Pasadena, CA. “Satellite technology has been really fundamental to the success of the TV Guide Channel throughout its 12-year history.”

      With just a quick look at the TV Guide Channel, one can instantly grasp the complexity of the operation from both the content distribution and scheduling standpoint. Using Vela encoders, Ampex 712 and 812 DST heirarchical storage management (HSM) systems, and Discreet Logic Smoke/Flame combo suites tied to an SGI Media Server with Raid 5 redundancy, the TV Guide Channel represents an extremely flexible solution, and it is all tracked by a proprietary software.

      “When you look at our brand new channel, what you see is video on the top half of the screen, which can either be real-time from a satellite feed, or a playback of local video,” says Forrer.

      Chicago-based Tribune Media Services (TMS) has leased a half-transponder–18 MHz–on Galaxy 11. They are in the process of moving from Galaxy 7.

      “We are the center of the universe as far as data going out to EPGs at DirecTV and Echostar’s Dish Network. Today, this flow to their uplink facilities occurs via land lines. As things move forward, we will move ahead into interactive programming guides (IPGs),” says John Kelleher, general manager for EPGs at TMS. “As this happens, instantaneous populating of the data field will require a bursty multipoint solution.”

      TMS is rolling out its own EPG for cable system operators known as Zap2it. Field trials will get underway this summer. Starting with an MPEG 2 streaming solution and migrating ultimately to an IP encapsulated solution, TMS will deploy so-called Zapper units at their headends, so cable operators will have access simultaneously to an Internet feed, and a tape-based video feed currently uplinked out of KTLA-TV in Los Angeles. IP content is ingested in Glen Falls, NY, piped to Toronto, and then sent out in the form of IP content. TMS is using Tandberg television encoders.

      “Right now, one port feeds a video window on the right part of the screen, while IP data is stored in the box. Eventually, the IP data will flow over the same transponder as the video,” says Kelleher. “We will move to IP encapsulated MPEG 2 content, and perhaps MPEG 4 content as well.”

      More And More Data

      According to Scott Fleck, chief technology officer and director of engineering at Omaha, NE-based Data Transmission Network Corp. (DTN), while a single satellite might be all that DTN requires, four satellites are employed with added back-up capacity. DTN handles everything from real-time weather imagery to a vast daily flow of equity market data. Still, DTN’s biggest customer uses a 38 kbps feed.

      Fleck points out that IP is not necessary, although it has widespread appeal on a global basis. DTN is exploring IP over satellite to enable some other functionality once it hits the ground at a customer’s site, as well as store-and-forward IP traffic beamed to client servers, but enthusiasm is mixed.

      Among other things, DTN has developed a proprietary protocol known as Virtual Channel Manager (VCM), which Fleck describes as a forerunner to the more widely accepted Quality of Service (QoS) solutions on the market today. For example, this is one of the tools that DTN will no doubt be using as Wall Street makes the gradual switch from its current fractions-based stock performance tracking system to one based on decimals.

      “The full implementation of decimalization of the equity market has been pushed back 9 months, and already we are seeing that the predicted volumes have either been met or exceeded. It is a well-defined cutover, symbol by symbol, but there are still lots of unanswered questions,” Fleck says. “To support the growing data flow from this decimalization process, we implemented a software-controlled upgrade which can take us quickly from 1 Mbps to 6 Mbps.”

      A Global Pathway

      Ottawa-based International Datacasting Corp. (IDC) is an eager participant in the broadening of product offerings in this sector, according to Gary Carter, vice president of sales and business development.

      “On the receive side, the major trends are the move to open standards, such as DVB and IP, which allow satellite datacasting networks to layer transparently onto the Internet, along with the appearance of multiple PC cards to full blown solutions like our SR2001A set-top receiver,” says Carter.

      New vendors are entering the multiplex arena as well. “The increasing number of new vendors is driving new features up, and pricing down. The move is towards providing total solutions, such as conditional access systems (CAs) and QoS, in order to meet the needs of convergence,” says Carter. “At the same time, modulation is migrating in the direction of 8PSK and QAM, and the market should see this by early next year. The obvious benefit is increased bandwidth, but the jury remains out on whether the market will accept the larger antenna sizes required.”

