The definition of IPTV

IPTV, the current buzz word in the broadcast industry, means different things to different people.

To television production professionals, according to Edward Hobson, a vice president at National TeleConsultants, IPTV is a move away from acquiring and distributing video signals in the baseband (270Mb/s) form and toward handling signals as digital files, which can be stored and manipulated in ways not possible in the analog world. These digital files are encapsulated inside packets that can be reliably sent and received as easily as email.

Hobson, who also serves as president of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), said he has had numerous conversations with clients for the past three years about what the Internet Protocol (IP) is and how it relates to the professional broadcast industry. These conversations center on the processes currently in play and how his clients want to streamline that workflow to get the most services out to the public with the least amount of resources. This is necessary to facilitate the creation of programming that will be distributed over a traditional network for air on a TV screen in the home as well as to video cell phones, iPods and other portable receivers.

IPTV: The new business

In the broader sense, when most people talk about IPTV these days, they are usually referring to the new video distribution businesses for video service distribution from telecommunications companies. Verizon, Bell South, Qualcomm and AT&T Wireless have all announced new services that would allow subscribers to get first-run movies, TV shows and sports highlights delivered directly to their PCs or handsets. It also refers to the new bundled services now being offered by telcos and overbuilders that are sending telephone, high-speed Internet and a variety of TV channels via a single hybrid coax or fiber-optic cable to the home. It does not include terrestrial stations that are transmitting their signals over the air.

Lacking a two-way connection to their consumers, local broadcasters are for the most part, having to sit by and watch this new revolution of cell phone video happen without taking part in this new business. Small-market stations must make agreements with the telcos and supply a signal to the number of super headends facilities (currently being built by NTC and other organizations). These headends make extensive use of IP technology, because it’s cost-effective when compared to standard video infrastructures, and it enables content to be handled as files that are sent and received on a scheduled basis. This usually translates into resources being utilized more fully, and less of a need for human intervention.

IPTV in broadcast today

Of course, many broadcast facilities are leveraging IP technology within their plants. ESPN’s high-definition content comes from an all-digital building in Bristol, CT, that includes a baseband path and a separate IP routing system. The same goes for CNN in Atlanta. When consumers watch a video on CNN or ESPN ’s Web site, they are watching that video via an IP packet, sent over the Internet.

Station groups, such as Tribune Broadcasting and Sinclair Broadcast Group use TeleStream’s FlipFactory for IP delivery to share content. Leveraging technologies such as these from the Associated Press, CBS News Source, Path 1 and other video resources, IP delivery avoids the dubbing and satellite transponders costs, yet gets content to its destination in real-time or near real time more reliably. Content can also be received by a server on a strict schedule, thereby reducing costs and technical errors.

For broadcasters struggling with IPTV and what it all means, NTC’s Hobson said they should first figure out their business model and what they want to accomplish. IPTV infrastructures can save time and money, but they are tricky to implement and often require new or different ways of working. If the goal is to distribute video around a digital production facility, an IP-based system achieves that, and remains flexible enough to experiment with new distribution platforms.

This enables new functionality, like the ability to move files from a server to an archive system, once that content has been used, or to an automation system avoiding any manual processes. It also allows journalists to browse video clips on the server, or those coming into the station, from any PC in the building. Of course, many NLE systems require the video to be converted back to baseband in order to preview edits and handle different sources, but the power and control of the Internet Protocol for moving and sharing content is not as easy in the baseband video world.

IP delivery

For distribution, an IPTV system allows companies to send video into a home without having to lay new video cables in the ground or within a home. This is one of the benefits being leveraged by the telcos as they enter the highly competitive multichannel video service arena. Cable and satellite providers have also made use of the technology for their in-house content processing needs.

Protocols designed for the Internet delivery might not be as efficient as the various SMPTE standards that were developed with video in mind. With baseband, the assumption is that fat, proprietary pipes are available whenever you need them. IP comes for the computer data world, where bits are just bits, no matter what they describe. It’s designed to accommodate limited bandwidths and high traffic networks, and employs security and error-correction algorithms that add overhead to a file and in some cases is not the most efficient (or fastest) distribution method. Connection protocols like Fiber Channel and Gigabit Ethernet help move these bits quickly and reliably.

Television in its current form is becoming obsolete. Broadcasters must cater to viewers’ changing viewing styles, so they must consider new ways of getting content to those constantly roaming eyeballs. With the cost of equipment coming down and experience levels among systems integrators like NTC increasing, IPTV is one of the alternatives to consider.

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