The tipping point for IP live investment has been reached but will interoperability hamper adoption?
IP networks were never intended for video. The brittle, time-sensitive nature of video does not play well with the proven but lossy nature of IP – even less so on shared and unmanaged networks like the internet. The varying delay and constant packet loss of the internet play havoc with every video stream traversing it unprotected.
Despite this, the industry is entering a time where IP will be the video transport technology of choice. “With the introduction of multiscreen and personalised content there is a need for more agile and flexible workflows,” affirms media transport solutions provider, Net Insight. “This is driving the adoption of file-based technologies, as well as flexible transport solutions.”
As bitrates increase and equipment prices drop, IP-based communication technologies are pushing more and more dedicated communication systems into retirement.
“There is not a new camera or production solution on the market today that does not support IP,” informs Net Insight. “New and modernised studios are often completely based on IP, and file-based workflows naturally use IP to move files from point A to B.”
Potential production of resolutions up to 8K (or beyond!) require bandwidths previously unheard of and remote production further pushes the need for speed. The ability to scale networks without a glass ceiling and without spending huge capex on replacement kit is arguably the most compelling business argument for the move to IP.
To get there however, broadcasters do have to make a decision to rip and replace existing copper wire cabling. The cost and benefits are about to reach a tipping point but just because COTS is tried and trusted in almost every other industry, the broadcast community has reservations about getting it right. This is especially pertinent of live production and there are differences of opinion in the industry about whether IP live is ready for primetime.
“The great bright future is out there but as an industry we can't tell them how it works with 100 percent confidence,” says Tim Felstead, head of product marketing, Quantel Snell. “In a live environment, when you have adverts to get to air, people's jobs and reputations are on the line. You have to prove to broadcast engineers that when a director says 'Go to Camera 4 now' that it will happen.”
Mark Hilton, VP Infrastructure Products at Grass Valley, agrees that there's an element of hyperbole about IP but that “it is coming on quicker than we all thought. and we're seeing proof of concepts being commissioned.”
With its own brand of IP-enabled products from camera, production switchers, servers and gateways to convert SDI to IP just launching, Hilton believes small scale IP live production is possible just around the corner.
Imagine Communications is even more bullish. “Live IP has been possible for years. It is not about IP, it is about whether or not broadcasters should look at operational changes,” says Brick Eksten, vp, product strategy.
IC points to the reference site it is building in New York with Disney/ABC which includes full live production switching over COTS. Other first movers include Pac-12 Networks – the broadcast arm of the conference of 12 west coast universities – which uses T-VIPS and Nevion links to transmit talkback, telemetry and telemetric data to and from sports venues as far as 2500 km away, apparently with less than a second delay. ESPN's Digital Center 2 opened last year built around a J2K–based Evertz EXE-X2 IP routing core with pockets of baseband workflows. It is capable of routing more than 6,000 HD 1080p streams and as much as 9 TeraBits per second.
“From a master control operational perspective - hitting buttons on a panel – should I, as a broadcaster or engineer, expect any difference from SDI to switching video over IP or running video processing over software?” poses Eksten. “The answer is no. Imagine is all about transparency with IP. We are saying that the interaction feels the same as it did when audio/video was run over SDI.”
Quantel's Felstead is not so sure. “It is much more difficult to see what is going on in IP. The control systems don't exist [but being developed]. Where SDI routers were very reliable with straightforward verification of what was happening, IP systems are more opaque. This creates a lack of confidence.”
Quantel Snell's research indicates that 27 of industry stakeholders believe IP routers will replace SDI within a decade. “While [Quantel Snell] support 2022 we don't believe it is the right way to go long term,” says Felstead. “The industry isn't able to transpose IP into a live environment today.”
At face value the Imagine and Quantel Snell stance appear at odds but in fact they are voicing very similar concerns. SMPTE 2022-6 is the first incarnation of realtime video over IP and deemed solid enough to get the industry moving. It is the standard on which most manufacturer's starter IP kit is based.
However, 2022 emulates the way base-band is used and does not have the capability to send multiple data streams on the same wire. If you want to freely mix and match different cameras or audio tracks, a prime advantage that IP offers, then a new standard is required. This could be SMPTE 2022-8/9/10 which the standard's body is working on. The Video Services Forum, which has focussed on J2K, has another and there will likely be demonstrations of both next year.
The move to 4K complicates matters further. In a live environment do we need fully pristine uncompressed 4K? Or will a mezzanine format be good enough? Some form of compression will have to be good enough in the early stages of 4K over IP since current 10 GbE connections do not have the capacity to carry it uncompressed.
