SVG Sit-Down: Level 3 Communications’ Derek Anderson and Jon Alexander

This weekend, for the 26th consecutive year, Level 3 Communications will be tasked with providing broadcast-video services at the Super Bowl. The NFL and NBC Sports will rely on Level 3’s Vyvx VenueNet+ to deliver Super Bowl XLIX from University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, which is connected directly to Level 3’s advanced fiber-optic network. In addition, Level 3 is supporting a variety of other pre/postgame services for NBC’s Super Bowl Week coverage from downtown Phoenix and for broadcasters all over the country — totaling more than 3,000 hours of Super Bowl video content acquired, encoded, and transported across Level 3’s Vyvx VenueNet+ platform.

Earlier this month, SVG sat down with Level 3’s Senior Product Director Derek Anderson and Director of Product Management Jon Alexander to discuss the company’s massive presence at Super Bowl XLIX, its growing cloud, and its role in the emergence of “at-home” production workflows that link remote productions with broadcast centers at home.

Obviously. the Super Bowl is one of the biggest events of the year for Level 3. Can you describe your role in supporting the NFL and broadcasters?
Anderson:
We have a pretty well rehearsed playbook for Super Bowl after all these years and feel like we know how to support [our clients]. I wouldn’t say there’s any major evolutionary changes this year, but we are definitely seeing the continued need for more connectivity on file-based [workflows] in terms of remote EVS-deck connections and that kind of thing. That has been a trend for the last few years, and we’re seeing that more this year.

Going back to 2008, every Super Bowl venue was directly connected to our infrastructure. So eliminating the need for any third-party connections gives us, foundationally, the platform to do what we want in terms of connectivity and speed. At last year’s Super Bowl, we stood up about 60 Gbps of total pipe capacity for Fox between their location in Times Square and Met Life Stadium.

Speaking of file-based workflows, how have you seen at-home productions growing in recent years, and what role has Level 3 played?
Anderson:
This year will probably be the biggest single year, from a sports perspective, that we are putting incremental venues directly on the Level 3 fiber network. That’s been a focus for us for a while. I think, for us, strategically, it’s more investment in infrastructure to enable those [workflows]. Once that infrastructure’s in place, that really opens the floodgates in terms of what’s possible. We are seeing that on a case-by-case basis.

There has been a drastic increase in connectivity at and among NFL Stadiums over the past couple of years. How have you guys helped that along?
Anderson:
Our goal for the end of this year is to have every single NFL venue directly on [the network], which will be a significant differentiator from anything else in the market. Our ability to stand that up will allow us to better serve both the league and the broadcasters at Fox, CBS, ESPN, and others. So there’s a lot of internal conversation in terms of how we move things forward and create that architecture to support things that haven’t been possible in the past.

And then, obviously, there were other ancillary benefits from a Level 3 perspective: specifically, cellular data or IP needs at the venue that we are very well positioned to support and enable. In terms of the metrics of connectivity-based usage and IP usage at the venue, it’s just exploding, so we need to be there to support that.

Level 3 has launched a bevy of cloud-based services over the past couple of years. How has the market reacted?
Alexander: We have a few cloud-based products. There is Cloud Connect, which is a data-connectivity service [using] Level 3 connections to public and private clouds: Amazon EC2, Azure, Google, and so on.

Last year, we launched Cloud Content Exchange, which was a light solution for moving big files point to point. We have been working with a lot of people on that service, and it’s been doing well. Some of the big studios and broadcasters are using it, as well as the more traditional enterprise markets like healthcare and automotive.

Then we have our Video Cloud, which is huge for sports and based on our Vyvx and CDN products, bringing those together to support customers’ workflows. The key driver [is] connecting the wealth of strengths in the Vyvx area on the broadcast side and the CDN on the over-the-top side, [making] it easier to connect those two worlds.

The Super Bowl is a great example. We will be doing the over-the-top streaming as well as the broadcast. We partnered with iStreamPlanet, which will be doing the encoding for that service as well. iStreamPlanet is one of [our] solution providers. We have people like MLBAM and Origin Digital, so we’re trying to create that sort of ecosystem around our core strengths. CDN and Vyvx are very strong in their respective fields, and then there’s that kind of glue in the middle where we work with different solution providers to connect the end-to-end workflow.

With one OTT channel after the other popping up over the past few months — Sony PlayStation Vue, Dish Network’s Sling TV, HBO, CBS, Nickelodeon — how can Level 3’s infrastructure support the flood of new content coming down the pike?
Alexander:
A big push for us this year is over-the-top video, linear video distribution. A lot of that programming content, the linear television channels, we have on the Vyvx network today. We’re doing Vyvx distribution for that content, and we can connect that workflow to the digital teams inside these organizations.

Often, the biggest barrier we see is [that] the broadcast team and the digital team are physically separate and just moving the content between those two sides is challenging. So being able to do that in our cloud, working with service providers like iStreamPlanet and MLBAM, is a real value-add.

We are seeing that there is a real race to get to market quickly, and we have the content, can encode it, and deliver it directly to a player quickly in days rather than months or years. We already have access to the content; we can prepare it; we know how to deliver it to the broad range of devices it needs to get to.

Expect a lot more OTT services like that to launch this year. How sports plays into those packages will be interesting.

Level 3 has already been involved in several 4K/UHD transmission tests. Any news to report on that front?
Anderson:
We love 4K because it’s driving more bits and bandwidth demand from our network-consumption standpoint. But the industry always needs a buzzword, and 4K is it right now. I think the evolution in terms of when 4K live programming — just as HD took many years to develop across the full spectrum — is going to take awhile. We have done plenty of testing and are ready in terms of being able to support from a contribution standpoint when customers are actually ready to do this for real. That tipping point clearly hasn’t happened yet.

From a transmission standpoint, I think some technology standards will help, so we can get more elegance rather than having the four 3G bonded-type infrastructure for UHD [delivery] we have today. I know there’s work going on in VSF and SMPTE and elsewhere in terms of driving that.

Alexander: I think everyone knows that 4K will arrive on OTT first — it already has in many cases. At NAB [2014], we did a live OTT 4K demo, using HEVC [compression] and DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP). It was pretty cool, but it was a 25-Mbps stream, which is not exactly available to the majority of consumers.

A bunch of our customers have done analysis of what penetration they could achieve with a 4K product, and it’s small, single-digit percentage points. The Nordic region looks like one of the regions where broadband penetration speed is sufficient; they’ve got a pretty good infrastructure there. Some of the broadcasters there have existing services, many VOD, not live.

We see it’s being linked to DASH and HEVC. I see HEVC bringing it into the realm of the achievable, like a 10- to 15-Mbps stream you could deliver over the Internet.