SVG Tech Insight: Hitting the Ground Running – The Journey from Satellite to IP Content Delivery

This spring, SVG will be presenting a series of White Papers covering the latest advancements and trends in sports-production technology. The full series of SVG’s Tech Insight White Papers can be found in the SVG Spring SportsTech Journal HERE.

The commercial communication satellite celebrates its 60th birthday next year, and while it is far from entering retirement, its use is rapidly evolving — as is its place in the TV ecosystem.

Underlying trends have increasingly reduced the role of satellite in the delivery of live video. Although demand for and creation of live content have increased, the value of each piece of programing has fallen, pushing broadcasters to trim budgets — making costly “live-via-satellite” links for many sports events harder to justify. Additionally, the on-demand content revolution has led to the emergence of multiplatform, over-the-top streaming, which has eroded the dominance of linear broadcasters, forcing many to increase their overall distribution capacity using Internet Protocol (IP)-centric methods.

The trends impacting satellite’s role in the television landscape have led broadcasters to look to their future and the role that IP will play in evolving their operations. Capital investments, operational costs, and the potential that IP offers for futureproofing their businesses when compared with satellite are all key factors.

IP and the hybrid model

IP is not a one-size-fits all approach but offers many options for content contribution and distribution — from streaming over the top (OTT) of the public internet and dedicated leased lines, to hybrid setups that mix and match different transports to balance cost per Mb, capacity, latency, and availability.

Many broadcasters see IP as a necessity, as it can offer many advantages such as a lower price per circuit and the flexibility to rapidly scale up and down. IP also has inherent redundancy and the raw bandwidth to support 4K HDR broadcasts. But other options such as dynamic synchronous transfer mode (DTM) technology offer their own advantages. DTM provides a highly scalable transport and switching layer between IP and fiber for next-generation networks and can deliver a direct point-to-point connection for UHD native video — at lower latency and with better predictability than the open internet. And satellite still has an opportunity to shine in areas such as live content distribution across a wide geographic footprint, where it provides a simpler and more cost-effective approach

For broadcasters, the issue is not simply a matter of IP versus satellite but involves weighing up the relative strengths and weaknesses of each delivery method, looking at how to best utilize different approaches — including hybrid solutions — to solve specific challenges, balance budgets, and better serve viewers.


Inherent issues with satellite

The geosynchronous satellite traditionally used to carry TV signals requires significant capital investment and has an operational lifespan of only about 15 years. Even though the average per-Gb cost of satellite bandwidth has dropped significantly over the last decade, this limited operational window places a cap on how low prices can fall.

Spectrum availability is another issue. The arrival of 5G networks has led many nations to sell off parts of the C-band spectrum used by satellite TV (around the 3-4Ghz band), with cellular communication providers leading a spectrum “land grab” that is pricing out broadcasters.

Satellite can also be more inherently complex for broadcasters than straight IP-based delivery, adding additional steps and costs to the production process. IP-centric workflows using satellite require steps to encode, transmit, and then decode content. Plus, booking satellite circuits is a pre-planned process involving a rigid schedule. While buying “always-on” satellite capacity may be an option for larger CNN-type organizations, smaller, more cost-sensitive operations face inherent technical and CAPEX barriers. Organizations using satellites infrequently are instead turning to IP-based alternatives that better fit their business models.

However, satellite is evolving and the next generation of low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations are launching at a rapid rate. These offer low latency and use IP transport, making them potentially more efficient for broadcasters with end-to-end IP workflows.

How is IP better?

The shift to IP is built upon the vast amount of fiber-optic cable laid over the last decade, and when paired with 5G technology, the combined infrastructure capacity far exceeds the equivalent satellite footprint. In practice, IP can ensure that a video stream — from a football stadium to a production center on the other side of the continent, for instance — will deliver a consistent circuit and low latency for a significantly lower cost than the equivalent satellite feed.

Furthermore, building workflows based entirely on IP-based video feeds creates new opportunities for broadcasters and streaming services to meet the expectations of multidevice consumers. IP workflows make dynamic content creation much easier to manage, while unlocking the potential of remote and cloud-based production to support more flexible and efficient content creation for multiple platforms.

