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Video networks

Much is expected from today's video networks, and broadcasters and telecommunications service providers face a range of challenges. Multiple formats, from fiber to SONET/SDH and now IP, a myriad of networks and rapidly evolving video networking technology are just the beginning. The increasing bandwidth needs of HD coupled with requirements for higher-quality signal transport stretch the capacity of existing networks. Exciting new applications such as telemedicine require the very highest-quality and lowest-latency transmissions, and the global nature of today's major events require seamless, real-time signal transport over ever-increasing distances, often through existing fiber infrastructure. It is possible, however, to build upon existing networks to meet these challenges and more without wholesale network replacement.

As always, there is not a single solution. The answer lies in building a network that is flexible, scalable and cost- and resource-efficient. Strategic planning, a systems approach and standards-based technology can maximize existing networks and provide a surprising degree of future-proofing. Solutions-based technology can allow the use of legacy infrastructure while ensuring maximum bandwidth for HD and preparing a network for the video-over-IP future. The benefits of using one universal network for Web functions such as e-mail as well as content, video and voice communication are undeniable.

Video over IP: the paradigm of the future

Not many will argue that all signs point to a video transport future dominated by IP. (See Figure 1.) What is seen as the ultimate mode of transport that so nicely dovetails with our digital age poses problems for professional, contribution-grade video transport. First, departure from traditional point-to-point video transport methods causes discomfort for broadcasters. IP is, by its nature, imperfect. It was created with high tolerance for error to maintain connectivity in extreme emergencies. It followed a “best effort” principle. Your packets will get there — probably. What was gained in agility and flexibility for asynchronous communication was lost in stability for highly time-sensitive transmissions such as video. Broadcasters and telecommunications service providers have been accustomed to ensuring safe signal delivery by using large bundles of coax cable with a clear path for each signal and infrastructure for real-time monitoring and control that was decades in the making. With IP, that 8in cable bundle was replaced by a Cat 5 cable and a feeling of “where did my signal go?” Packetizing and trusting content to an IP network meant losing vital management and control infrastructure and flying blind.

Despite trepidations in the professional video broadcast community, we are now entering a time when the benefits of IP and the technology to meet its challenges have converged. IP's physical infrastructure is a gift from the Internet revolution that can now be manipulated to deliver content the way broadcasters need it to. Instead of complex, expensive installation of special-purpose cabling and routing for video networks, IP equipment provides economies of scale. IP already is well-established in some areas; at the distribution level, set-top boxes are all IP-based. It's also coming to primary distribution, and soon on its heels will be contribution. IP offers flexibility with point-to-point video connections and switching replaced by IP addresses. IP can also provide maximum use of network capacity.

For all of its benefits, the limitations of IP are well-known, but technology now exists to meet the challenges of carrying professional-grade video over IP networks. Visual quality and latency are significant hurdles, yet the right products correctly implemented and integrated prevail over these hurdles. Forward error correction (FEC) ensures that the encoded video streams can be reconstructed if there is any packet loss; synchronization can be assured; and transport stream structure ensures continuous, real-time monitoring and analysis of any payload in the transport stream chain. There are comprehensive and standards-based multichannel systems for monitoring the integrity of transport streams, so broadcasters and telecommunications companies can demonstrate SLA-compliance, identify error sources, reconstruct intermittent error conditions and handle multiple protocols and combined signals.

Flexible, scalable transport streams

Another characteristic of a successful video network is the use of a transport stream structure. Transport streams provide an ideal way to carry video, allowing the control and monitoring of signals and video integrity at every step. As IP is adopted at different rates in different countries, and even across different market segments within the same country, underlying transport stream technology will provide a smooth migration. A transport stream is comprised of one or more packetized and multiplexed compressed video signals and their associated video along with program descriptors and other data, which together enable manageable mapping into video or telecommunications networks.

Transport streams may have simple or complex programs. Indeed, the flexibility of transport streams to carry wide-ranging signal sizes is one of its greatest advantages. Transport streams carry compressed signals of any kind (MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.264, JPEG2000) while also providing the ability to multiplex or remultiplex to create new bundles of programs. This has enormous positive implications, because a transport stream that has been encapsulated over Ethernet retains the information required for control and monitoring that is lacking in video mapped directly onto IP. And once in the transport stream domain, interchange between IP, SONET, fiber, satellite, terrestrial, cable, microwave and wireless networks is possible, because there are standards for mapping to each of these transmission media.

