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20 September 2022

Broadcast industry hesitates about IP, despite 5G impact

The migration to all-IP architectures is so fundamental to the telecoms and media industries of today that it is easy to forget that the transformation is far from universal. The move from 3G to 4G was crucial in introducing IP to the mobile access network, but plenty of operators still have non-packetized technologies, such as TDM, incumbent in their transport and wide area networks. And the broadcast sector has been very slow, in some areas, to make the leap to IP, which may prove a barrier to the deepening convergence that is expected between broadcast and mobile networks during the 2020s.

Earlier this year, Haivision conducted a survey of 650 broadcast and media professionals and found that 65% had already migrated at least part of their broadcast infrastructure to IP. However, the phrase ‘at least part’ proved significant – this is certainly not an all-IP strategy, with 60% planning hybrid workflows. However, 68% said that 5G was the most impactful technology for their plans up until 2027, especially to support IP-based workflows for live events.

The relative optimism of that report about broadcaster IP plans was not borne out when analysts from Wireless Watch’s sister service, Faultline (which provides weekly insights into the video and media businesses) visited the recent IBC2022 in Amsterdam, the industry’s biggest annual conference.

Faultline was surprised to hear from multiple vendors just how resistant broadcasters are still proving in the transition from Serial Digital Interface (SDI) to SMPTE 2110, the standard for IP distribution, citing budgetary and complexity barriers.

Simen Frostad, chair and co-founder of Bridge Technologies, said the Norwegian monitoring firm has been doing browser-based signal testing and measurement for 18 years, waiting for the rest of the world to play catch-up. “We thought IP was going to explode in 1995, but the trust was not there,” he recalls.

Bridge Technologies was founded in 2004, with the aim of making IP distribution easy to use with clear graphical analytics tools that would prevent the onslaught of finger pointing that ensues after poor video quality.

While SDI brought simplicity in connections, notably combining video and audio signals into one cable, the downside was that each link in the network chain added a few frames of latency. Frostad frames IP as the vehicle for returning to the glorious zero-latency days of analog baseband video.

Frostad says that Tier 2 and Tier 3 broadcasters are far more reluctant to make the jump to IP due to the initial capex that it requires. “This is why Tier 1s are still so successful with their technologies,” he argued. “They can introduce 4K and HDR seamlessly, whereas it’s a really problematic integration on SDI.”

“I often like the conservatism of broadcasters, but it has gone too far and we’re at a standstill,” Frostad continued. “The move to IP should have been 20 years ago. In any revolution, there is going to be blood on the streets.”

There is also hesitancy on the pure-play over-the-top side, too, when it comes to embracing HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) and DASH for lower latency. Here the issue is a lack of trust in content delivery networks’ (CDN) synchronicity – people fear that their network bookends will not be able to piece back together the constant stream of 100ms video chunks that arrive with HLS and DASH.

“OTT is becoming very advanced, but it is not difficult, just complex. HLS and DASH presents five times the complexity of traditional OTT,” Frostad argued. “You need knowledge, but people do not want that anymore – they want systems that can replace old, knowledgeable engineers.”

Bridge Technologies largely serves video distribution, but production is a burgeoning area, as more production teams look to shift uncompressed video to remote locations over IP.

Another veteran monitoring vendor, TAG Video Systems, appears so impatient about the IP migration that it has resorted to playing hard to get. “If we have to pitch IP to you, we’ll talk to you in a few years,” says TAG’s ‘zero friction officer’, Kevin Joyce.

TAG’s monitoring capabilities cover every part of the video chain, from production to playout. At the center is its multi-viewer control room capabilities, which puts it head-to-head with the likes of Grass Valley and Evertz.

“To IP or to not IP is no longer a question,” Joyce told us, arguing that the initial capex is dwarfed by the overall value proposition of flexibility. “It’s more a question of HR – changing mindsets and culture. No one regrets transitioning.”

A more neutral adjudicator can be found in UK playout specialist Pebble, which serves broadcasters of all shapes and sizes. “Uncompressed IP is way more complicated than SDI,” argues Allison Pavitt, director of sales and marketing. “It’s a bunch of assets sitting in a network, none of it knows where to go. Lots of engineers find it daunting.”

Pebble has witnessed European customers start IP migration projects, only to revert to SDI when it gets too complicated. To turn some heads, Pebble has launched a free version of its central platform Pebble Control, which looks to alleviate some of the confusion by offering simple dashboard to group connections into containers.

The free version offers full functionality, with the only difference being network capacity. While the free version has a limit of 20 connections, the paid version can extend into the many thousands. “We’re looking to democratize access to it and help with the decision-making process,” Pavitt explained.

Another vendor facilitating customer choice is Net Insight. The company has just launched the IP Media Pro app in its Nimbra suite, which offers conversion from SDI to SMPTE 2110.

CTO Per Lindgren, says that one chief concern surrounding IP migration is security, so the app includes Net Insight’s Trust Boundary demarcation technology. This can be used to support firewalls in IP translation, while also acting as a useful checkpoint for CDN synchronization and frame alignment. While he feels the product is helping to convert people, Lindgren argues that most customers require a gradual migration. “It doesn’t always forklift upgrade everything at the same time,” he warns. “It has to be a seamless transition.”