2017: A critical year in the transition to IP

By Michael Cronk

For years now, in many a survey, IP (Internet Protocol) broadcasters have identified IP as a key technology transition for our industry.

Just as IP has fostered efficiency gains and innovation in other industries such as telephony and manufacturing, IP holds promise for the broadcast industry as well. Indeed, IP is already widely used in many broadcast applications — such as contribution and distribution — and the benefits are already being realised.

The last frontier for IP is the application with the most stringent requirements in terms of number of signals, bandwidth and latency: live production using uncompressed video. The base IP switching technology to make live production over IP a reality has been in place for a number of years, but the lack of a standard set of protocols had hindered adoption and progress. However, based on the events of 2016 and the outlook for 2017, one can confidently say we are reaching a tipping point in the adoption of IP.

My confidence for 2017 in this regard is based on what we as an industry accomplished this past year and the activities I see as we begin this new year.

In 2016, the industry came together in unprecedented fashion. All too often, we have experienced the phenomenon of “standards fragmentation”. One need not look further than the multitude of incompatible VTR formats to know that our industry has frequently seen vendor pitted against vendor while each tries to form alliances to “win” a format war.

As 2016 opened, this was indeed the case once again with regards to IP. Multiple vendors were proposing their proprietary approaches to moving uncompressed video-over-IP, and fragmentation seemed imminent. Fortunately, this time, there was a new environmental factor that helped galvanise the industry: the challenge posed by new entrants such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

IP is a critical stepping stone to a more flexible, agile broadcast plant, and these new entrants were already exploiting it in big ways. To compete, many vendors and broadcasters alike recognised the need to come together and collaborate in new ways.
This was the background in which the Alliance for IP Media Solutions (AIMS) was created. January 2016 was AIMS’ first full month of existence and its effect on the industry dialogue, in combination and collaboration with the key standards and technical recommendations bodies (AES, AMWA, EBU, SMPTE and VSF) in our industry, was profound.

In the span of four months, by 2016 NAB Show, all major companies proposing alternate approaches to the standards-based approach being worked out in SMPTE had joined AIMS, agreeing with AIMS’ purpose statement: to foster the adoption of a common set of standards-based protocols and specifications for IP interoperability in the media and entertainment industry.

By IBC 2016, more than 30 companies demonstrated interoperability with the protocols that form the basis of SMPTE’s work on a new standard for uncompressed video transmission over IP. When finalised, that standard — SMPTE ST 2110 — will provide a common set of protocols for IP interoperability for the worldwide media and entertainment community, enabling the next wave of agility, flexibility and efficiency improvements in our industry.

As such, 2016 was an important year. Looking ahead to this year, I expect 2017 will be an equally important, if not more important, year in the transition to IP.

I say this because in all likelihood, 2017 promises to be the year that a SMPTE standard (ST 2110) is ratified and initial large-scale deployments of SMPTE ST 2110 technology are realised in broadcast installations. While no one can make a definitive prediction on when SMPTE ST 2110 will be ratified, industry activity and progress within SMPTE bode well for ratification in 2017.

Additionally, many RFPs have already been issued in 2016, which specify the VSF technical recommendations (VSF TR03 and VSF TR04) on which SMPTE ST 2110 will be based. This means that these 2017 deployments will already be close to the emerging SMPTE ST 2110 standard, and can likely be upgraded to SMPTE ST 2110 once ratified, if in fact an upgrade is required.

Therefore, I expect us to exit 2017 with a solid standard for uncompressed video-over-IP and multiple showcase installations demonstrating the power of this approach.

As we know from experience in our industry, any technology transition takes multiple years, be it analogue to digital or SD to HD. This transition to IP will be no exception. What is critical in predicting a transition is to gauge a few key factors.

First, is the underlying technology available? In the case of IP, IP switches capable of doing the job have been in place for a few years. Second, is there a standard in place that enables purchase of equipment without fear of “picking the wrong horse in the protocol race”? As stated above, 2017 promises to be the year that we can answer this question in the affirmative.
Lastly, and very importantly, can broadcasters point to successful installations that allow them to adopt the technology at lower risk? With the installations planned for 2017, the answer to this promises to be a definitive “yes”.

When these three factors align, widespread adoption can occur.

It is also useful to note that there are already many publicly announced successes with IP, prior to 2017.

They include the EBU/VRT LiveIP studio project (at Belgian public broadcaster VRT); Sky Italia; Discovery LatAM; Dorna Sports (for MotoGP coverage), OB vans by NEP, Arena (for BT’s coverage of English Premiere League football in 4K/Ultra HD and HD), TV Globo, and Game Creek; studio infrastructure at NBC Sports; Disney/ABC Television Group master control; and ESPN with their DC2 project.

These projects have already proven the benefits of moving to an IP-based approach.

Now in 2017, with the probable advent of a unifying set of protocol standards, SMPTE ST 2110, and new installations proving the efficacy of that standard, 2017 promises to be the year the industry can begin the move to broader adoption.

Michael Cronk is Chairman of the Alliance for IP Media Solutions (AIMS) and Vice-President of Core Technology for Grass Valley. He is also an APB panellist.


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