One of the major challenges facing broadcasters today is preparing for the continuity of their business following a possible catastrophic event that disables the operation of their transmission facility.
Whether referred to as “disaster recovery” or “business continuity,” a backup plan must be flexible enough to accommodate both short- and long-term outages of the primary transmission site. At the same time, plans to survive an unlikely catastrophic event must also make sense within the economics of an ongoing business.
Planning for business continuity
Business continuity planning (BCP) should consider not only required resources and operational processes for deployment, but also the initial and ongoing costs as compared to the potential loss of market share, ad revenues and/or subscribers during a prolonged outage.
These considerations require evaluation from multiple perspectives and can be summarized with a few questions in four categories:
- Business considerations: Do we need a backup site? What quality of experience must it provide to viewers? What cost can be justified for backup? What revenue could be lost without backup?
- Logistical decisions: Where should a backup site be located? How will it be staffed? What communication is needed with the primary site? Is remote control needed between the sites?
- Operational requirements: How will we train staff to operate the backup site? What content and data transfer from the primary site will be needed to maintain the readiness of the backup?
- Solution technology: Should we replicate the systems in use at the primary site or choose a different solution for the backup? How important are flexibility and scalability for the backup solution?
Quality of experience vs. cost
An important early step in BCP is to decide on the quality of experience (QoE) the backup site will deliver to viewers. In other words, how will transmission from the backup site compare to transmission from the primary? What QoE is required to maintain market share, advertiser revenues and/or subscribers during an outage?
The QoE decision should strike a balance between the cost of the backup site and the potential loss of revenue during an outage. Three major components of this decision are:
- Signal quality: Will the backup site transmit the same resolution as the primary or will a lower-quality signal be sufficient? For example, do you need to match the HD 5.1 quality of the primary site or will an SD stereo signal be acceptable?
- Program currency: Will the backup site deliver the same program content as the primary site, or will some “evergreen” programming be used to reduce content replication and backup site storage?
- Transmission crafting: Will the backup site deliver the same “crafted” transmission as the primary site? In other words, must the backup transmission include all the effects, graphics and overlays of your normal transmission or will a “clean feed” suffice?
Each of these decisions will affect either the initial or ongoing cost of the backup site.
Choosing a solution technology
The availability of broadband communications and the emergence of file-based content have caused many broadcasters to consider a backup transmission facility. However, a major roadblock to deployment often has been cost, when measured against the likelihood of an extended outage. These analyses have usually included an assumption that the backup site would use the same type of transmission system as the primary site. As a result, even with a reduced QoE requirement, the cost of the required broadcast equipment for each channel can make a backup plan too expensive.
Recently, two significant changes have shifted the balance of this decision.
First, vulnerability has increased. The trend toward larger, multichannel broadcast facilities has raised the stakes in terms of revenues at risk from a single event, while the occurrences of catastrophic events around the world seem more frequent. One need only consider the potential effect of a catastrophe like the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean or the 2008 earthquake in China on a broadcaster reliant on a single-site operation in the region.
Second, the emergence of IT-based, “all software” transmission systems provide a new option for a lower-cost, feature-rich and highly scalable backup solution. By replacing conventional broadcast devices such as video servers, graphics devices and ancillary data inserters with functionally equivalent software operating on standard IT hardware, a single-channel “transmission chain” can be deployed on a few servers — at significantly less cost than a conventional solution.
Choosing to replicate your primary site technology in a backup site does eliminate some of the uncertainties that any new technology brings. However, the cost of conventional transmission systems for multiple channels can make the economics of BCP unworkable.
An IT-based, all-software solution for backup transmission combined with a conventional primary site does require some operational changes, but these are largely temporary, such as staff training. The benefits of this new technology not only enable an effective BCP today, but can also validate a new transmission solution for a future upgrade of your primary site.
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