Eurovision is more than just a song contest. It is a network that delivers thousands of hours of live sports, news and music events to broadcasters in Europe and around the world each year.
The EBU’s satellite and fibre network plays a vital role in connecting public broadcasters in 56 countries in and around Europe. It also provides services for many commercial operators.
It distributes major sports events, with more than 45,000 hours of premium live programming, and provides the world’s largest broadcast content exchange platform, the Eurovision News Exchange. This 24-hour news service is currently upgrading many of its facilities and will install new systems throughout 2013 to improve efficiency and reduce costs.
“For the network, 2012 has probably been the most intense year yet in terms of complexity of transmissions and technology and network improvements,” says EBU Network director Graham Warren (pictured).
“It was one of our busiest years on record, with the UEFA Euro 2012, Champions League and the Europa League, an increase in Formula 1 coverage and the London Olympic Games, as well as the many other sports we carry -- and getting started on the big new contract for NBA basketball.”
Eurovision has also introduced new MPEG-4 encoders and decoders for HD, changed its fibre technology and introduced a comprehensive disaster recovery system at a new site in Leuk, Switzerland.
“We have achieved an enormous amount in one year. The great majority of the services we provide are occasional use, including major events such as the Olympic Games (where we took care of the majority of content being delivered internationally), the Tour de France and Wimbledon. In total we now handle more than 75,000 transmissions a year. It’s an intense level of activity,” he says.
“Eurovision is known for being a high-reliability provider. We have a lot of permanent network capacity, including a very extensive fibre network, which spans the globe and is managed from Geneva.”
It also holds long leases on a large number of satellite transponders, and takes ad hoc local links where necessary for the duration of an event to connect to its permanent network. It typically chooses a mix of both fibre and satellite.
Eurovision also has access to many earth stations at EBU members’ premises and elsewhere, all connected to its FINE international fibre network. It also provides streaming via a content delivery network, through its BEST service.
The EBU has a large contract with UEFA, distributing all of its audiovisual programmes around the world on the Eurovision network. “With these top-tier events, the value of the rights is so high that we take all necessary steps to guarantee transmissions, come what may, which is why we recently opened at a complete back-up site in Switzerland,” explains Warren.
“At peak times we can have 24 matches running simultaneously, plus a highlights channel, so we wanted to build a rock-solid back-up facility. It means we can control everything from either Leuk or Geneva.”
The new Eurovision Network Operations Centre B (NOC B), 100 kilometres east of Geneva, also backs up all of its satellite systems and the EBU’s mission critical services, such as booking, billing and email. “It’s an all-round disaster recovery system for the EBU.”
NOC B has also become a test bed for greater automation, which Eurovision is rolling out elsewhere this year, integrating automation with its various services from the booking stage onwards. A lot of this is already automated, but further integration will improve customer service through faster switching and systems changeovers.
Its core automation system is Skyline’s Dataminer, which can access almost every piece of equipment, monitoring alarms and automatically switching to back-ups, ensuring the correct bitrate, etc. It was chosen because it is well known and widely used in the industry.
SD to HD
The London 2012 Olympic Games was the largest event to be carried by the EBU exclusively in HD. About 55-60% of the EBU’s transmissions are now in HD, and this figure is growing all the time.
This has meant greater pressure on network capacity, which has been increased in some areas. But capacity is finite, particularly for satellite transmissions, so Warren’s team is mitigating the impact by increasing efficiency wherever possible. The introduction of MPEG-4, which is about 30% more efficient than MPEG-2, has played its part, while the implementation of a new modulation scheme on satellite has delivered a further 25% efficiency.
“We can substantially increase the efficiency of the network to ease the burden passed on to the customer. We’re always trying to optimise the efficiency of our satellite capacity,” he says.
Eurovision is also moving its fibre networks from SDH to Ethernet technology, which has cut the costs of fibre. “On the main trunk network we can have 1Gigabit or higher Ethernet bitrates for the same or less cost than 155Mbps SDH, so we’re getting a lot more capacity for the same price.”
The Eurovision network has at least 126 points of presence throughout the world, although it used about 145 for the Olympics, where it needed extra capacity, so it was important that switching from SDH to Ethernet only meant replacing a card, to keep infrastructure costs low too.
“The core equipment doesn’t need to change at all our nodes, which would be very expensive, and the automation and control remains the same,” Warren explains. “The higher Ethernet capacity also allows us to move to JPEG2000, to use it for some big events -- although we’re introducing it slowly as demand increases.”
At the moment the majority of transmissions use MPEG-4, with some MPEG-2. “The really big events are all HD now: pretty much all MPEG-4 on fibre or satellite at up to 42Mbps 4:2:2.”
Its main modulation method has been DVB-S2, but for some events it has introduced Novelsat NS3 equipment, which does more efficient forward error correction than S2 -- although 16 APSK or 32 APSK can be used. It also has tighter control of filter roll-off and much more granular forward error correction to substantially increase throughput.
Part of the challenge of moving to HD has been rolling out a large number of new encoders and receivers to customers. The EBU provides members with up to eight MPEG-4 receiver/decoders each as part of the service, depending on the event – and spent a lot of time and effort introducing MPEG-4 over the last year.
“We did a large series of interoperability tests because we can never guarantee what we’ll work with. We have to have interoperable systems, which is why we want standards. We need to be able to go to an SNG operator in Ukraine, say for a football match, and the guy will turn up with something that just works.”
It uses encoders and receivers from different manufacturers. “We try to avoid locking ourselves into one manufacturer,” he says.
The move to HD has been very successful. “We’ve had very few technical issues.” The great majority of sport and other important events are now HD, but many ad-hoc services, like news, are still SD, and typically involve a lot of short transmissions.
Many of its major events are distributed globally, so there are also issues of standards conversion. “It’s a huge, complex operation to operate and maintain, which is why we’re moving to more system automation,” he adds.
“If something does go wrong with a fibre we can generally back it up immediately, but we can also back it up with satellite very quickly. This is essential to provide the high reliability services our customers demand.”
News Exchange: Transition To File
The EBU’s news operation consists of two parts: a permanent News Exchange channel, transmitting about 45,000 items a year, and a Special Events unit. These can be hard news, such as natural disasters, conflicts or civil unrest, or planned events, including royal weddings, state visits and anything demanding rolling coverage.
About 99% of news is still in SD, but the EBU expects this to start changing soon, which is why it will have a fully HD-capable news network in 2014.
“We have to make sure we can continue to meet demand – although we can already handle it on an ad-hoc basis today.”
News is also moving from live to file-based, with an increasing number of stories not being transmitted in realtime. It is developing a new system scheduled for operation this autumn, which will provide full network independence (fibre, internet and satellite) and support a large number of file formats.
The project, called Transition To File, is “a challenge, because we’re not like a typical newsroom, ingesting, editing and archiving content. Eurovision does not store content for more than a few days, so it is more of a conduit, coming in and out. This sort of equipment isn’t available off the shelf, so we have to create our own digital glue to make it function as we need.”
The EBU is working closely with its members’ news organisations, and will have to write a lot of software -- although this will be built around an off-the-shelf media management system that it is currently in the process of selecting.
By David Fox