Because transport stream structure allows scalable payload, hardware infrastructure does not have to be added to transport offices and studios. This saves investment and resources and goes a long way toward cost-efficiency. The flexibility afforded by transport streams allows the use of legacy infrastructures, perhaps one of the most important advantages of transport stream. Once in their packetized form, signals may be moved across any network structure. Transport streams allow multiplexing in a myriad of ways, carrying important timing and program information that allows different devices to add, drop or pass videos at will. Video networks initially deployed for MPEG-2 can be used for more advanced transport technologies. And now, with visually lossless JPEG2000 compression available for contribution networks, the benefits of MPEG-2 transport streams for JPEG 2000 are critical. International standards bodies are now at work to establish this standard. Once adopted, this standardized method will guide the transport of production, contribution and distribution material. And once in a transport stream, content may be mapped from SONET/SDH to ASI, IP, QAM, QPSK, etc., regardless of content specifics. Likewise, we can protect with transport stream switching and FEC, monitor and measure with ETSI 101-1290 equipment and multiplex, filter and store using the standard methods developed for MPEG-2.

The quality inequality

We should be able to sit down ensconced in a favorite chair to watch a live sporting event and expect perfect quality, right? It seems a given with all of the technological advances made over the past decade, yet problems persist. As an industry, we struggle to ensure end-to-end visual quality. There are weak links in the camera-to-the-home path, and too often these problems are not clearly and quickly identified and rectified.

Quality assurance starts early in the transport chain, and it begins with signal compression itself. With the right products, it's possible to aggregate video signals across IP networks for content distribution of any kind: unidirectional, bidirectional, unicast or multicast. Solutions that integrate key compression technologies, multiplexing, mapping to IP, SDTI, ASI and SDH protect at all network layers. Further, multiple video streams may be aggregated onto a single GigE link where compliance with SMPTE 2022 specifications for IP encapsulation and FEC provides protection against network congestion and ensures packet transmission. To ensure quality, and even signal availability, end-to-end management and control is also critical. Again, systems for comprehensive monitoring and control allow for detailed analysis of any payload in the transport stream chain.

Standards-based technology should be standard

Implementing standards-based technology may be one of the most important steps in creating the most efficient and cost-effective network. Standardization is an essential means to ensure interoperability, leading to enhanced efficiency, which cannot be given too much attention. Implementing a standards-based solution from the outset across the entire video transport chain ensures the utmost flexibility.

Standards, including SMPTE 2022, for mapping streams into IP packets, ensure compatibility. MPEG-2 video compression standards and transport mechanisms are common to DVB, ATSC and ISDB. Three audio compression standards (MPEG-1 and 2, Dolby AC3 and AAC) and three service information standards (DVB SI, PSIP [United States] and ARIB SI [Japan]) are now in use. Rather than define quality, these standards ensure interoperability between the various components of the digital broadcast chain. Furthermore, ISO/IEC 13818-1 defines transport stream technology; EN50083-9 defines the physical interface for TV signals, sound signals and interactive services; ETR 101-290 (test specification for transport streams) defines measurement guidelines for DVB systems; and ISO/IEC 13818-1 (transport stream definition) defines generic coding of moving pictures and associated audio information.

Also, compliant products for the Bell Network Equipment Building System (NEBS-3) standard for telco equipment meet strict carrier-class requirements for operation in harsh physical environments. While these standards are U.S.-based, they ensure a quality standard for networks across the globe.

Maximize ROI with a network for tomorrow

An intelligently constructed, systems-based video network can meet immediate quality, efficiency and integration goals while also delivering long-term benefits that affect your bottom line year after year. Resource-saving technology provides additional value by reducing operating expenses. Standards-based products ensure interoperability with the ability to use legacy infrastructure.

These products are significant to maximize investment while meeting current demands. Even more, while planning for tomorrow, broadcasters and telecommunications providers need to consider the day after tomorrow, taking care to ensure that networks are centered on technologies that have a future, not those destined to fizzle. We all must work to anticipate, and ideally proactively prepare for, changes in the video medium. The Web has enabled anyone to self publish a magazine. Will Web video producers in the professional realm be far behind? VOD is in its infancy, but it seems certain to evolve. It's up to all of us to decide the directions the industry will go, but it stands to reason that those with the most flexible, scalable and modular networks, fully embracing IP, will fare best.

Thomas Heinzer is chief technology officer at Nevion.