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Video Compression Looks To Expand In 2001

By | April 10, 2001

      Digital video compression is one of those technologies that just keeps getting better. The reason? As programmers and manufacturers become increasingly familiar with video compression, they’re finding new ways to literally “do more with less.”

      Meanwhile, satellite operators and their clients are becoming more comfortable with compression. The result: end users are getting more performance out of their satellite technology, and there’s the promise of better features to come.

      Of course, in saying this Via Satellite is speaking from a technological standpoint. Who knows where the world marketplace, which is getting increasingly overwrought with recession fears, will go in 2001?

      But let’s look at this aspect too: should the economy start to tank in 2001, video compression may well prove to be a solution for the times. After all, it allows satellite users–the people who pay the freight for the entire industry–to do the same jobs while using less bandwidth.

      Granted, reducing signals to one-tenth their size hasn’t resulted in proportional price cuts by the operators. Still, it has reduced prices nonetheless, a fact that matters during tight economic times.

      On a larger scale, just imagine what the 21st century satellite uplink industry would be like without video compression. Either transponder costs would have gone through the roof, or the explosion of services made possible by video compression would never have occurred.

      Bottom line: video compression is good for everyone in the satellite industry. Here’s a look at some of the players, and what they’re doing.

      Compression Delivers Super Bowl Fever

      Renowned for its PowerVu video compression technology, Scientific-Atlanta (S-A) scored a major coup this January: at least as far as U.S. service personnel are concerned. Thanks to PowerVu and some new antenna stabilizing platforms, sailors on U.S. Navy ships watched the Super Bowl live.

      This is a bigger deal than it might seem. That’s because analog TV signals are unreceivable at sea, says Sam Lim, vice president and general manager of S-A’s media network business division. “It’s not just a matter of stabilized platforms,” Lim explains. “Analog signals are completely destroyed by the ships’ radar systems. Of course, one could turn off the radar in order to receive analog TV, but then the ships would be blind and vulnerable to attack.”

      S-A began working with the Navy last year on the Super Bowl challenge. Key to its solution was a low bit rate, high-power carrier to transport the MPEG 2 services. Essentially, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) traded off picture resolution and channel capacity in exchange for signal robustness. The result was a high-power VHS-quality signal that could blast its way through the ships’ radar.

      Although the S-A solution was initially tested in 2000, this year’s Super Bowl was the first time AFRTS used it on a widespread basis. Thanks to PowerVu, ” sailors on 220 ships got to see the Super Bowl live,” says Lim. “Previously, they had to wait until tapes of the game were dropped off by helicopter.”

      They weren’t alone: U.S. personnel around the globe saw the game via AFRTS. These included “the seven Marines who guard the U.S. Embassy in the Vatican,” says Lim. All told, AFRTS and PowerVu delivered the Super Bowl to 850,000 U.S. service people in 175 countries.

      Lim points to S-A’s Super Bowl triumph as a measure of video compression’s widespread industry acceptance. “We hardly have anyone running ‘torture test tapes’ at different compression ratios,” Lim says. “These days, people trust video compression to work, without question.”

      This said, Lim expects video compression to do even more with less, as its compression algorithms improve. “People used to say that you needed eight megs to do sports; now five to six are enough,” he says. “Given the continuing improvements both to software and hardware, we can expect those data rates to fall even further.”

      Hurray For Video Compression

      Atlanta’s Crawford Communications has understandable enthusiasm for video compression. That’s because “digital compression allows for certain economies of scale as well as a level of integrity that you sometimes don’t get with analog transmission,” says Missy Bern, Crawford’s director of broadcasting and media development.

      “There’s a lot of other benefits associated with digital video compression,” she adds. “For instance, with space segment being in such high demand, video compression allows us to serve more clients using the same satellites. As well, video compression improves the integrity of the signal, and gives our clients the power to enforce conditional access.”

      Of course, different customers prefer different kinds of compression. For instance, “if you’re talking about the news networks, NBC prefers one type of system, while CBS prefers another,” says Bern.

      This is why Crawford supports a range of video compression standards including S-A and Tiernan. “There isn’t a form of compression that we can’t talk to,” she says.

      Is there a fly in Crawford’s video compression soup? Yes, says Bern, and that’s the current price of space segment. Just because her company can now fit 10 channels on a single satellite transponder, doesn’t mean that bandwidth costs have fallen proportionately.

      In fact, “there’s not a tremendous difference between what it used to cost for a single analog channel, and what it now costs for a portion of it, based on the amount of data sent,” says Bern. She chalks this up to “supply and demand.” More people want to use satellites, allowing operators to raise their per-transponder costs accordingly.

