When Italian broadcaster Mediaset faced the challenge of connecting its Rome production centers with a digital network, it deployed a solution based around Cisco’s ONS 15454 multiservice transport platform. The platform includes the Catalyst 4500 and 6500 switches, shown here.
Broadcasters worldwide have struggled against an economic downturn and sluggish advertising revenues. Italian broadcaster Mediaset Group is bucking this trend, posting a 45.7 percent increase in net profit from advertising revenue that had climbed an almost negligible 0.4 percent compared to the previous year. This was achieved by a 10 percent reduction in operating costs, and by programming changes that resulted in increased viewership — direct benefits resulting from the company's investments in digital networking to better use its media assets and increase operational efficiency.
With the Italian government laying down new rules regarding ownership and market share that privatized the public broadcaster Rai, and setting targets aimed at an overall switch to digital terrestrial television (DTT) by January 2007, the group needed a new network solution for its Rome facility. As part of its longer-term vision, the broadcaster created a high-speed TV production network in the late 1990s — primarily to serve its TV news production teams, based in three sites in Milan. The results there were dramatic but, in trying to repeat the network formula in Rome, the company faced a number of goals and challenges, including:
- The need for a sufficient return on investment (ROI) based on the right choice of transmission technology.
- The need to ensure that the solution fit into its long-term vision of creating a high-capacity, totally digital national infrastructure — first by connecting the new Rome network to Milan, and then extending its reach to regional branches and beyond to its programming partners.
- The need to address bandwidth bottlenecks and the unreliability of microwave links due to atmospheric conditions between the three Milan production sites.
- Its inability to lay its own fiber cables because of Rome's population density and architectural heritage.
The Catalyst 4500 and 6500 switches provide high-speed Ethernet connectivity for Mediaset’s production facilities and individual employees within each site.
The group needed an answer that offered the high broadcast-quality performance it demanded and maximized ROI by also supporting corporate voice, data and low-quality video over the same fiber-optic link. For a broadcaster planning to start DTT transmissions, digital networking offered the opportunity for new workflow and efficiencies.
The broadcaster believed that the way forward was with DWDM technology, and it soon began discussions with several vendors, including the main supplier of its core microwave-based transmission equipment. After four months of careful evaluation, Mediaset chose to implement a solution based on dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM), a technology more often found at the core of a telco network than at the core of a broadcaster's network. It selected a solution based around the Optical Networking System (ONS) 15454 multiservice transport platform from its technology partner, Cisco Systems, and leased fiber optic to create a ring linking the three production centers in Rome.
Cisco Systems had been a technology partner to the group for many years, providing the equipment that supported corporate LANs and WANs. In 2003, it suggested that its new ONS 15454 multiservice transport platform could place the synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH) aggregation of Gigabit Ethernet frames alongside the transport of digital SDI signals on a transparent clear-channels port.
Mediaset decided to go with a network based on DWDM technology to meet its needs in Rome.
One of the key reasons for Mediaset's choice was that the system could provide a single multiservice platform capable of supporting both the TDM and DWDM requirements of the production centers. It also enabled broadcast-quality video streams to run on dedicated channels, completely separated from the Fast Ethernet/Gigabit Ethernet-based services required for corporate network traffic.
The scalability of the platform was also an important factor, as it was able to support up to 32 optical channels — each capable of running up to 10Gigabit Ethernet. This amount of potential bandwidth, in a platform supporting a variety of protocols, was seen as particularly attractive. The new DTT standard allowed the multiplexing of several channels in a digital form, far beyond the capacity of a microwave link.
The group also favored the flexibility of the platform. All the signals would be managed via a cross-connect matrix, making it a simple task to change the configuration to accommodate new traffic patterns and requirements. Cisco Transport Manager makes plug-and-play deployment possible by offering networkwide control of the optic transport domain. Network resilience is also built-in, with a splitter-based protection mechanism ensuring that traffic failing to get through in one direction of the ring is picked up automatically as it comes back the other direction.
Cisco’s 7600 series routers deliver optical WAN and metropolitan-area network functionality with high-touch IP services at the network edge.
The birth of the company's high-speed production network came with the laying of 100 fiber-optic cables. Mediaset launched its first DTT channel in December 2003, broadcasting Rete 4 and five programs from third-party providers such as Class News, BBC World and VJ Television. The company also started a trial of interactive services via set-top box to 2000 households in the Varese area, northwest of Milan.
The benefits of this next-generation fiber-optic network have exceeded expectations. Some of the capacity has been used to create a dedicated production network with a total capacity of 4Gb/s, which enables transmissions of industry-standard SDI video at 270Mb/s. It also enables news teams to edit and create programs directly from their workstations.
The ONS 15454 transport platform supports both the time-division multiplexing and dense wavelength-division multiplexing requirements of Mediaset’s production centers, as well as the Fast Ethernet- and Gigabit Ethernet-based services needed for the network’s corporate traffic.
In addition, the network has reduced dramatically the mass of videotapes that need to be physically transported from one facility to another. Some 50 percent of tapes used each day originate from the group's own archive, with the remainder coming from third parties. Journalists can access material from the central Sony News-base video server, which is taken by terrestrial or satellite links directly from branches throughout Italy to create content for most of the news bulletins that go out each day.
Currently, the broadcaster is in the process of migrating to a fully digital production environment, so only one of the newsrooms uses exclusively digital format video to ingest, edit, broadcast and archive stories. This means that most of the video coming into the news area needs to be in both tape and digital formats. A server-based news production system encodes footage in three main formats:
- High-quality 30Mb/s MPEG-2 (I-frame only).
- Motion JPEG at 3Mb/s and above, including uncompressed audio suitable for editing on a journalist's workstation.
- 600Kb/s MPEG-1 that is used by non-journalists for browsing the archive.
All material is encoded, including videotape archive footage, as soon as the journalist puts the cassette into a player — and once in the digital domain, it remains there. The playout area includes two video servers, each capable of storing up to 1000 hours of material of up to 50Mb/s quality.
The ability to reshape existing content is another key benefit, and the company is pioneering the use of a polymedia content management system as a platform for the management and distribution of online content. The content management system accepts input from any source and uses standard XML technology to transform it into information that can be edited, distributed, stored and reused on any digital output channel (Web, mobile, iTV, Teletext). It separates legacy or acquired content from its presentation format, stores it in a relational database, and prepares it for editing and quick, simultaneous distribution over traditional and new media.
Another innovative application facilitated by the production network is shared access to every second of programming broadcast by the group and its main competitors, enhanced with actual viewing figures supplied by a third-party auditor.
Mediaset sees the development of this end-to-end digital workflow as necessary for its continued commercial success. As DTT gains ground, the group is exploring further ways of leveraging the digital workflow across the entire TV production chain. The next phase in the plan will see a high-speed connection between Milan and Rome, with DWDM providing the means to extend networking even further, to its regional centers throughout the country. Group technologists point to the benefits of fiber optics and DWDM, as these enable the company to merge different services. While DWDM is not expected to replace all of the broadcaster's technologies (there is still a role for satellite and microwave), the company praises DWDM for providing a versatile infrastructure, which is key for Mediaset today and into the future.
Marc Froemelt is a marketing manager for Cisco Systems' Media and Entertainment Group.
Gianluca Guazzoni, optical sales executive
Mario Acquati, optical account manager
ONS 15454s configured for DWDM, IP and SDH transport
Catalyst 4500 and 6500 switches 7600 series routers
SeaChange International Mediacluster
Sony Newsbase video server