Streaming Factory Up and Running in Vancouver, and Seven Other Locations

The Winter Olympic Games were in Torino, Italy, in 2006, but Torino is still involved in bringing the Games to the world in 2010. NBCOlympics.com is streaming 450 hours of live competition over the course of the Games, in addition to 800 hours of on-demand video, and the streaming factory is a joint operation of NBC Olympics, Microsoft, Torino-based Deltatre Informatica, and nearly 30 other vendors headquartered around the world.

“There are about 30 vendors involved in the digital side,” says Perkins Miller, SVP of digital media for NBC/GM of Universal Sports. “And our digital operations are spread among eight different facilities around the world.”

An International Operation
The HD-quality (720p), DVR-equipped player is powered by Microsoft Silverlight 3 and its multi-bitrate adaptive-streaming technology. The NBCOlypmics.com site is hosted by NBC’s data facility in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, and is distributed via Microsoft’s ECN and Akamai’s global distribution network. The live streaming is handled by iStreamPlanet in Las Vegas, live ad insertion is done through Toronto, anti-piracy is handled from Los Angeles and London, content-management systems are handled by Deltatre, and mobile operations are headquartered in Helsinki.

The newest — and most temporary — of those facilities is the International Broadcast Center in Vancouver. There, NBC Digital purchased from the host broadcaster a package called the new-media VandA package (pronounced vanda): video and audio.

“It is a compressed version of all of the 25 HD-SDI co-axes that have all of the events on them,” says Dave Mazza, SVP of engineering for NBC Olympics. “There are four profiles you can buy into: the 18 Mb that we’re using, the 8 Mb that’s also HD, and [two lower-quality choices]. We bought the two higher profiles, and they go down into an OC12 connector.”

That connector is tied to a 622-Mb pipe that feeds directly to NBC’s 30 Rock headquarters in New York. Half of that pipe is dedicated to transfers for the highlights factory, but the other 300 Mb is dedicated to streaming traffic with the VandA package. The content is sent to New York and turned around on another OC12 circuit to Las Vegas, where iStreamPlanet picks it up.

Twenty raw host feeds are fed directly to iStreamPlanet’s Las Vegas operation. There, the feeds are ingested into Inlet encoders and transported in multiple-bitrate profiles to the content-delivery network at ECN, powered by Microsoft. The multiple-bitrate profiles enable the adaptive-streaming capability.

“iStreamPlanet has 25 multi-bitrate encoders that make those four or five profiles for Silverlight in real time for the streams,” Mazza says. “We did the streaming factory in China for ourselves, but we had 80 encoders doing 1 Mb at SD, just a single copy. We didn’t want to invest in all the hardware to do that in multi-bitrate, so we contracted with iStreamPlanet to do that.”

The result? A much higher-quality streaming experience and less infrastructure for NBC to take care of. All the streams coming out of Vancouver are multi-bitrate encoded up to 3.5 Mb.

“In China, the streams were all SD, and the clips were SD,” Mazza says. “Now the streaming factory is all HD, and it looks dramatically different because it’s encoded in HD.”

Advertising in the Mix
The live streams also include live ad insertion, so advertising can be delivered both in real time and when the clips are made available on-demand.

“The live ad insertion is deployed through Toronto and is unique to broadcast in the digital stream,” Miller says. “If you watch the game as a rewind, you get full on-demand replay with advertising throughout.”

iStreamPlanet also handles slate insertion for broadcast simulcasts, so that commercial breaks that run longer than the commercials do not leave viewers hanging.

“There’s a slate synchronized to ad-insertion markers, and we’re doing it dynamically,” Miller says. “So, if a break is longer than the ad period targeted, we have a slate that goes up so you don’t just see some dirty feed. We have to have operators on both ends, in Las Vegas and Toronto, to synchronize that.”

Slowing the Stream
One proviso of the streaming factory for the Winter Games is that live video requires the viewer to be a customer of a sponsoring MSO.

“The streaming-authentication process in Beijing was simplified,” Miller says. “You had a pull-down menu and got to select from there your provider. This has gotten more sophisticated, where you have to provide your account information and it returns a cookie that’s persistent for the games that allows you to watch live and long-form video.”

Although the authentication process can be complicated, it’s part of the business of digitizing content.

“We distribute on four primary cable networks, and there’s income as a consequence of that,” Miller says. “That’s part of the relationship that we had with cable operators, to make this work and get it done.”