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IP: Twice in a lifetime

IP was a bold, once-in-a-lifetime step for the broadcast industry, and operators will soon enjoy the flexibility of controlling their own destiny under a financially viable model that shrinks and grows the processing capacity in line with their requirements, writes Christian Scheck, Lawo

Live productions increasingly involve IP-based remote set-ups that are either permanent or temporary. For permanent remote set-ups, think Proximus in Belgium whose IP network links 18 stadiums to the production hub in Brussels, to the VAR in another town and other rights holders; Bundesliga’s VIDI network which is used for live remote immersive audio mixing; or TV 2, DPG Media and other broadcasters whose galleries and studios are spread over two locations. And these are just a few examples.

As far as temporary remote scenarios go, NEP’s Andrews Hubs marked the first acclaimed foray into sending a small crew on-site to ingest audio and video signals, while the production was done thousands of miles away. Similar production scenarios followed in a multitude of countries. Most international broadcast centers these days work according to the same principles.

A few years before the pandemic, some operators had the idea to leverage the power of WAN-based IP to share their processing resources either in a point-to-point fashion or via (redundant) data centres. Others decided to design flex galleries that could be used for a variety of audio, video and graphics assignments. For this to work, they relied on a broadcast control system, like VSM, that takes care of configuring all resources necessary for the task at hand, either at the press of a button or by means of an RFID card system.

For those who kept pondering the pros and cons of migrating to IP or were waiting for their existing equipment to be written off, the pandemic was a wake-up call: it made the benefits of IP infrastructure based on open standards painfully clear. Operators already on the IP bandwagon had the luxury of going one step further and devising distributed workflows, where the engineers worked from their homes or different locations to maintain social distancing.

This again sparked new ideas: since IP and distributed workflows had worked so smoothly during the pandemic, some producers no longer mind if their preferred A1 or video operator can’t make it to the production hub for a given project. They can just as well work from home (for scripted shows) or from a control room in a different part of the campus, country or world.

Easy squeezy

WAN transport of video, audio and control essences – i.e. data packets sent via IP – requires fibre-optic lines. Like the fibre-optic internet connections most of us have at home, these lines have a limited bandwidth, and if there is a lot of traffic, all packets take a little longer to arrive, which is usually unacceptable for broadcasters, because drop-outs lead to irate viewers and, more importantly, cross advertisers.

In the days when a bandwidth of 10GbE and working over a private ‘dark fibre’ line was the best one could hope for, operators began looking into video compression. Not just any compression, mind you: it had to be lossless, or at least as close to perfect as possible. And fast, to avoid unacceptable latency times. The first formats to be widely used were JPEG 2000 (a.k.a. J2K) and VC-2 with a “mezzanine” compression ratio low enough to avoid both latency in excess of one frame as well as a visible loss of quality. This allowed operators to send a higher number of streams down the same “pipe”. Today, it is safe to say that the broadcast industry increasingly looks to JPEG XS for pro-grade compression.

Broaden your horizon

Or does it? The pandemic also taught broadcasters something else. Pristine quality is not mandatory when you look at the devices on which your video content is consumed. Besides, no viewer has ever complained about the picture quality at home, even though their set-top box actually receives compressed streams.

In situations where a timely delivery of top, topical content is more important than serving it with the best possible picture quality, using alternative tools may be just fine. Besides, the quality of NDI material was deemed good enough by a bunch of German public broadcasters to conduct a number of tests and to conclude that they were on to a viable alternative.

Given the growing number of channels for niche programming and new consumption models, broadcasters may have to reconsider their business model and strategy. Not everything needs to be fit for world cups, Olympic Games or international song contests.

And since budgets no longer budge in the expected direction, the possibility to invest only in the equipment broadcasters need to cover their day-to-day programming would be a heaven-sent.

A server-based approach with a flexible commercial model was unveiled by Lawo at NAB this past week. This means that more generic compute hardware can be used going forward for a variety of applications. The proposed model obviously allows operators to keep using their existing IP equipment for as long as they like. As for the new tools that make the magic happen, they happily work with SMPTE 2110, NDI and SRT sources and destinations, so that operators are now free to choose the most appropriate tools for a given job.

IP was a bold, once-in-a-lifetime step for all the reasons explained above, and it will remain an important part of our lives. Soon, operators will additionally enjoy the flexibility of controlling their own destiny under a financially viable model that shrinks and grows the processing capacity in line with their requirements, and relieves them from the burden of having to plan for peak-time capacity for the next five to ten years, while remaining nimble and ready for new developments. How about that?