SVG’s TranSPORT Summit Delves Into Shifting Transmission Market

Few segments of the sports-production industry have undergone as dramatic a transformation over the past decade as transport. Sports programming has never been a more global affair, creating new challenges in the world of backhaul, distribution, and delivery. Meanwhile, compression formats like MPEG-4 and JPEG 2000 are creating a new level of efficiency for fiber and satellite transmission providers.

In order to address the current state of this rapidly changing industry, SVG brought together more than 150 industry leaders for the TranSPORT Summit on Oct. 11 at the New York Hilton in Manhattan.

Hey, MPEG-2, Move Over
While newer, more bandwidth-efficient compression formats, particularly H.264/MPEG-4 AVC and JPEG 2000, continue to gain favor, MPEG-2 remains the gold standard for the majority of sports events. However, this may be on the verge of a major shift.

“We’re clearly at a point of what I call ‘state change,’” said David Chilson, associate director of broadcast distribution services, CBS Television, during the opening panel. “MPEG-2 served us for a long time in both SD and HD. Then, just when we worked out all the bugs and were really happy with it, along comes MPEG-4 and JPEG 2000. At CBS, we are still maximizing value from our MPEG-2 investment. But, as things need to be replaced, we will begin the transition to [MPEG-4 and JPEG 2000].”

With several compression formats to choose from, broadcasters must weigh a variety of factors in deciding which one best serves their needs.

“First, you look at your bandwidth constraints, as well as your capital and operational considerations,” said Emory Strilkauskas, principal engineer, transport technologies and special projects, ESPN. “Then, if you look at the cost, if JPEG 2000 costs X, then MPEG-2 is 3-4X and MPEG-4 is 5-6X. They all have their quality points and do a pretty good job for us, but it depends [on the situation].”

However, as any transmission specialist knows, it is not as simple as picking a compression format and running with it. One format may suffice for certain use cases but may not be an option for others.

“The pro and con with JPEG 2000 is that you have a real premium experience but it makes for bandwidth issues,” said Chilson. “So, since JPEG 2000 may not be able to fit all the situations, you now are operating with a duality: an MPEG on the satellite and a JPEG on the fiber. Are you willing to deal with that? But, clearly, MPEG-4 and JPEG 2000 are incrementally better formats, so we should be using them; we just need to be aware of their pitfalls as well.”

The State of Satellite
Although MPEG-4 and JPEG 2000 are taking off in terms of fiber transmission, MPEG-2 looks to have a very long life ahead in the satellite game.

“For us, MPEG is being used overwhelmingly for digital transmission,” said Tim Jackson, VP, media product management, Intelsat. “We do like to see people use MPEG-4 because of its bandwidth-efficiency, particularly for high-demand areas like NFL Sundays, College Football Saturdays, the World Cup, and the Olympics.”

According to Jackson, Intelsat has only begun to see demand for JPEG 2000 in the past year and does not see its catching on any time soon, due to the high bandwidth demands it places on satellite capacity, availability, and cost.

“From a satellite standpoint, I don’t think JPEG 2000 will ever be that widespread,” he said. “It will be more on the ground than on the satellite. We still see MPEG-2 as the thing that is going to be living for a while in a contribution environment, with MPEG-4 hopefully starting to increase.”

The changing face of transmission in the U.S. has placed much greater emphasis on fiber at sports venues. As a result, many satellite providers like Intelsat have begun to shift their resources toward international markets, where OU (occasional use) services are in higher demand.

“We’ve seen a reduction in the use of satellite for Ku[-band]-based sports backhauls, to the point where we had so much extra Ku that we moved one of our satellites to Russia,” said Jackson. “Globally, though, the OU business has been about as high as we’ve ever seen it. This has been one of our best non-event years [no Olympics or World Cup] ever. A lot of it is due to the global impact of soccer.”

So What’s Next?
As fiber and satellite backhaul, distribution, and delivery continue to evolve, other potential transport technologies promise to throw a new twist into the mix.

Strilkauskas, for example, noted that ESPN is seriously looking into using adaptive-bitrate technologies, originally developed for online streaming, in a contribution setting.

At Vista Satellite Communications, IP delivery is “definitely becoming part of the solution equation for our clients,” said SVP Anthony De Vita. “Our clients are always asking us to look into streaming from venues. We’ve streamed some pregame shows that are just going to Web. We use satellite as backhaul to our facility and then stream it to the Web for our client.”

And then there are the seemingly infinite wireless-transmission possibilities that come with the proliferation of 3G and LTE networks.

“It’s something that is going to happen,” said Chilson. “We’ve been approached by most of the wireless carriers because they have all this bandwidth and, when you combine that with the compression [technology] we have, there is possibility there. It will eventually be a competitor to traditional satellite and fiber. These guys want to get into this business. The only issue is congestion and quality of service management, which I think they can address at some point.”

Click here for SVG’s comprehensive coverage of the TranSPORT Summit.