White Paper: IP for Sports Is Practical, Cost-Effective

By Deon LeCointe, product manager, Sony Electronics Professional Solutions of America

As sports teams build bigger venues and fans grow increasingly accustomed to receiving information and entertainment whenever and however they want it, content distribution is a major factor, as important as image quality or any production value. With productions increasingly moving beyond HD to 4K and even, in the future, 8K or aspect-ratio–free and resolution-free formats, the continued use of SDI or coaxial connections becomes potentially burdensome.

One practical and very cost-effective solution is IP transport. For a live 4K production, for example, a single 10-Gb Ethernet cable can replace four 3G SDI cables, moving audio, video, and metadata as data packets.

IP transport is format-agnostic. This affords broadcasters several potential benefits, including use of off-the-shelf networking. IP technology enables more-flexible management of sources and signals: signals can be routed from any source to any number of destinations on the network. And pairing IP with diagnostics, along with the ability to monitor multiple streams of video, adds “intelligence” to a system.

This article discusses the fundamental elements of IP and what to consider when evaluating IP technology.

Much progress has been made in the industry’s current use of video-production systems for sports, especially in recent years as the technology has advanced. Organizations considering the newest technology need to ask several questions first: which sports applications are best suited to IP, how to determine whether IP is the right choice, and whether it’s best to convert from a traditional SDI infrastructure all at once or gradually.

The sports industry has a perfect model to follow: broadcast. As broadcast and video production transition from SDI to IP infrastructures, it only makes sense that the sports world follow suit.

IP Live system

IP Live system

IP technology has advanced to the point where a live production system can support both postproduction and live production on the same network. The result is the same performance as an SDI-based system — guaranteed quality, guaranteed transfer rates, and guaranteed signal delivery — with existing operational practices.

Organizations considering renovating an existing facility or building a new one would be wise to look closely at an IP implementation. Systems become much more flexible and manageable, especially as sports moves toward 4K.

A traditional SDI-based system requires four channels of 3G SDI to produce a single uncompressed 4K signal. In an IP environment, the same signal can move across a 10-Gb or 40-Gb fiber or Ethernet cable — a “one-cable” scenario instead of a “four-cable.” Also, with IP, that video can be compressed by readily available codecs. In particular, Sony has developed its Low Latency Video Codec, which supports two channels of 4K video on a single 10-Gb Ethernet link.

Signal routing is easily manageable over an IP network, through a PC or other network-connected device with the proper authentication and access rights. Users can set up work groups with different access to specific signals, sources, and destinations.

Defining IP
It’s important to understand what IP is and also what it is not. It’s often thought of as just “streaming,” which can conjure negative connotations of low quality or high latency.

Sony NXL-FR318IP signal-processing unit

Sony NXL-FR318IP signal-processing unit

Streaming is one component of an IP workflow, but, with IP transport, audio and video are encapsulated in data packets and transmitted via a specific protocol. With this technology and, specifically, the Sony Networked Media Interface (NMI) technology, the quality is broadcast-level. The Low Latency Video Codec is already being used on-air for certain college and professional sports, and the latency is less than a video field.

In less than 16 ms in a 60-Hz world, video is transmitted from its source to its destination in high quality. That’s very different from streaming, where the highest performance delivered is “best effort.”

Cost Saving
There is an expected immediate cost saving with IP, realized by purchasing COTS (commercially off-the-shelf ) equipment, such as network switches, which can be easily purchased from an IT distributor. Compare that cost with purchasing a standard SDI-based router, for example, and the cost saving with IP vs. SDI is immediately noticeable.

Additional savings may come from mobile production. Less cabling means reduced truck weight and lower fuel costs. Users may even be in a position to reduce the number of trucks: three trucks for a single mobile unit might become two trucks since less cable and less infrastructure is needed. Simply put, more equipment can fit into one truck.

Also, in an IP environment, anybody on the network has ubiquitous access to anything in the system they have the authority to view. This eliminates the need to set up panels throughout a facility. A Web interface manages signals and routes them to their different destinations.

Those are the immediate potential cost savings. In the longer term, the cost dynamic gets more interesting.

IP Live monitor

IP Live monitor

In this early stage of the IP transition, much of the equipment on the market won’t have IP built in. Customers purchasing or deploying IP-based systems will need to convert signals for legacy equipment: cameras, camcorders, monitors, servers, switchers, etc.

Initial cost saving may be minimal, but, in the near future — “future” being five years from now or sooner — the cost saving will become much more significant as more products are developed with IP technology built in. Conversion won’t be necessary. Products will come equipped with SDI and NMI, making them “IP-ready” on the fly.

All at Once?
Facility projects have always included one question: do I make a change all at once or gradually as time and budget permit? That was the question when it was a matter of going from SD to HD or to 4K, and it’s being asked now with IP.

The answer is, it’s possible to do it either way. A customer can dip a toe in the water and try it out: for example, using IP just for remote production, deploying less equipment and fewer resources to an event site. With a fiber connection, it’s possible to do all the live switching and audio mixing from the broadcast headend, while the cameras and microphones are deployed to the field. That’s an example of moving to IP gradually, for one aspect of production.

The other end of the spectrum is redoing an entire facility at once. That may entail swapping the SDI router and putting in an IP infrastructure based on network switches, essentially replacing the guts of a facility and diving in head first.

A Progress Report
Today, IP technology is still in the early stages. Several teams are exploring the option of using IP because the technology’s format-agnostic nature erases the worry that the “next new format” will make current technology obsolete.

When a traditional SDI environment moves from HD to 4K, the HD routing switcher’s usability could be reduced as much as 75%. It becomes only 25% usable because four cables are need to produce one channel of 4K. With HD, a single production switcher could produce 100 channels. With 4K, that capability drops to 25.

In an IP environment, all that’s needed to support a new resolution or format is additional system bandwidth. Where a 10-Gb switch can support 40 channels of HD, that same 10-Gb switch can support two channels of 4K. Expanding to 40 channels of 4K means increasing the backbone, which is much less expensive than buying and then expanding an SDI-based router.

Another unique benefit IP can deliver is analytics: the ability to track whatever is happening on a network system quickly and easily.

For example, the Sony IP system has the ability to tie in with the supplier’s new remote maintenance system, notifying users instantly when an incident has occurred. The system will notify users of something as simple as a camera’s using the wrong format or an overheating device. It can also monitor for impending critical failures.

Future potential analytics applications may even include intelligent “self-healing.” Instead of a person’s physically changing a camera to the correct format, what if the system were intelligent enough to flip the camera to the correct format on its own? Or take the signal and route it through a format-conversion path? This level of intelligence is further down the road, but IP provides that potential capability.

Because sports production has so many similarities with broadcast and video production, sports-video professionals must be aware of the development of broadcast and video-production technologies. It’s apparent that IP technology offers a significant number of benefits over standard coaxial technology and is the likely choice for video-production environments of the future. IP offers significant benefits for productions building for the future: scalability, flexibility, accessibility, and intelligence. Another benefit, which should not be understated, is the ability to choose between transitioning to an IP-based system over time or all at once.

Any organization considering construction of a new facility or renovation of an existing facility should take a close look at implementing an IP-based production system. It truly is changing the future of live production.

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