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Managing complexity and costs at DIRECTV

DIRECTV, a U.S. digital satellite television service, began the new millennium with the significant challenge of collecting local channels from cities throughout the United States for re-broadcasting to its customer base without significantly increasing its operating costs or sacrificing broadcast quality.

The uplink antennas at the Los Angeles broadcast center serve all DIRECTV’s uplink channels.

More than 12.7 million subscribers in the United States and Latin America receive programming using 18-inch satellite dishes and set-top boxes from a variety of vendors including Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Philips, RCA, Sony, Toshiba and Zenith. Customers of the service get access to digital programming, including 225 channels, as well as up to 36 music channels and a wide variety of Spanish-language services.

The widespread launch of local channels would allow direct broadcast satellite companies to give cable a run for its money, but only if they could ensure that it maintained the same picture quality, broadcast availability and general reliability as their existing programming.

The solution would require the assistance of the recently established commercial technology division of the BBC. BBC Technology’s broadcast engineers and consultants crafted a solution for the satellite provider based on its broadcast network control solution, a suite of standards-based networking technologies and interface design tools used by the BBC itself.

Expanding requirements

Digital satellite systems initially suffered in comparison to cable because of their lack of widespread local programming. All this changed in December of 1999 when Congress recognized the need for local broadcast stations’ coverage by Direct Broadcast Satellite services by passing the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act (SHVIA). The result of this legislation was the eventual rollout of local channel service to 52 television markets.

The broadcast operations center in Los Angeles has control over more than 100 local channels. An additional 100 channels or more are controlled at the broadcast operations center in Castle Rock, CO.

One of the most important steps in DIRECTV’s plans for local channel distribution was the launch of a new Boeing 601HP satellite, the first spacecraft in the satellite provider’s fleet to use highly focused spot beam technology. Spot beam technology allows satellite operators to re-use frequencies on a geographic basis by focusing the beams into small “spots,” thus multiplying the services transmitted, allowing the same frequency to be used multiple times across the country. Apart from a more efficient use of frequencies, spot beams are also used to concentrate the satellite signals to areas where higher traffic is expected to be generated. This new satellite provided DIRECTV with the capacity to deliver more than 300 additional local channels to its 41 local channel markets and meet the “must-carry” requirements of SHVIA.

Having the capacity to broadcast local programming was only the first step, however. The satellite provider also had to have an infrastructure in place to capture local programming at the source and transfer it back to their central broadcast facilities. Thus, management made the decision to build a series of local programming collection facilities in 41 of the nation’s leading television markets.

Each of these facilities consists of antennas, local loop connections to TV stations, and other equipment that captures and encodes local broadcast signals. The programs are then transported via terrestrial fiber (a process called backhauling) to one of the company’s two central facilities in Castle Rock, CO, and Los Angeles. Once there, the signal is transcoded into proper broadcast format and uplinked for distribution.

In order for this system to be cost-effectively deployed, the facilities needed to be unmanned. It would cost a great deal of money to maintain permanent staff at more than 40 regional centers. However, it also costs a lot of money to send crews out to make repairs and adjustments. So even though the system would be unmanned, it needed to maintain the utmost standards of serviceability and reliability.

Peter Vellos, operation supervisor at the broadcast operations center in Los Angeles, benefits from the Broadcast Network Control solution, which allows single-operator control and monitoring of equipment.

To make this system work in a reliable and cost-effective manner, a monitoring and control system was needed that would enable the company to carry out quality control checks at their distant sites – without taking staff away from their normal tasks.

Remote management and control

When evaluating the possible solutions for this complicated control requirement, DIRECTV researched BBC Technology’s software-based broadcast network control solution. The fact that its software runs on standard PC hardware and operating systems meant that it would be both cost-effective and simple to install. So DIRECTV approached BBC Technology for a custom-designed version for their unique requirements.

The phrase “control system” is a loose term that can be applied to many things, from a simple feedback loop to an extremely complex group of interrelated subsystems. In the broadcast domain, the most complicated architectures are found in studios, control rooms and central technical areas. They must communicate with all the controlled elements via whatever physical connection is offered and present timely and relevant information to the users regarding status, progress and available options. They must arbitrate between concurrent users sharing resources, assist cooperative working and deliver fully automatic, semi-automatic and manual control in the way that different users require at different times.