      Among other things, as a way to enhance the content management and distribution, IDC has recently added Starburst Software’s Omnicast content distribution software to its Superflex satellite data broadcast system.

      Customers have lots of different needs and the satellite service and hardware vendors are helping these customers to achieve the most bang for the buck. Providing a pathway to a global marketplace is what the satellite industry does best, and in this instance, the data pipeline in the sky is more than ample for the task at hand.

      Data Startups Have BIG Ambitions

      Satellite operators like Princeton, NJ-based GE Americom are taking this surging data traffic in stride. As you will see in a moment, tests are underway on satellites such as GE 3 involving Princeton-based e-commerce company, Wavexpress. PBS datacasts are unfolding there, too. The extensive field trials for the new Gilat-To-Home (GTH) two-way IP delivery service are also enabled by GE Americom.

      Another aspiring data broadcaster, Menlo Park, CA-based Geocast Network Systems Inc. is using GE 4. Other GE Americom customers in this rapidly expanding category include MD- based Cidera, which is now active with Time Warner’s Roadrunner, an Internet service provider which uses the cable TV distribution grid, and Santa Monica, CA-based Interpacket, which recently announced an agreement with IBeam Broadcasting Corp. in Sunnyvale, CA.

      “Our Woodbine, MD, uplink facility is handling multiple types of data, along with our new Digital C service which offers a data dimension to cable TV system operators. Woodbine is an aggregating and transmission site,” says Rick Langhans, vice president for customer support at GE Americom, who adds that an IP multicasting platform using Divicom encoders is available at this same facility.

      “These datacasting companies are looking for a migration path. They have global ambitions, and while they may start with a partial transponder, they tend to move quickly to a full transponder and beyond that,” Langhans adds.

      GE Americom has made a number of strategic moves in the content delivery sector as well. One such move involves Infolibria Inc. in Waltham, MA, which a GE Americom spokesperson identifies as both a customer and a company in which GE Americom’s corporate parent, GE Capital, has made a substantial investment.

      A Secure Role in the High Speed Edge Delivery Business

      For Viacast Networks Inc. in Ijamsville, MD, keeping up with the explosion in demand for services based on taking data to the edge of a network is the central theme this year. Companies such as IBeam Broadcasting, Cidera, Edgix and Orblynx have tapped Viacast recently.

      Tulsa-based Williams Vyvx Services uses Viacast’s IP Companion as part of its satellite-delivered ad insertion platform, and another well-known Tulsa-based content provider, the TV Guide Channel, has added Viacast’s IP Companion solution as an overlay to an existing Motorola Broadband Communications Sector (formerly General Instrument Corp.) Digicipher 2-based content distribution system. In one neat step, an upgrade to a reliable IP multicast network has been accomplished.

      “By overlaying our IP Companion 2500 receivers on top of the existing bank of GI DSR-4200V receivers, TV Guide Channel can now take full advantage of the benefits, advances and features of DVB including the ability to segment data based on PIDs and channels,” says Michael J. Beeler, Viacast’s CTO.

      “The internal transport we provide is DVB at the lowest level. We also have the ability to plug in our own processor modules,” adds Beeler, who says that Viacast has three models of the IP Companion which can come with either RS-530/RS-422 synchronous ports, ASI inputs or as a standalone L-band receiver. All feature Web-based demons with SNMP manageability–both inband and out-of-band–along with FTP upgradeability.

      “We are 100 percent embedded, and not a PC-based platform. The net result is an extremely flexible solution that offers very high throughput. This is best described as an embedded utility box, both on the encapsulation side and the remote side,” Beeler says.

      Viacast’s Forte product line also offers IP encapsulation and multiplexing in the same platform.

      As Via Satellite’s senior multimedia editor, Peter J. Brown tracks the global industry’s multimedia and Internet applications. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

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