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IP for Broadcast: The Time Is Now

Chuck Meyer

LAS VEGAS—It’s hard to believe that broadcast production and distribution chains were once dominated by hardware-based systems.

“There isn’t much in the broadcast ecosystem that isn’t already IP, except the baseband tier of live production,” said Chuck Meyer, chief technology officer for Grass Valley. He points to the fact that most facilities follow a file-based workflow for production, their traffic systems are automated, and the transmission end has all signals encoded in some form before heading to the transmitter.

“It’s about changing the workflow environment from being hardware based to software; that is where the operational flexibility comes in.” said John Maihot, IP solutions architect with Imagine Communications. Maihot says that the time has come for completely IP-based facilities to emerge, with the software component being key.

Using Ethernet and Internet Protocol to move media around a plant is not new, but the level of maturity in the technology now is energizing manufacturers to pursue solutions for new systems, including replacing the venerable facility video router. One of the greatest enablers to this change has been the availability of 10GbE IP network hardware. A 1.5 Gbps uncompressed HD-SDI signal would never fit down a 1GbE Ethernet cable, but with 10GbE you can now fit four to six. And because Ethernet is bidirectional unlike SDI, that means more signals in both directions.

This dramatic increase in signal count and the inherent scalability of Ethernet provides a possible future proof solution to the growing port count and higher resolutions requirements of the core video routing system.

Systems integrators are seeing high levels of interest in IP infrastructure by the number of requests. John Wesley Nash, executive vice president of engineering and chief operating officer for CEI, a Newington, Va.-based SI, says that most of its near-term projects have clients considering an IP transport solution. “Clients want to know what are the operational limitations of going IP versus how I am used to working, and what advantages does IP bring to the table,” he said.


Al Kovalick “Unless you are watching off-air ATSC, you are probably watching video over IP,” Meyer said. He highlights this, as most Americans are watching some form of IP-based video chain whether they are viewing cable, satellite or OTT video streams. He says the reason broadcasters need to consider the holistic IP approach is because IP allows you to go straight to the customer, emphasizing the fact that content is what media companies are all about. Successful OTT providers produce very little content of their own and in fact distribute material mainly from other companies. By creating a more flexible IP distribution chain, he envisions broadcasters and content owners being able to play a bigger part in direct to customer distribution.

Al Kovalick, founder of Media Systems Consulting in Santa Clara, Calif., points to compelling technical reasons why IP will replace many current baseband systems. “The industry wants flexibility to move and combine any streams or elements of those streams the way they want.” He is working with several standards groups on an IP-based system that will provide all the current flexibilities of SDI routing with the scalability offered by IP. Their goal is to answer the question, “What does it take to replace SDI with Ethernet?” he said.

Currently different manufacturers are taking slightly different approaches on their implementation of IP and existing standards. Many are following SMPTE 2022-6, which stipulates how an SDI payload is transported over Ethernet, but doesn’t yet address functionality issues like how to do audio breakaways or other typical routing duties currently available under an SDI system.

Nash’s team at CEI is seeing a more mature generation of offerings this year from equipment manufacturers, but still not an interoperable offering across brands. “We see manufacturers taking slightly different approaches and philosophies,” he commented. He is optimistic and says, “I can see within the next year, systems’ compatibility between vendors and the issue of a common standard being behind us.”

Meyers adds his concern for broadcasters’ readiness, “Some engineers are not familiar enough with the technology and the tool sets for monitoring,” he said.

Not only will moving to an IP plant change workflows, but quality control and monitoring requires sophisticated new tools. The test and measurement component will move from the waveform scope to IP packet analyzers. This is not a bad thing, but it needs to be taken into consideration.

One of the greatest motivators for choosing IP-based routing is to accommodate 4K production. Today it takes four HD-SDI cables to carry a single 4K signal. A 10GbE cable can take that same signal with a light compression. There is already talk of 40 and 100G switches that would enable even more signals or greater resolutions.

Imagine Communications has partnered with Sony to tackle 4K over 10GbE, as 40GbE infrastructure is slightly cost prohibitive at the current time. “For the case of UHD 60 we are going with Sony’s LLC codec to be fully interoperable in the Sony camera and switching environment,” Maihot said. He sees 4K being a key player in sports production, so adopting a partnership with Sony provides a working solution today. “25GbE will support UHD 60 uncompressed,” he said. “Expect to see vendors announcing support for this in the next year or two.”

Meyer said that people continue to underestimate the shear power of Ethernet. “It’s an amazing technology that is designed to be scalable,” he said, adding that such scalability will provide broadcasters a platform that will more easily grow and change with their needs. For 4K he says that “IP islands” can be built around an existing router to support higher resolution production without having to migrate an entire plant over.

During the transition to digital, broadcast and production buildouts often built their facilities with an added expense to be 3G-capable. This meant that their plants could transport 1080p60 (highest level HD) signals—which most never took advantage of as 720p and 1080i remain the broadcast standard. Because of this, accountants and managers may question the viability of 4K.

“It’s about changing the workflow environment from being hardware based to software,” said Maihot, who sees stations and facilities building out a high-performance computing infrastructure and laying over software-based solutions to implement the workflows that fit their needs. Similar to how channel-in-a-box options have changed master control, he sees software taking over management of all core processing and distribution needs of a facility.

Meyer noted that, “broadcasters are really no longer in control of the TV anymore.” Whereas 20 years ago the signal originating from a studio camera was kept intact all the way through to the home set by ATSC standards, today, there is no government regulation on 4KTV technology. Consumers and electronics manufacturers are now driving the technology. Companies like Netflix are positioning themselves to take advantage of this and utilize IP technology to supply direct to screen delivery for everything from small screens to 4K. With the technology now accessible to broadcasters as well, they won’t have to pin their future solely on ATSC 3.0.

While the HD transition began for many in 1998, it is just wrapping up in some places almost 17 years later. The transition to IP, however should take a lot less time, with Meyer predicting it will be accomplished in or under five years.