White Paper: The Case for IP in Sports Broadcasting

In the digital age, live sports broadcasting’s net is being cast ever wider, with both new and established players battling it out to find inventive and different ways to tap into this lucrative market. Although the pinnacle has traditionally been the major live sports programs that command massive global audiences and advertising deals, some broadcasters have entered the relatively untapped world of smaller, niche sports.

Inge Hillestad

Inge Hillestad

The modern technological solution for broadcasters looking to enter this arena lies in deploying IP network technology. The aim is to bring greater flexibility, scalability, and cost-effectiveness to operations and effectively “do more with less.” A clear economic model has arisen, and the use of IP in specific areas, such as remote production, will enable broadcasters to cover more events, including those lower-profile sports, with far fewer resources in terms of people, equipment, and, ultimately, costs.

From the FIFA World Cup to the Super Bowl, live high-end sports coverage inevitably attracts record numbers of worldwide viewers. However, the rights are hugely expensive and out of reach for all but a few of the biggest broadcasting giants. In addition, production costs are substantial, and, to justify the expenditure, audience figures and advertising revenues have to guarantee a positive and sizable return on investment.

At the other end of the spectrum, niche broadcasting has been taken to a new level. In pursuit of new compelling content, broadcasters have been investigating less–high-profile sports events. Even with smaller audiences, every sport has a dedicated fan base, and, in terms of advertising, coverage can be more personalized and geared to the specific sport. In the past, the biggest challenge was how to make it profitable, aligning costs of production with potential revenues.

Business Drivers: The Remote-Production Revolution
Traditionally, in producing live coverage of events, broadcasters send a full outside-broadcast (OB) unit to the site, an inherently expensive business. The truck is a big investment, with a lot of financial downtime while relocating from site to site, in addition to the costs and logistics of being on location. IP remote production allows the director and most of the production staff to perform their roles at base, saving travel time and costs and enabling production staff to cover more events over a weekend.

As a result, more broadcasters are using IP technology to set up extremely cost-effective links to sports venues. Covering smaller events and niche sports still has to deliver a return on the broadcaster’s investment, and, to make it an attractive proposition, the whole operation has to be managed on the lowest possible investment.

Proof Point: Pac-12 Goes IP
In July 2011, Pac-12 Networks placed collegiate sports firmly on the broadcast map when 12 universities jointly launched one national network and six regional networks.

Pac-12 Networks has revolutionized its business and substantially reduced costs by introducing what it calls “IP Production” to its live sports production. Moving to IP-enabled remote production has given the broadcaster greater flexibility, efficiency, and control, without sacrificing production values, across the 850 events it covers live every year.

IP technology allows Pac-12 to place its talent, cameras, and microphones onsite, while the rest of the production crew is based at its central headquarters. Data transport between network headquarters and the event location comprises multiple video feeds in different directions, wireless Internet access for all truck personnel, file transfers, intercom, IFB, and telemetric data. The major difference from traditional production is that no video circuits are deployed: everything is data, and all connectivity is achieved through IP with less than a frame of delay.

Compared with the logistical and cost challenges associated with traditional live production, Pac-12 estimates, IP Production saves between $12,000 and $15,000 for every event, which equates to millions of dollars per year.

Compression Technology
Producing live coverage of sports events requires a number of video, audio, and other signals to be transported from the venues to the central production location. With a full production crew onsite, the type and quantity of signals that need to be backhauled are usually quite small. However, for a remote production, there can be many camera feeds and a significant number of audio, intercom, and other production-signal requirements.

Inevitably, there is a compromise between the number of signals and the bandwidth available to transport those signals. Video and audio compression allows more signals to be packed into the same bandwidth but brings its own set of compromises in compression ratio, quality loss, and latency.

Today, broadcasters can easily transport uncompressed HD signals at 1.5 Gbps over IP and 10GigE Ethernet using the SMPTE 2022-6 standard.

The quantity of signals to be transported often makes compression attractive. JPEG 2000 has become widely popular for low-latency high-quality contribution and offers visually lossless compression at around one-eighth the bandwidth. In practice, JPEG 2000 fits eight to 10 times more feeds than uncompressed on the same network.

Where bandwidth is at a premium, H.264/AVC 4:2:2 10-bit encoding offers significant improvements in compression efficiency, while still providing pristine video quality. In terms of the overall market for contribution links worldwide, H.264/AVC is dominant, and the share of 4:2:2 10-bit deployments vs. 8-bit is increasing.

Proof Point: ARD/ZDF
When German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF wanted to provide HD coverage of the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championship in Colorado, they had to find the optimum way to transport the feeds from the U.S. to Germany in the face of bandwidth constraints.

Several important technical factors guided their selection of media gateways. Aside from the high level of picture quality relative to bandwidth usage, the high density, flexibility, and built-in network aggregation were persuasive technically and financially, keeping costs down for ARD and ZDF.

After extensive testing, the broadcasters selected an H.264/AVC media gateway that supports up to four encoders or decoders in a 1RU form factor.