Satellites, on the other hand, are not always reliable. Heavy snow or rain can affect transmitters, causing signal degradation. What’s more, the unpredictable nature of live event coverage can be a factor. A delay in a press conference or game kick-off can mean that the allocated circuit may not be available when needed — so often excess, potentially wasted, capacity needs to be booked.

Modern IP-based media networks use a capacity-on-demand model, with booking accomplished in just minutes. The one caveat is that, for the bandwidth required for multiple simultaneous UHD streams, a local point of presence — typically fiber — is needed to allow signaling to get into the IP network. However, with the growth of 5G as a localized “wireless” intermediary network, this endpoint requirement will become less necessary.

SAT to IP replacement in the real world

A great example of a broadcaster moving from satellite to IP distribution is provided by New England Sports Network (NESN), the broadcast home of the MLB’s Boston Red Sox, the NHL’s Boston Bruins, and the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. NESN delivers multiple Designated Market Area-targeted channels to homes in New England, and via NESN National, throughout the U.S.

NESN worked with The Switch to replace its existing satellite distribution network with next-generation hybrid private fiber and internet distribution. The Switch’s terrestrial distribution platform enables next-generation video compression, encryption, receiver management and control, and a redundant transmission network. Direct private fiber was built into NESN affiliates in areas the broadcaster identified as its most important markets, with additional affiliates fed directly through the internet, utilizing SRT technology.

Signals are now routed from the video encoders and multiplexers hosted at NESN’s Watertown, MA, headquarters and origination facility to The Switch’s Network Operations Center (NOC) in New York City via fully diverse, redundant 10Gbps fiber links. At the New York NOC, individual Multiple Program Transport Streams (MPTS) are tailored for every receiver in the network, based upon which channels of the NESN line-up the affiliate will receive.

Signals are delivered via The Switch-managed IP network to the various affiliates. The utilization of The Switch’s IP network for NESN’s terrestrial distribution model allows for full-time monitoring by NOC personnel and audible alarming of any service degradation or interruption to the paths.

This roll-out resulted in a significant improvement in signal quality delivered to the affiliates and a corresponding reduction in monthly costs to the client for the distribution network.

As a senior NESN executive explained after the launch: “Reliability is vital to these affiliates and our fans, so delivering a seamless transition from satellite to this next-generation platform was crucial. We are now in a position to utilize the best capabilities of fiber and internet to ensure the highest possible signal quality for live broadcasts and we have now laid the important groundwork to deliver our broadcasts in 4K HDR.”

Sports broadcasters and other high-value live content providers are increasingly looking for agility and proficiency — IP delivers this. In a highly competitive TV marketplace, delivering broadcast feeds in the highest quality — with no compromise on latency and the utmost flexibility — is central to meeting audiences’ growing expectations.

Grounded in the future

Satellite-based communication for TV will not vanish overnight. But the shift to IP will accelerate as global telecoms giants purchase more satellite spectrum for 5G and more broadcasters look for the scalability, redundancy, and other pluses IP-based delivery and workflows offer.

Sunk cost around analog, SDI ,and satellite equipment means that the evolution towards a more IP-centric approach will not necessarily be fast. Nonetheless, in the world of live sports, the development of IP-centric workflows and delivery solutions will only continue to broaden broadcasters’ options, which now include:

  • Use of a dedicated DTM network to provide the capacity and low latency needed for the live broadcast of high-profile games;
  • Utilizing hybrid solutions that mix public internet with private DTM networks to serve regional sports networks and broadcast affiliates;
  • Continuing use of satellite for continent-wide or international distribution to affiliates, for which it is still often the simplest solution.

With high-profile live events such as the Olympics and the World Cup on the horizon and sports leagues seeking to increase fan engagement, broadcasters and other rightsholders are looking for ways to spend less but still do more. For many, it makes more sense than ever to shift from satellite — with its rigid, fixed-window limitations — to an IP-centric hybrid approach, which offers a quick-to-deploy, “on-demand” service and billing approach.

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