TranSPORT 2014: What’s Old Is New Again in Backhaul

Content creators are churning out more high-quality programming than ever before, and content distributors want to deliver that content to more varied devices than ever before. Getting all that from Point A to Point B, though, is a whole other story.

Providers of terrestrial and satellite services had a lively discussion regarding the current and future state of their business this week in front of a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 professionals at SVG’s TranSPORT event in New York City.

Even as new video-compression standards emerge and pipes expand to accommodate increased loads of video and data, backhaul specialists are still challenged by many of the same core problems.

Said The Switch EVP Richard Wolf, who served 30+ years in broadcast operations and engineering at ABC, “We still have first- and last-mile difficulties like it was 1970. It seems archaic to even think that way, but it’s true.

“We as an industry,” he continued, “need to recognize that we need to build on top of those backbones’ sophistication, protection, and redundancy to eliminate some of the risks that are in our business. I’m crying out to the industry to say we need to make sure that the basics don’t get ignored and neglected. High-quality, highly available, redundant, diverse, managed service is different than bandwidth, and we shouldn’t blur the difference.”

Many of those first- and last-mile challenges exist because of the sheer magnitude of content being shipped around. Today, backhaul is more than just video; it’s video and data distributors looking for as much speed and size in their pipes as possible.

“If you build it, we will come,” cracked David Chilson, associate director, broadcast distribution services, CBS-TV. “If [we] go to a provider who says you can get one HD-SDI, we’ll take it. If the provider says an HD-SDI and 100 meg of data, well, we’ll take that. 500? We’ll take that. There’s a never-ending thirst, but now, as you build these bigger parts, there’s an even larger impact and dependency. In the past, if you lost the data, you could pick up the phone and keep moving on. Now it becomes critical.”

Sports, specifically, offers unique backhaul challenges, with technology developers needing to build larger ad hoc networks for massive individual events.

“Special-event coordination is becoming a hybrid solution because the content is being distributed so many different ways,” said Josh Liemer, VP, VISTA Worldlink. “At VISTA, we embrace many different kinds of technology because our clients require custom solutions. We may need to run on a fiber line via The Switch but then backhaul that to a teleport facility so that we can change frame rate or enhance audio or whatever we may have to do and then maybe redistribute that to a European broadcaster. On top of that, there may be digital distribution and a pay-per-view wall. So we’re really seeing that, at these big events, you really have to do your homework, do site surveys, test all of this content, and test these technologies onsite, sometimes weeks before we get there.”

As for the future of compression, it’s obviously still highly valued and necessary, especially as formats such as 4K barrel into the conversation with their massive bitrates. But which of the new compression standards (MPEG-4, JPEG2000, HEVC) is taking the lead?

“The primary transport compression codec that we see going forward will be J2K, said Kevin Ancelin, VP, sales and business development, Artel. “It is a visually lossless codec at a couple hundred megabits. Even though it’s an old codec, there’s a new profile for J2K; there’s a new interoperable method that’s going to bring J2K to a place where MPEG2 or HEVC may have had dominion for some time, and we’ll see that evolution.”

While all of this is happening, satellite is doing its best to keep up, following the emergence of more fiber infrastructures across the country. For a massive media company like ESPN, fiber is invaluable when combating higher and higher data rates, but satellite still has a very valuable place in the chain.

“Where fiber doesn’t exist, we’re able to do multiple services over a transponder at high quality,” said Emory Strilkauskas, principal engineer, transport technologies and special projects, ESPN. “That’s really beneficial, but it still doesn’t compare to the economics of fiber where it is available.”

4K, meanwhile, is already a part of major production workflows and appears to be set to be deployed by some video-on-demand companies, such as Netflix, with IP transmission delivering 4K content to the home. Wolf notes that traditional backhaul providers can learn something from the new-age distribution companies and how they are moving 4K around.

“4K may not be here in the somewhat traditional distributors,” said Wolf. “Take a look at the so-called non-traditional distributors: Google, Apple TV, Yahoo! TV, Netflix, Amazon. These are guys that don’t have the same distribution bottlenecks in their platforms, and they’re chomping at the bit to differentiate themselves today. So it’s probably coming here in places that we normally wouldn’t think of first.”