The upcoming move to UHD for high-end content production and distribution — with higher resolution, higher frame rates, and higher dynamic range — represents another large step in increased bandwidth and processing requirements. At the same time, the industry is trying to do more with less, putting content on new distribution channels while reducing production costs. This is where lightweight compression using codecs like TICO or SMPTE VC-2 comes to the rescue, allowing broadcasters and content producers to take advantage of these exciting new formats in live production, engaging audiences in a new way while keeping data rates for UHD signals below 10G.

Protection
From smaller niche sports to grand global events, transporting high-quality signals reliably is paramount. Several strategies provide transport protection to ensure that signals are never interrupted. Each strategy offers a compromise between the level of protection, the data overhead required (that is, additional bandwidth use), and the additional latency.

Network-related issues, such as packet loss and link failures, occur more often than media- or network-node failures. Therefore, to achieve high availability, media services should ideally be implemented with redundant network paths that are geographically diverse and completely independent end-to-end. IP media transport using the SMPTE 2022 family of protocols enables IP streaming across dual paths with seamless protection switching on packet loss or link failures on either path, as long as the errors do not occur on both paths at the same time. This seamless IP protection switching (SIPS) is based on RTP-level synchronous streams and is standardized as SMPTE 2022-7.

In cases where only a single link is available at an event site (for example, a Gigabit Ethernet leased line), other protection mechanisms become relevant. The leased line typically has an SLA that states performance and availability as specified by the network operator. However, recovery from outage is often too slow (for instance, 50 ms) to avoid a loss of signal.

One approach is to use Launch Delay Offset (LDO), whereby each packet is sent twice, with a delay of, for example, slightly more than 50 ms, ensuring that at least one copy will arrive at the destination even in a recovery situation.

Another alternative that does not require double bandwidth is to use Forward Error Correction (FEC – SMPTE 2022-1/5), which uses checksum techniques to enable recovery of damaged or missing IP packets at the receiving end.

The final piece of the protection puzzle is device redundancy. Here, various mechanisms can be used, some based on management-system–controlled failover and others on autonomous solutions with main and backup devices.

Protection strategies can be complemented with monitoring capabilities to ensure that potential problems can be identified and fixed rapidly.

Proof Point: BT Cricket in 4K
In 2015, global telecom operator BT delivered, on behalf of Star Sports India, the world’s first intercontinental IP contribution of an event captured in 4K at the ICC Cricket World Cup in Australia.

BT Media and Broadcast transported the 4K as four 3G uncompressed signals, using four synchronized media gateways. Given the distance between Australia and India (more than 5,000 miles), full protection and monitoring was required.

For this project, FEC and SIPS were selected as a protection mechanism. Monitoring probes also allowed remote monitoring of the 4K/UHD signal and proactive network to take place at the BT Tower in London.

The success of the broadcast could perhaps be measured by the record-breaking audiences, with more than a billion viewers estimated to have tuned in worldwide for the India-Pakistan match. The project demonstrates the capabilities of the modern IP contribution network. With the right technology, it is possible to capture sports events in 4K and transport the live signal between continents, with the signals monitored in a completely separate location.

Management
With IP connections ubiquitous and relatively inexpensive, coverage can be delivered from virtually any location to a central production facility. One key element is management of the connections. To enable maximum flexibility and cost-effectiveness in production, non-experts need to be able to control media-network–management systems, setting up and tearing down connections and links on demand.

The latest management systems have been designed to make it easy to manage traditional and IP-based media networks by hiding the underlying complexity. Connections can be set up in a remote location quickly and simply. When lowering costs is a key priority, software-defined networks (SDN), with the right management system in control, minimize network costs and give broadcasters maximum flexibility to control and monitor the connections themselves.

Adoption of New Standards
IP has been widely adopted for contribution. The technology is making in-roads in broadcast-production infrastructure and studio applications and, thus, is beginning to blur the distinction between studios, facilities, campuses, and contribution. SMPTE 2022-6 has proved great for wide-area–network (WAN) contribution links, offering clear benefits for IP-based in-facility distribution of signals. One example is connecting studios and control rooms via a distributed IP network infrastructure — without the constraints and scalability limitations of a traditional centralized star-topology MCR router. The LiveIP project has shown how uncompressed SMPTE 2022-6 IP video and AES67 audio transport enables all-IP studio production.

The move to all-IP live production has begun, and the future points to adoption of standardized architectures, protocols, and toolsets. This is required to ensure that broadcast and media production continues to experience the interoperability it has today — whether for a broadcaster building a new facility using best-of-breed solutions from a wide range of equipment manufacturers or for an operator plugging two pieces of gear together just before the start of a playoff game.

IP Is Key
IP technology is radically changing the economics of live sports coverage for broadcasters, whether for big, high-profile games or more niche events. The technology has proved its performance, reliability, and cost-effectiveness. With the right management tool, one that puts those producing the coverage in control of their needs, IP is proving to be a game changer.