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Fox Sports Net

The new ATM network, the Fox Video Network (FVN), includes 20 regional locations connected with the main FSN facilities in Los Angeles and Houston. Flexible
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The new ATM network, the Fox Video Network (FVN), includes 20 regional locations connected with the main FSN facilities in Los Angeles and Houston.

Flexible peer-to-peer communications arrangement enables the FSN partners to share programming material without direct and constant intervention.

Unabashed enthusiasm for sports programming, with all its variety and action, has propelled the Fox Sports Network (FSN) to the attention of most sports TV viewers. FSN is distributed through a network of regional cable channels and is currently building on a base of 62 million homes in the U.S. and over 8 million homes in the Latin American market.

In response to the demands for additional programming and the desire for a digital redesign, the network has expanded its existing operations by implementing an innovative network communications scheme and incorporating new digital television interconnection solutions. Driven by the national production needs of The Regional Sports Report, FSN evaluated numerous technical strategies to create a new content distribution network. This broadcast project goes beyond the usual digital upgrade description because FSN decided to build its national network around ATM architecture. In fact, it is the first customer-controlled ATM/Switched Virtual Circuit (SVC)-based system in the U.S.

Using their groundbreaking networking capabilities, the network and its regional affiliates are now equipped to better leverage their collective regional and national sports programming to satisfy sports-hungry viewers everywhere.

Introduction to FSN

The Fox Sports Net main properties include national production and origination facilities located in Houston and Los Angeles. Paired with those facilities are 20 regional FSN affiliate sports bureaus. These include joint ownership arrangements with industry players such as NBC, Cablevision, and Comcast. A new program, The Regional Sports Report, is a twice-daily half hour show produced in nine regions and aired in all 22 regions that comprise FSN.

After Fox considered several approaches to create and support a collaborative, production process, a TCP/IP network emerged as a viable and cost-effective solution. FSN team decided on the new networking and communications architecture to share program information among the far-flung group partners and facilities including regional sports channels in New York, Washington, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco. The completed ATM network and operation enables, manages and transfers programming services among its distributed partners around the country.

The turnkey engineering design tasks included the development and delivery of new signal and control systems at each bureau location. The substantial origination operations at the main locations in Houston and Los Angeles were engineered to meet the 24/7 operational requirement incorporating fault tolerant considerations. The new network design is also equipped with effective signal management solutions to address its mission critical communications requirement. Redundant DS-3 and OC-3 circuits are utilized to keep potential telecommunications interruptions to an absolute minimum.

FSN transitions to the Fox Video Network (FVN)

Driven by the fault tolerant nature of broadcast designs, an exhaustive analysis of telecommunication and broadcast alternatives was conducted to evaluate a prospective broadcast-ready and cost effective solution. The key cost component of the FSN digital upgrade, beyond investments in new digital broadcast systems, centered on the utilization of a 500Mb/s guaranteed bandwidth solution built around a national ATM network. Older cost structure models for telecommunications circuits were giving way to this new aggregate bandwidth and pricing model.

It was determined that using TCP/IP protocols would be adequate for delivering MPEG file transfers but FSN also needed to use the network for multiple live streams mixed with the other less time-dependent video traffic. An analysis showed that ATM's Quality of Service (QoS) offerings could support various kinds of simultaneous network traffic. ATM can prioritize signals such as high priority live video streams that use a CBR connection alongside simple MPEG-2 file transfers that use ABR (Available Bit Rate) connections. ATM's time-based guaranteed delivery capability along with its ability to integrate the local regions' OC-3 and DS-3 circuits provided FSN with an end to end networking solution that met all its communications needs.

The provisioning of a guaranteed bandwidth solution was pursued through national telecommunications vendors. FSN finally chose the ATM architectural component based upon the long-term trends and selected a cost-effective aggregate offering through Williams Communications. The new ATM network, the Fox Video Network (FVN), includes 20 regional locations connected with the main FSN facilities in Los Angeles and Houston. FSN's leading edge approach and its cost-effective underpinnings are bolstered every day by the phenomenal bandwidth expansion of the IP-based networking that continues unabated, everywhere.