      This said, Bern is seeing more and more U.S. broadcasters move over to digital technology, so they can take advantage of video compression. She expects this trend to continue over the next year, but warns that video compression’s advantages aren’t enough to dispatch analog satellite transmission quite yet. “I don’t think we’re at the point where analog’s about to become obsolete,” she says. “There’s enough infrastructure out there to keep it running for a while yet.”

      Supplying The Tools For Video Compression

      As a manufacturer of compression equipment, Scopus (formerly Tadiran Scopus) is integral to the video compression revolution.

      A case in point: Scopus’ Codico E-1000 professional encoders were used by CBS Newspath to cover both the 2000 Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Using Codico, CBS was able to squeeze 15 video channels onto a single transponder. This lets CBS affiliates pick and choose from the network’s coverage, customizing it to fit their specific audiences.

      With capabilities like these, it’s no wonder CBS Newspath used Codico once again when George W. Bush was inaugurated. Specifically, CBS used a Washington, DC, satellite truck equipped with Scopus MPEG-2 Codico E-1100 encoders to collect the feeds, combine them using a Scopus Codico RTM-3600 statistical multiplexer, and uplink them to CBS New York. There, Scopus Codico IRD-2600s were used to receive and decode the signals, which were then routed directly to CBS network control.

      “Doing the actual production switching in New York gave us access to all of the most sophisticated production tools and allowed us to use the same team that works together daily on the production of CBS Evening News,” says CBS Newspath Executive Director of Affiliate Services Mel Olinsky. “We didn’t have to send production people to Washington, DC, for a week and incur travel and housing costs, plus the cost of a production truck in DC.”

      For Ovadia Cohen, Scopus’ vice president of marketing, the CBS Newspath success illustrates just how much opportunity there is in video compression. “We are making great strides in providing end-to-end encoding solutions to customers like CBS, India’s VSNL–which has selected our system to bring digital broadcasting to India–and Indonesia’s Satelindo DTH satellite service, which covers Southeast Asia,” says Cohen. “Clearly, as more broadcasters turn to video compression, the future here is very, very bright.”

      Taking Video Compression To The Next Level

      Tandberg Television is another manufacturer focused on video compression. That’s why the company is releasing a new family of MPEG-2 encoders at NAB 2001, plus a new satellite modulator that should cut the cost of program delivery. The reason? Tandberg’s “unique higher order modulation solution” can double the bit-rate capacity on a given carrier, thus reducing bandwidth costs.

      In the meantime, Tandberg is supplying over 1000 TT1220 professional receivers to U.K. cable TV companies. The reason: BSkyB is about to turn off its analog feed, which means 45 cable TV headends in Britain and southern Ireland have to be upgraded to digital. Ironically, these headends will have to convert BSkyB’s digital signals into analog before passing them onto their cable TV subscribers.

      As well, the company is looking at MPEG-4 technology, in order to support video streaming. “It’s a new concept at this point, and a lot of our customers are investigating how they would use it,” says Lisa Hobbs, Tandberg’s director of marketing.

      Clearly, Tandberg Television is profiting from its video compression products. However, this silver lining does come with a cloud: namely increased competition from other manufacturers, which is driving down its margins. “We continue to see price erosion,” comments Hobbs, “which means that we constantly have to look for new ways to get cost savings.”

      Looking To Pump Out Compressed Video

      Wegener Communications has seen the future, and it is video compression. That’s why this company is staking its hopes on its new family of Unity iPump Media Servers.

      Configurable to work with either digitally compressed video or audio, the iPump Media Server integrates a digital satellite receiver with a multimedia server. The result is a highly flexible unit that can store and forward both audio and video files in either MPEG-2 Studio Profile (4:2:2) or Main Profile (4:2:0). Add Wegener’s Compel Control software to the mix, and a network operator can customize audio and video feeds for different audience segments, from demographic groups right down to individual consumers.

      Given the arrival of disk-based Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) like RePlay and Tivo, whose users can essentially skip recorded commercials with a few button pushes, the iPump may be exactly what broadcasters are looking for. That’s because each iPump Media Server has its own unique address on the network–addresses that can be matched to demographic information, and then used to select ads that the viewers might actually want to see.

      As well, the iPump’s store and forward capabilities mean that programmers can “transmit and store clips in nonreal time, then broadcast them back on demand,” says Paul Harr, Wegener’s vice president of marketing. “This feature also makes the iPump ideal for time shifting programs to cope with time zone differences, or for inserting regional ads to different markets.”