The BBC broadcasts many national and regional television and radio channels. As such, it has many large-scale and diverse control requirements, so it set out to create a system that would meet its needs. For the past seven years, most of the BBC’s audio and video transfers and contributions, as well as much of its broadcast plant, have been controlled by the broadcast network control solution.

The solution runs on standard PC hardware. User-friendly, touch-screen technology provides the interface to the system and allows single-operator control and monitoring of many pieces of equipment at multiple locations – including remote and unstaffed areas. This greatly reduces the amount of equipment – and therefore space – required to support multiple channels and broadcast streams.

The solution has the ability to control multiple systems/devices from a single workstation including cameras, codecs, integrated receivers/decoders, ISDN terminal adapters, routers, satellite receivers, upconverters, video disks, video mixers, VTRs and much more. In fact, it supports the full combination of hardware from any manufacturer used in the broadcast communication chain.

To extend its reach, DIRECTV needed to be able to capture local programming at the source and transfer it back to its central broadcast facilities. Local programming collection facilities in 41 markets can be monitored and controlled from the company’s main broadcast centers.

It integrates otherwise incompatible devices into a single, coherent control system using a simple WAN or Intranet connection to control multiple systems at different sites. It can provide a status display of every device at every remote facility, providing useful information such as status of a video feed or Web page. Status display screens also provide systemwide fault logging and alarms management from a single, intuitive display.

To help assess how the software could be customized to meet the satellite provider’s specific needs, BBC Technology installed simulator systems at the main broadcasting centers. At each site the simulator system consisted of two PCs with monitors and one touch-screen control panel – all running the control software and linked to the existing computer network.

Throughout the trials, BBC Technology’s engineers worked closely with the facility’s engineering staff to develop a system that matched the broadcaster’s existing infrastructure and working practices. Once satisfied that the system could do what had been promised, an advanced control environment was installed across five different U.S. cities where local programs are collected, as well as at the company’s two main broadcasting centers. As a readily expandable control platform, the solution could then easily be rolled out to the other centers in the network – as indeed it was.

The control solution has now been installed in remote facilities across 41 cities on the network, and the customized software allows staff at its main broadcasting centers to monitor and control the entire operation. In total, DIRECTV can now control up to 50 devices per local collection facility (LCS) and approximately 600 devices at each of the two broadcast centers – for a total of almost 3000 devices including routers, demodulators, integrated receiver decoders, DVB decoders, EPI crates and more.

Clear results

Because channel collection facilities are physically scattered throughout the United States, the control technology from BBC Technology has enabled DIRECTV to provide the high-quality service efficiently.

Having contributed to the successful launch of 220 additional satellite channels for the U.S. market, the BBC Broadcast Network Control solution provides monitoring of almost 400 channels.

Having contributed to the successful launch of 220 additional satellite channels for the U.S. market, the BBC Technology broadcast network control solution today provides remote monitoring of almost 400 channels, from the point of acquisition to uplink, and finally, the integrity of the downlink. This allows program outages to be easily identified and rectified without staff needing to visit the sites directly.

The touch-screen panels have provided the operators with an intuitive user interface, and since this was developed to closely match existing operational processes, the solution has also minimized the company’s need for expensive user training.

Next steps

Once the system had been up and running for a number of months, DIRECTV placed another order with BBC Technology to expand the system across 10 additional U.S. cities during 2002.

Plans for local programming continues to expand. The company currently offers local broadcast channels in 52 markets. With the successful launch of a new Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) 1300 spot beam satellite in the fourth quarter, and using advanced digital compression technology, DIRECTV will provide local broadcast channel service in approximately 100 markets by year-end, representing roughly 84 percent of U.S. television households.

David Baylor is the executive vice president of DIRECTV.

Design TeamBBC Technology:Julian Williams, pre-sales and product marketingShannon Kim, VP, salesPeter Watson, lead architectDIRECTV:Rick Purpura and Frank Hironaka, sr. directorsMitchell Linden, sr. VP, North American OperationsEquipment listBoeing 601HP satelliteSpace Systems/Loral (SS/L) 1300 spot beam technologyBarco large screen display wallBBC Technology solution for broadcast network control

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