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2016 ‘Bits By The Bay’ Plays to Sell-Out Crowd

CHESAPEAKE BEACH, MD.—I recently wrote about the value (and necessity) of keeping up-to-date, especially in a broadcast engineering career. Last month, I was back in the classroom with some 156 of my peers trying to wrap my brain around some of the latest developments involving cloud workflows, video encoding, OTT delivery, IMF, IP connectivity, UHD, and a lot of other technologies that have blossomed since I made the move from engineering to writing and editing.

Conference co-chairs Peter Wharton (L) and Rick Singer.
This continuing education opportunity that I took advantage of is provided under the auspices of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and is entirely coordinated and organized by volunteer members of the local (Washington, D.C.) SMPTE Section. The two-day technical conference has been held since the late 1990s, beginning as a joint venture between the SMPTE Section and the now-defunct Washington Executive Broadcast Engineers (WEBE) group and held at a number of waterside venues before settling here at a small resort and restaurant seven years ago. According to conference co-chair Peter Warton, the “Bits By The Bay” moniker was bestowed on the event by the mayor of Chesapeake Beach, Bruce Wahl (who just happens to be a SMPTE member himself).

The tech con is always sold out well in advance of opening day, and while crafted to be regional in scope, draws attendees from as far away as Atlanta and New York. Despite its out-of-the-way location (it’s about an hour’s drive from downtown Washington, depending on the traffic) and small size (limited to less than 160 people by the seating capacity of the hotel’s largest meeting space), the event manages to attract top-notch broadcast industry presenters from far and near. (This year’s speaker list included Sony CTO Hugo Gaggioni; Mike Koetter, senior vice president of media technology and development with Turner; telecommunications consultant Wes Simpson; John Shike, vice president of marketing and channel management at SAM; Sinclair Senior Director Lou Libin; Philip Schoene, senior director, engineering & technical maintenance at PBS; Grass Valley CTO Chuck Meyer; Tektronix Senior Field Video Application Engineer Karl Kuhn; and Lawo’s Mike Mueller and Andreas Hildebrandt, who spoke via Skype from Germany.

The seemingly inevitable shift to IP technology within the broadcast arena was deemed sufficiently important by conference organizers that almost a full day was devoted to IP-related presentations, with no less than six presenters offering their views, ideas and implementation suggestions about moving to this form of connectivity.

Bob Ferguson, Belden broadcast audio and video specialist, was one of those offering his thoughts on the future of IP, as well as suggestions for making the transition, first noting that some 60 percent of broadcasters and content producers have already begun some IP implementation, with that figure steadily growing.
“Twenty-five percent are going to add it this year or next year,” said Ferguson. “IP is going to be in your system somewhere.”

He observed that while fiber was probably the best choice for IP interconnectivity due to its inherent noise immunity and bandwidth capabilities, most broadcast installations will likely be constructed with “Category-type” or “CAT” data cables. He cautioned potential implementers, however, that all CAT cable is not the same.

The tech con is always sold out long before opening day.
“I wouldn’t consider CAT-5 at all,” said Ferguson. “At minimum, you should go with CAT-6,” he said, but noted that this really isn’t the cable of choice where moving high-speed packets is involved. “[It’s] basically designed to support 1 Gbps. CAT-6A is a different product. It’s swept out to 500 MHz and is good for 10 Gbps.”

He stated that an even better Category cable, CAT-8, will be available later this year and that it really should be given a lot of consideration for IP facility construction. “It’s designed to support 40 Gbps operation at distances of up to 30 meters,” stated Ferguson.

IP evangelist Hugo Gaggioni praised the burgeoning technology as a means of greatly simplifying a broadcaster’s life, noting that by using IP connectivity it would be possible to send only a bare minimum of equipment out into the field for remote broadcasts, with such big ticket and bulky items as production switchers, DVEs, and the like remaining behind at the studio. He also noted that even with present-day remote broadcast practices, IP could make a very large difference in another area.