The FSN plan to create a comprehensive design and to build new facilities at selective Fox locations proceeded. This project effort included a comprehensive solution to be integrated at each of the regional sports bureaus. FSN worked closely with a team of vendors to develop important design and technical functions and to solve critical management and control problems associated with the new digital operation.

The design process

Fox selected Communications Engineering, Inc., (CEI) to design, engineer and integrate the FSN facilities including the main Network Operations Center (NOC) in Los Angeles. Each of the 20 FSN regional affiliate locations also received an integrated ATM-based MPEG-2 system solution. FSN's new ATM-based network enables peer-to-peer connections between all locations in the country and supports simultaneous, bidirectional transfer of program content and control signals. The major technical and vendor solutions used in the FSN network are Tandberg's comprehensive MPEG compression/decompression systems and Marconi ATM and TCP/IP network switches.

FOX Sports Net approached Tandberg Television as a key component of the national video over ATM network due to Tandberg's turnkey solution for live streaming MPEG-2 video over ATM. Tandberg's comprehensive solution, which included sophisticated software management tools, was attractive since it enabled FSN to work with one vendor as opposed to several, therefore eliminating a number of potential incompatibility issues. The compression and decompression processing of program material is delivered through a series of encoders, decoders, and ATM network interface cards. Marconi (formerly Fore Systems) was chosen due to its carrier class ATM experience and extensive networking product line. FSN also desired to manage its own telecommunication network and Marconi's control software enables FSN to monitor and control its network of ATM switches located throughout the country. Communications Engineering Inc. (CEI), at its facility in Newington, Virginia, integrated the Tandberg and Marconi systems along with other broadcast technologies such as routing, monitoring, communications, and test & measurement solutions. A self-contained system was designed and built for each of the 20 FSN regional affiliate locations.

In the initial phase, FSN deployed 40 of Tandberg Television's E5610 encoders and 85 Alteia decoders. At each of the regional sites, original analog or digital program material is passed into an E5610 encoder, an MPEG-2 DVB compliant compression engine, which produces a DVB ASI transport stream. With a built-in ATM Network Interface Card, the E5610 encoder converts the DVB ASI transport stream to ATM packets through the encoder output, which feeds directly into the Marconi switches. The stream passes through a FVN connection link to another location's ATM Network Interface Card where it is converted from ATM packets back to a DVB ASI signal. The DVB ASI signal then becomes an input to the Alteia decoder, which outputs the original broadcast quality audio and video into a server or tape device. The FSN network is designed to pass professional contribution quality 4:2:2 audio and video at an average bitrate of approximately 20 Mb/sec. The high compression quality achieved with the E5610 encoder when paired with a 20 Mb/sec. transmission bitrate supports FOX Sports requirement to maintain exceptional video quality through multiple generations of encoded program material.

NOC

The FSN Network Operations Center could have been situated almost anywhere given the relatively small footprint of technology that actually manages and monitors the distributed technology components of FSN's peer-to-peer network. The NOC was built near other Fox broadcast operations in Los Angeles with the main components consisting of an equipment center and control room that houses the video/control display wall and operations consoles. A key consideration to the 24/7 operation is the FSN control and monitoring of all systems and locations comprising the FVN. The NOC uses a series of comprehensive software management tools designed into consoles in the main NOC room and displayed on a sophisticated monitor wall.

Master Control display

The custom monitor wall and operators consoles designed by CEI incorporate a combination of 9- and 14-inch broadcast monitors, flat panel computer displays, and eight 50-inch LCD Rear Projection Displays. The display systems are integrated with a multi image display system that allows the NOC operators to dynamically select a variety of video sources and control monitoring maps to be presented on the 50-inch LCD displays. Prearranged combinations of inputs can be alternatively displayed or blended on the LCD rear projection screens to support simultaneous viewing of picture quality, individual component health status, or ongoing communications connections and traffic. CEI worked with FSN operators to design flexibility into the control room's consoles, monitor wall and monitor bridge fixture, and developed control software to streamline operations. FSN operators are provided efficient access to the NOC's extensive technical systems, analysis tools, signals, and communications controls.