      Clearly, the iPump grasps the potential of video compression, and maximizes it. For broadcasters trying to boost revenues in the face of continuing audience fragmentation, it is a solution worth investigating.

      The Gateway For Compressed Video Services

      Optibase develops products that capitalize on video compression. For instance, the Optibase Media Gateway MGW 2000 is capable of encoding and transmitting 16 live and pre- recorded streams simultaneously, including up to six in real time.

      With capacity like this, it’s not surprising that Italy’s e.Biscom has selected the MGW 2000 to deliver broadband video services to 500 Italian cities and towns. “We plan on offering varied interactive services to our customers” says Ruggero Gramatica, e.Biscom’s chief information officer. “We have found that Optibase`s Media Gateway solution delivers the high performance we have been looking for.”

      In this instance, e.Biscom’s offerings will be carried on IP-based fiber optic networks. However, Optibase’s Media Gateways are also finding their way into the satellite market.

      A case in point: Optibase video compression technology is being integrated into Gilat Satellite Networks’ VSAT products as “a key step toward offering streaming media services to our customers,” says Gilat President and CEO Amiram Levinberg.

      Gilat isn’t the only satellite company interested in Optibase’s video compression technology. “In fact, we often find ourselves working with satellite service providers,” says Yaniv Garty, Optibase’s vice president of marketing and business development. “In particular, we can help them overcome the problem of distributing high quality video over the Internet.”

      However, where Garty sees a real opportunity for growth is in the two-way video market. “Over the next five years we estimate the interactive TV services market to be worth more than $1 billion, and satellite delivery will have a 20 percent share of that,” he says.

      With growth like this, it’s no wonder that Optibase is looking hard at video streaming, and ways to reduce operating costs further. That’s why the company is pushing ahead with MPEG-4 product development, because MPEG-4 delivers the same quality as MPEG-1 for less.

      “For instance, to support VHS-quality video you need about 1.2-1.5 Mbps for MPEG-1, and 700-800 kbps for MPEG-4,” says Garty. “That’s a substantial savings.”

      Harnessing Video Compression

      VBrick Systems Inc. is building its fortunes on video compression, and gambling that most of us don’t have a clue about it.

      This is why the company has developed the “Vbrick” family of digital networking products. Short for “Video Bricks,” VBricks are all-in-one MPEG Audio/Video encoder/decoders. Just plug them in, and you have two-way broadcast quality streamed video and audio. As a result, VBricks can be used to support videoconferencing, two-way broadcast news feeds, and distance learning–all over satellite, IP, ATM, or T1/E1 networks.

      “I’m going to sell you a device that’s going to do the things you want with zero complexity,” explains Rick Mavrogeanes, founder and president of VBrick Systems. “Better yet, there’s no ‘blue screen of death’ when you set it up, because the VBrick is a standalone product.”

      Is there a demand for such products? Well, VBrick has just been chosen by WebFN, the Web-based financial news network. Specifically, WebFN is using VBrick Systems Model 3911s to deliver streamed MPEG video from WebFN’s 100 remote locations to the company’s Chicago control center.

      “We knew WebFN’s unique streaming Webcasts, offering more than 90 live interviews each day, would only be viable with the VBrick technology,” says WebFN CEO Bob Reichblum. “This capability enables WebFN to bring its customers compelling, high-quality, real-time programming from virtually anywhere without relying solely on satellites and other traditional remote delivery mechanisms.”

      Meanwhile, the FBI used VBrick Model 3200s during President Bush’s Inauguration to stream video from FBI cameras to recorders based at Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police stations.

      “VBrick is honored to have provided the real-time security video feeds used to protect President Bush and the many distinguished guests and attendees at the inauguration,” says Mavrogeanes. “The selection by the FBI for this critical application is indicative of the quality and reliability of the VBrick network video appliance.” Remarks like these speak volumes about video compression’s growing acceptance in the marketplace. Ten years ago, no one would have trusted the President’s life with this technology, simply because video compression was so new.

      The Future Looks Bright

      As the stories above prove, video compression’s days as a algorithmic novelty are over. Its time has come, as more and more broadcasters and operators switch to this bandwidth- saving technology.

      As for the future? In a word, it’s bright. Video compression is ideally suited for recessionary times, because it’s ultimately cheaper to use than analog transmission.

      Meanwhile, should the Wall Street bears be wrong and 2001 ends up as a banner year, video compression will likely thrive nonetheless. The reason: it’s the right choice for businesses looking to expand, as well as those trying not to contract.

      James Careless is a contributing writer to Via Satellite.

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