WASHINGTON—If you work for a broadcaster, you know that distribution over IP is supplanting SDI as the best practice, both for in-studio and remote activities. IP is simply the “better mousetrap,” with more flexibility than SDI, at costs that are no greater and often less.
One of the interesting benefits of working in an IP production environment is that it is better understood by corporate IT departments than the traditional way of working in an SDI “island” that is strictly the concern of the television engineering staff. At a time when skilled broadcast engineers are retiring in great numbers, the transition to IP production infrastructures could not have come at a better time.
“Live production over IP is a definite reality now,” said Ulrich Voigt, vice president for product management at Vizrt. “It has reached a level most of us did not expect.”
Liam Hayter, senior solutions architect for NewTek thinks he knows why the change happened so quickly.
“[It’s] the acceptance of lightweight, high-efficiency, and crucially low-latency software-based compression as an acceptable tool for broadcast,” he said. “Early in the IP transition, there was much chasing of uncompressed zero-latency IP delivery, but this becomes heavy and unwieldy—particularly when globally everyone, in every scenario, needed to work remotely.”
As quickly as the IP production steamroller was upon us, that doesn’t mean it was easy or without growing pains.
“There were several hurdles that needed to be overcome to make this a reality and they have been conquered for the most part,” said Steven Bilow, senior product marketing manager at Telestream. “For example, the nondeterminism of IP switching versus SDI used to be a big roadblock. But now, with technologies like ST 2110 and, especially for widely distributed sites, ST 2022-6, as well as ever-increasing format efficiency with technologies like JPEG-XS, these latencies have largely been overcome.”
The inherent flexibility of IP has users and manufacturers thinking of ways to structure systems to capture and distribute signals in novel ways. Producers and content creators are pushing the technology into situations where SDI dares not go.
“We believe completely in the cloud and IP’s ability to transform live production in a way that dramatically expands who and how video is produced and delivered,” said Paul Shen, CEO of TVU Networks. “It’s what drives us to keep creating—empowering content creators is at the core of everything we do.”
One of TVU’s users is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA), a soccer organization based in Latin America. In June, CONIFA produced and broadcast the Copa América, a professional soccer tournament from the remote Chilean city of Linares, with practically no equipment, minimal personnel and on a shoestring budget.
“With the TVU ecosystem, four or five people in different countries participating in production and transmission, a few pieces of basic equipment, and a couple of smartphones, we were able to stream live to the whole world from one small city in southern Chile,” said Diego Bartolotta, president of CONIFA Americas. “Before the Copa América, I was a bit incredulous that we could achieve a quality broadcast of a professional football game with only interconnected phones. But [this broadcast] totally changed my perspective.”
No Immediate Replacement
Although IP is now widely accepted for broadcast infrastructure, existing SDI cabling does not necessarily need to be replaced immediately. There are a few ways to keep both the IP and SDI gods happy.
“With SDI/IP gateways, there is no immediate need to make SDI equipment obsolete,” said Chris Scheck, marketing content manager for Lawo. Hardly anyone is seriously considering this option, because their CFO wouldn’t like the idea, and because [in some situations] there is still no equivalent IP solution.”
“The idea was always to phase out SDI naturally by no longer purchasing non-IP gear, but even that remains tricky as some tools are still firmly rooted in the SDI domain,” Scheck said. “What will happen, however is that SDI routers will disappear over time, because IP natives like Lawo’s .edge can replace them at a lower cost, while also offering almost unlimited scalability of the number of SDI inputs and outputs.”
At least one vendor sees a healthy SDI universe in the foreseeable future.
“As a big part of our business and an OEM supplier to major broadcast equipment manufacturers, we can confidently say that SDI is quite healthy,” said Francesco Scartozzi, vice president of sales and business development for Matrox Video Broadcast and Media Group. “That’s not to say that the IP is not being adopted, but SDI is still quite prevalent. At the lower end of the broadcast pyramid, SDI is very well suited, whether it’s for 3G SDI and 12G SDI for those moving toward 4K. As a supplier to those vendors, we can see these customers are refreshing all the SDI equipment with newer SDI equipment that now needs to handle not only HD-SDI but also the ability to go 4K.”
Monitor and Measurement
Of course, high-quality broadcasts are not possible without tools to monitor and measure the quality of the signals. As the use of IP production has mushroomed in the past few years, manufacturers of test and measurement gear have been racing to make monitoring and measurement practical, and for it to make sense in a live production environment.
“Point-to-point SDI connections used to be far easier to troubleshoot than IP connections. In some ways they still are,” Bilow said. “But the sophistication of tools, such as Telestream’s Inspect 2110 and PRISM, to allow proactive monitoring and problem identification in large-scale media networks has come so far in the past five years that it’s now possible to identify and diagnose even complex problems in a reasonable amount of time.”
Bridging current SDI systems to the IP world can be done with gear from a variety of vendors. One of the first to come up with a solution was NewTek, which developed its Network Device Interface (NDI) line of interfaces and processors.
“Five years ago, ‘IP’ in broadcast mainly referred to the SMPTE ST 2110 family of standards, which is designed to be used on-prem with mainly physical equipment,” Voight said. “If we look at IP production happening today, we see a clear mix of ST 2110 on-prem and NDI hybrid as on-prem and cloud.
“We see NDI being used today at almost every large media entity, at least as ‘commodity’ IP production technology and ST 2110 for the high-end infrastructure,” he added. “The pandemic has been a catalyst to adopt NDI as one viable IP technology, as it was the only one supporting cloud, remote and work-from-home scenarios.”
The people producing content focus on getting good images and sound, and combining them in interesting and entertaining ways. However, even they are discovering that IP gives them options that were never before available—or were hopelessly expensive or complex.
For example, it’s easy to have bidirectional signals in an IP environment. And since IP is literally available everywhere, it is not a huge technical consideration to get a feed from India, Korea, Egypt or Peru. What was once complicated and expensive in a satellite uplink world is far easier and much cheaper with IP.
The Covid pandemic pushed broadcasters to embrace IP production systems and techniques faster than they would have otherwise, but the reality is that the advantages of IP are obvious for at least larger productions. Depending on what you’re doing, it can definitely make sense for smaller productions as well.
One final thought: SpaceX now has a constellation of thousands of satellites that can deliver modestly high-speed IP circuit anywhere in the world, and the company is adding satellites at the rate of 50-100 per month. With the ultimate goal of having tens of thousands of satellites and the capability to deliver upload/download speeds of more than 100 Mbps, this literally means that high-quality video can originate from anywhere in the world. At a moment’s notice.
Think of what clever content creators and video producers can do with that capability.
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Bob Kovacs is the former Technology Editor for TV Tech and editor of Government Video. He is a long-time video engineer and writer, who now works as a video producer for a government agency. In 2020, Kovacs won several awards as the editor and co-producer of the short film "Rendezvous."