Codec contenders include IntoPix' Tico alliance backed by Grass Valley; J2K; VC2 (backed by Quantel) and Sony's Low Latency Video Codec. London-based V-Nova claims its codec can deliver 4K picture quality at half current rates (just 7-8Mbps) with hints that this could be applied to production.
“One of the great big wins of IP infrastructure is leveraging the cost savings by using commodified IT kit,” says Felstead. “To do that we need to be able to ensure interoperability, but there is no standard common between enough manufacturers to ensure this.”
Quantel flags that economics of multiple proprietary codecs would negate much of IP's supposed cost-savings. “When you compare the efficiency of SDI routers and IT routers in handling different encoding standards and you add up the core devices and peripheral devices you come to the conclusion that the driver is going to be the edge devices,” says Felstead. Vendors like Quantel Snell are hedging their bets, incorporating a variety of IP standards into switching and routing gear. “If we have lots of pieces from different manufacturers and every link has a encode and decode stage with a royalty fee it will run counter to the very principal of COTS driving infrastructure costs down.”
Hilton's concern is that some technologies require different types of hardware; “The Sony LLVC needs to be designed into the hardware, J2K has quite a long latency right now and is fairly computationally intensive and Tico, while optimised for this light compression, is not a good enough standard yet.”
Sony played a major role in developing the original SDI as a universal interface is trying to do the same with its own IP connection. It has the support of a number of manufacturers but is unlikely to receive the blessing of rivals like Panasonic.
“For a real successful implementation of IP it's very important that one standard is accepted and adopted to allow interoperability between systems just as SDI currently provides,” says Peter IJkhout, CTO, VidiGo. “At present, several organizations or companies are developing competing protocols and we have to wait and see how this will progress.
“Adoption will depend on acceptance of compression in the production chain as well as unavoidable longer latency compared to traditional SDI,” he stresses. “Without a well-designed protocol that can be shared seamlessly between vendors and equipment there will be reluctance to invest in IP as SDI replacement.”
Ericsson Broadcast & Media Services, CTO Steve Plunkett, is more conciliatory. “The proprietary implementations prove the technical viability of IP as a transport medium,” he says. “They are providing real world experience that in turn feeds into a general body of knowledge of professional media over IP and they offer short term solutions to organisations who need to implement now. However, they are not viable in the long term. The industry needs scale to reduce costs and that will not be achieved with closed vendor specific solutions.”
According to Imagine's Eksten the major broadcast kit players are talking 2022 interop mainly about their own equipment. By contrast, “We are targeting expansion of our universe of 2022 interop with other companies, which is a huge step forward required by the industry.”
In any case, the issue may soon be redundant. With technologies of 40GbE and 100GbE already out of the labs (and in place at Disney/ABC) the velocity of advance in IT should iron out temporary capacity restrictions though not necessarily cost.
“SDI routers are based on a price per port while IP is typically on amount of bandwidth,” explains Felstead. “If you put video over IP unconstrained in bandwidth you may have a problem cost-wise. If you use uncompressed SD 200Mbps you've got less of a problem but if you use HD, 3G or 4K bandwidth consumption quickly becomes an issue.”
More significantly for some is the human factor. IP requites not just a change in technology but a change in the way people do things. “The required network systems for 4K over IP are complex and expensive,” says IJkhout. “Traditional engineers at broadcasters are very video oriented and it will take time, and being honest often different people, to make the transition into IP engineering.”
“If you've been working in SDI for 30 years and all of a sudden it's based on servers this requires different skills sets,” says Adam Cox, head of broadcast equipment, Futuresource Consulting. “You can retrain them, but they will still think like engineers. The lack of skillsets are a big barrier to IP live.”
Quantel's pitch is don't hold off on IP plant infrastructure but do so with the confidence that the investment is going to be used for the lifecycle of the equipment and won't block you out of future standards. “We've engineered IP interfaces into live SDI product like Kahuna and Sirius so we can offer an immediate hybrid approach,” says Felstead.
IP has already swept through contribution and distribution and will inevitably become the defacto signal route for live. The opportunities are simply too compelling.
“Competition from internet and cable is intense on broadcasters which have incredible opportunities to interject advertising into their programming,” argues Eksten. “That is not the case in broadcast but it can be and needs to be.
“IP mean not having to capex a bunch of equipment every time you want to launch a channel but by using virtualised networks and compute resource to spin-up a channel in hours rather than month. And then it turn off again as needs be.
“When you start to see 2022 capability in pure software, the ability to scale and change network routers to adapt to new business parameters is just phenomenal.”