“In constructing a large production truck it’s possible to save as much as 85 percent in weight by using IP connectivity [instead of conventional coax and twisted pair audio],” said Gaggioni.

Evertz’s Paul Briscoe offered other reasons for making a shift to IP, observing that while SDI worked well and was simple and easy to implement, it was beginning to reach the end of its utility.

“With 4K/p60, things are starting to get a little tough,” he said. “SDI is tapped out at 12 Gbps on coax. [Also] the workflow capabilities are exhausted. The essences are bound together inside SDI—the audio and video are glued together, the metadata is all glued together. We can’t connect any type of intelligence; everything is nailed down.”

In offering additional reasons for making a move to IP, Briscoe observed that “SDI is very format-specific while IP is format-agnostic. It gives us a lot of flexibility.”

The SDI to IP sessions (“Inside the Plant: Transitioning to a Standards-Based All-IP Facility”) were only part of the conference subject matter. Other sessions covered the television spectrum auction, NASA’s implementation of a UHD channel, disaster recovery, the changing complexion of consumer device connectivity, and even included a special session in which Wes Simpson offered his thoughts about the best way to prepare technical personnel to handle new technologies.

Asked about the popularity and success of “Bits By The Bay,” especially when similar conferences often have trouble attracting attendees and presenters, Wharton (whose day job is vice president of technology and business development at Broadstream Solutions, and in addition, serves as secretary/treasurer for the SMPTE international organization) ascribes it to several factors.

“I think a big factor is that we have a very active SMPTE Section with members who enjoy getting involved in the conference,” said Wharton. “It also helps that we have a large broadcasting community in and around Washington; Discovery, PBS and several station groups. Every major network has representation here, and of course, there’s a very large government and military presence in the area, with numerous television facilities and technical personnel. However, I think also it’s due to the fact that we put together a really good program and, over the years, have built this up and as a result are able to attract some really good presenters.”

Wharton also thought that the conference location—despite its remoteness and complete lack of public transportation—was a factor in attracting both attendees and presenters.

“People like getting away and coming to the beach and there’s a friendly, sort of ‘family, vibe’ here and the small town setting makes it very affordable,” he said. “Registration is just a small fraction of what you’d pay for a technology conference in New York or Los Angeles. We try to make it very affordable for our members and others to attend.” (“Early-bird” admission for SMPTE members is $100 and $200 for non-members. Hotel rooms at the compound are also a comparative bargain at less than $150 per night.)

SMPTE's Executive Director, Barbara Lange, traveled to Maryland to welcome "Bits By The Bay" attendees.
Barbara Lange, SMPTE’s executive director, traveled from the organization’s headquarters in White Plains, N.Y. to attend this year’s conference, and also shared her thoughts on the reasons for its success.

“While I think that the SMPTE annual conference that we do in Hollywood is a nice size, there’s something to be said for a more intimate event and I think that ‘Bits By The Bay’ is this sort of ‘secret sauce,’” she said. “It’s the coming together of a great program with local flavor. The fact that it’s this size really helps, because bigger is not necessarily better. I want to congratulate the Washington Section on their efforts.”

As I’ve pointed out many times, there’s no such thing as too much education, especially in such a rapidly changing and developing field as ours, and there’s no excuse not to stay current with such regional conferences as “Bits By The Bay” available at a fraction of the cost of those held in a major city. SMPTE Sections in other areas—New England, Toronto and Montreal, come to mind—also host tech conferences and “boot camps,” and the SBE and IEEE also provide such opportunities (the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology Society has taken their annual Fall Symposium) on the road in recent years in an attempt to reach more broadcast engineers, with this year’s event set in Hartford, Conn., Oct.12-14. Be sure and check the websites of all three organizations for information about an educational event near you. Remember the old saying, “opportunity favors the prepared mind.” And in today’s broadcasting technical area, having the proper preparation could mean the difference in easily finding or keeping a job or looking for work.

I hope to see you in Chesapeake Beach next May!