In order to keep track of the numerous program sources that appear on the presentation displays, a source identification system was incorporated into FSN's under monitor displays. Information to drive the source ID displays is derived from the routing and control switching systems. The NOC's control software polls the status of the various technology systems and presents color-coded alerts with specific FSN systems and locations identified. These alerts are superimposed on a national map thus aiding the FSN monitoring process. Color-coding (Green, Yellow or Red) as well as audible alarms immediately cue the operators to a telecommunications connection or equipment failure. The alarm and control management tools help the operators prioritize the multitude of activities being monitored across the widely dispersed but highly interdependent systems.

Monitoring and software controls

The monitoring system for the TCP/IP network is built around the SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) and uses Hewlett Packard's Open View software system. FVN's in-band monitoring and control signals utilize the same ATM network connections and systems as the programming. The following software monitoring tools help FSN to identify nonperforming systems, efficiently address operations issues, and timely facilitate smooth network operations:

  • As part of an end-to-end solution, FOX Sports Net utilizes Tandberg Television's new control software, Cortex, to support system control, monitoring, scheduling, resource and bandwidth allocation. With its client-server based architecture and comprehensive feature set, the Cortex software solution enables FOX Sports Net to implement the centralized monitoring and control procedures required for the extensive switched video network
  • The NOC also uses ForeView software from Marconi to manage the distributed ATM systems and network devices that link servers, workstations, and telecommunication circuits distributed throughout the country. The FSN operators are presented with location maps illustrating the operational status and health of the widely distributed ATM and TCP/IP network technology that comprises the Fox Video Network.
  • CEI designed and developed a Panja (AMX)-based control system that monitors the health and controls the operation of each regional site's rack of broadcast technology. Any interruption of signal flow will provide a visual alarm on the national map that is displayed within the Fox NOC.

While the NOC in Los Angeles monitors and maintains control over the performance of the national network, each regional sports bureau can and will create its own communications sessions with the other locations of the Fox Sport Network. The flexible peer-to-peer communications arrangement enables the FSN partners to share programming material without direct and constant intervention of the LA NOC operations staff.

With the implementation of this ATM/SVC video network, the FSN controls its own feeds, manages its own resources and bandwidth allocation. An immediate advantage of this arrangement is that it eliminates delays associated with scheduling and booking feeds from a third party provider. Further, FSN has realized significant cost savings associated with the ATM network compared to the transmission costs of a traditional satellite or point-to-point fiber network. By having a combination of dedicated ATM/IP bandwidth capacity, encoders and decoders, and a network control system all operational 24/7 from the NOC in Los Angeles, FOX Sports Net has more flexibility, reliability and control while simultaneously lowering total operational costs.

Above all, FSN is pleased about its current cost advantages and the performance of its ATM-based Fox Video Network. As FSN's experience grows, it is anticipated that additional Fox signals and programming will migrate to the FVN such as event backhaul and other more critical content distribution tasks. FSN's future operational efficiency will also increase due to the expected availability of increasingly lower cost IP network bandwidth services in the market.

The reality of broadcast operations today is that you must do more and better with less, and that is a good description for FSN's upgraded facilities.

Steve Lewis is director of sales and marketing for Communications Engineering, Inc.

Equipment list

Bureau Locations

APC Matrix UPS System
EVERTZ small SDI Router
MARCONI/FORE ATM Switch
MARCONI/FORE Ethernet Switch
IKEGAMI 9" Color Video Monitor
IMAGE VIDEO Under Monitor Display
LEITCH Xplus
LEITCH Frame and Signal Processing Systems
TANDBERG VAM ClipCourier
TANDBERG MPEG encoders
PANJA (AMX) Systems
ROSS encoders
TEKTRONIX Serial Digital Component Monitor
WOHLER monitors
RTS TW Communications System

NOC

BEST POWER Axxium UPS System
CEI Monitoring & Control
CEI Custom Display and Monitor Wall
CEI Monitoring & Control Console
EXTRON Computer Video Distribution System
MARCONI/FORE ATM and Ethernet Switches
HAFLER Power Amplifier
IKEGAMI 9" & 14" Color Monitors
IMAGE VIDEO Under Monitor Display
LEITCH Xplus
LEITCH Frames and Signal Processing Systems
LINK Genflex D/A Sync Generators
McCURDY Audio Metering
MIRANDA Multi Image Display Systems
TANDBERG MPEG Encoders
PANJA (AMX) Systems
ROSS encoders
VIEWSONIC Flat-panel LCD displays