Distributing content

Distribution of content is where broadcasting gets down to business. Sure it’s fun and really, really cool to be creative — an artiste. Editing, producing and preparing elements for air is an important responsibility. But without distribution, you may as well be a garage band dreaming of playing the Garden; no one is going to know you exist. And this being the broadcast business requires that someone, a lot of someone’s, must consume your content. Either they pay to absorb it or you charge to get a commercial message out there. It is as simple as that.

Betting the farm
Failure of a media organization to act cautiously, exercise due diligence and jump on any emerging distribution channel, runs the risk of destroying proven successful business models. At this high water moment of newly emerging distribution technologies, media conglomerates are diving in headfirst. Deals are cut daily for distribution of new programming, downloads of existing programs and repurposed formatting of content to mobile phones and PDAs, for downloads of broadcast network hits to PCs and video iPods. Only time will tell if this is a wise business undertaking or a use of technology for technology’s sake.

True, emerging distribution channels are in search of killer applications and new business models. Whoever figures out the riddle and implements the supporting technology in a timely manner will reap the financial benefits. Guess wrong and you have the AOL/Time Warner debacle. That idea was basically sound, except for the fact that everyone forgot that boom Internet growth was due to the fact that the early Internet was built on landline phone modems, there was an instant infrastructure. Every home had a phone line. But as the Web became more multimedia oriented, bandwidth was a limiting factor and a new, broadband infrastructure had to be installed. This altered the business model and opened the door for cable-enabled broadband. AOL/Time Warner was too far ahead of the curve.

So media conglomerates and emerging distribution media services have the right idea, a risk on new media distribution models and methods can reap insane returns. The trick is not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Current models have worked well and cannot be forsaken for the latest and greatest. But do not forget the Internet bust when multimedia entered the picture and the novelty wore off.

Smaller is better
Broadcast TV — especially MPEG-2 HDTV — is bandwidth hungry when compared to the capacity of most non-broadcast distribution pipes. OTA, cable and DBS services have been engineered from day one to meet QoS and the bandwidth requirements of broadcast TV.

But other emerging channels had their origin in meeting less stringent service requirements. IPTV strives to adapt what was implemented as a voice-only service, the telco infrastructure. Cable broadband was engineered for Internet performance. The Internet itself never considered real-time QoS as a high priority.

New compression standards, such as AVC and VC-1 help to alleviate the strain on Internet-based DTV bandwidth requirements. HD programs can be reduced from 19.39Mb/s to 12Mb/s or 8Mb/s; SD from 4Mb/s to 2Mb/s. When you consider that a high-speed Internet feed to the home is a generally less than 10Mb/s, it is obvious how important bit rate reduction is to the viability of any new delivery channel for broadcast-quality content delivery.

Let me count the ways
Improving Internet delivery speed is an unending quest. Broadband cable services are approaching 10Mb/s. Telcos are rolling out ADSL+, which can deliver upwards of 25Mb/s, enough for a 19.39Mb/s MPEG transport stream. Eventually, there may be 100Mb/s pipes to every home.

Yet the Internet is not designed for real-time video. Efforts to roll out a bigger and faster Internet are under way. The first move is an upgrade of the basic IP protocol from IPv4 to IPv6. The other is deployment of Internet2, with a 10Gb/s backbone. Abilene is the first step in this direction.

But other distribution channels are also emerging. To meet the need for location independent, untethered reception, delivery of DTV to mobile phones, PDAs and video iPods is in the early stages of implementation.

Turn on, tune in…
Cable systems have traditionally delivered all service simultaneously. Every program is always available over the wire. VOD implementation takes a dedicated session approach. You only get the one program stream you desire.

MSOs are now considering a switched video paradigm. Switched digital video (SDV) will deliver only the program stream you have selected. This reduces overall system bandwidth and potentially can facilitate the offering of more services. Maybe there really will be a 500-channel universe as predicted in the mid-1990s!

Backhaul and contribution
Emerging delivery technologies also are affecting the way content gets distributed to and from programming origination facilities. And with the continued increase in HD content, bandwidth and file transfer speeds directly impacts production schedules.

The Internet is not sufficient for broadcast content distribution for backhaul and contribution feeds. It is unreliable and slow. Traditional providers of these broadcast services are still using private network infrastructures.

Some broadcasters have experimented with camera backhaul to the BOC where PCR and MCR processes produce the broadcast. This eliminates the expense of remote production.

Wide area networks
The ability to centralize media production and distribute content transparently around the globe leads to increased workflow efficiency and shortens the time to market. NBC has adopted a hub and spoke model for graphics production and distribution. The PBS ACE system supports program origination and distribution across the United States.

WAN performance can be problematic. The very nature of reliable packet transmission using TCP can inherently lead to unacceptable WAN file transfer performance. WAN accelerators improve performance by either compressing the files, modifying the TCP handshake or both.

As the broadcast industry moves toward file delivery of commercial spots and program segments, especially in HD, an accelerated distribution network using compatible WAN accelerators may become a reality. Today this being done by individual organizations, but standardization of acceleration protocols may usher in equipment interoperability.

CRM and ease
Consumers have an increasing number of choices for how they get their TV. We as engineers constantly debate about which technology provides the best delivery method for highest-quality television. Yet in the end, this may have little to do with the selection of OTA, cable, DBS, IPTV, FiOS or any other distribution technology.

If I have to wait for a three hour window to have a “trap” removed and a STB delivered for DTV over cable, or if I have to wait an extra few hours because they are over subscribed for installations that day, I may consider what is the most convenient activation method to get my TV in the future and spend my dollars there. The technology may be irrelevant by then if the quality of service is equal.

In the mix
Each of the traditional content to consumer delivery channels is being exploited in new ways. Terrestrial broadcasting, cable, satellite and the Internet are opening new opportunities for consumer desired applications. No one has found the pot of gold, yet...

In the next series of “Transition to Digital” e-newsletters will discuss, new distribution channels and techniques.