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Mon 22 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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Contributing factors

Content delivery networks and transport methods, particularly by IP, are helping broadcasters cut their contribution costs and boost their workflows. Digital Broadcast examines the savings and services available today.

Contributing factors
Joe DiBianca, vice president, SmartJog.
Contributing factors
The MENOS team receiving the IBC Innovation award.
Contributing factors
SmartJog’s file transfer service and other similar offerings are providing operational cost savings for broadcasters during the economic downturn.
Contributing factors
Simon Pryor, MENOS marketing manager, Newtec.

Content delivery networks and transport methods, particularly by IP, are helping broadcasters cut their contribution costs and boost their workflows. Digital Broadcast examines the savings and services available today.

The globalisation of content production during the past decade means there has been a dramatic increase in the volume of video material moving around the globe. Whether it is Turkish soaps dominating the ratings in the Gulf, Latin American telenovels making waves in Eastern Europe or the global distribution of highlight reels from an international sports event, broadcasters need an efficient, reliable and cost-effective means of transport.

Content production is also now a global process with post-production frequently outsourced and the amount of material dubbed and subtitled for international markets also on the rise.

Before the days of tapeless workflows, the options were fairly limited with the shipping of tapes the only realistic method.

Today there are a number of service providers offering file transfer services specifically for the broadcast industry.

Of these, the largest is SmartJog, a French-owned company with activities in 65 countries. The company has forged strong relationships with the major Hollywood studios and networks, distributing the latest episodes of premium network TV series to international licence holders.

“Here in the US the studios or their post-production partners all have one of our servers,” says Joe DiBianca, vice president, SmartJog. “The network is completely closed, we have dedicated servers at each location where content is being sent to or from. The content is fully encrypted during the travel path – using a 256 AES encryption. Each user also needs a USB key and an associated PIN number in order to log into the network. There is no use of any public internet.”

DiBianca says that because SmartJog uses a closed, dedicated feed, it can offer better value than sending tapes by courier or relying on a live satellite contribution slot.

“Often clients would choose a live satellite signal and would book a certain time and download it at that point. That can be quite costly. SmartJog uses high-speed internet connectivity but by fibre or satellite. The client decides whether they want to connect via fibre or by satellite. Most customers already have dishes pointed at the satellites we use,” explains DiBianca.

“We have an acceleration protocol that operates on either method of connection. In the Middle East we have seen the dedicated satellite connectivity option prove popular, most likely because the price of internet bandwidth is high. Outside of the US, most traffic has been coming from Latin America with a lot of telenovelas from Brazil, Argentina and Mexico going to Europe, especially Eastern Europe. We are finding lot of our post-production clients are opening major offices in India so we are finding a lot of traffic to and from India. That market is certainly a grow area for us.”

The onset of the recession has brought with it a renewed interest in content transport methods as broadcasters look for ways to trim their operational costs and improve efficiency.

“During the downturn we have also seen an increase in the uptake of our services beyond the delivery itself. Couriering tapes can be an expensive option, especially when you factor in the cost of shipping, customs charges, the tape duplication and the man-hours that all this takes,” says DiBianca. “We are finding that the broadcasters need a tailored solution. We have had to add some additional services such as web integration to allow broadcasters to integrate – or at least ‘handshake’ – SmartJog with their own proprietary systems.

“For the broadcasters using the SmartJog server, we also have something called SmartTools, which is a software transcoding and wrapping tool provided as part of the service. It allows the broadcasters to receive the file and then launch certain automation or transcodes automatically upon file reception. This process can ease their workflow significantly,” explains DiBianca.

“These are services that have become necessary in order to remain competitive. On the distribution side, some broadcasters want to receive a very specific filetype but often the studios will only want to make a certain type of file available. So we can step in the middle and transcode the file from the original to the specification that the broadcaster wants. That can help save costs as the transcoding process is included as part of the service. When you consider these other related parts of the business and the benefits to the overall workflow, it becomes a very economical option,” says DiBianca.

In addition to the cost and convenience benefits that the company has been looking to develop for its clients, SmartJog has also developed a data integrity guarantee based upon an MD5 checksum algorithm, which DiBiance describes as a “fingerprint” of the file.
“This is calculated when a file is sent and again upon receipt. If the two match, then it means that the data integrity has not been affected during the delivery process. Often with live contribution, the satellite signal is weak or there can be a frame drop. This is not possible with our network. When a user gets a delivery notification email, that is a guarantee that the MD5 checksum matched at either end,” says DiBianca.

SmartJog has become a major player in the content industry and is now ingrained into multiple layers of the production and distribution processes.

“We handle the pre-release dubbing to international territories. We are also involved in digital cinema, so in some studios we are sending full cinema features and trailers. All of the studios are using us in one capacity or another. Some are connected directly on the lot as well as through post-production partners. In the past two years we have had requests from several of the majors to integrate our solution directly into their asset management systems that’s been really important,” says DiBianca.

Content transport and contribution offerings can now provide a number of other services on top of the transfer itself leading to the creation of a number of managed service operators finding success in the broadcast sector.

“There has been a switch from broadcasters wanting technologies to wanting services. Most broadcasters don’t want to build and operate their own platforms so we are seeing hosted services and integrated solutions on the rise,” says Simon Pryor, MENOS marketing manager, Newtec. “Even when using satellite, broadcasters are thinking more in megabits than megahertz. They are thinking about IP links, and that is applicable to satellite as well as other networks,” adds Pryor.

“In the past a lot of business was based on permanent naked, space links which were expensive and relatively inflexible. Today, it is about integrated, flexible services that can make things more cost effective,” says Pryor.

The MENOS system provides the usual exchange and contribution services that the broadcast industry needs. However, as it is an IP-based network, the technology has also enabled a number of additional beneftits for users.

“We can provide instant messaging, VoIP, e-learning services. These have their roots in other fields and they are things that the broadcasters wouldn’t have appreciated would be possible across their networks. As they are learning and migrating onto these platforms they are beginning to evolve and understand the types of IP services possible and all the benefits that these can offer.”

Pryor admits that this flexibility brings with it an increased level of complexity, but broadcasters are more than willing to adapt.

“They are evolving very quickly and have enormous competitive pressures that weren’t there in the past. They are looking for more cost effective solutions due it their challenging budgets. Increasingly they are looking for more cost effective solutions and how they can share resources with other people to make the business proposition more interesting,” says Pryor.

The MENOS project is a collaboration between the Arab States Broadcasting Union, Arabsat and Newtec. Originally only available to ASBU member broadcasters, the service has since been opened up to commercial channels and other non-members as it looks to expand throughout the region beyond.

“We are seeing interest from countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is looking to expand its TV and radio offerings. There is a lot of from those countries with less developed infrastructure, they are looking to MENOS as it can provide immediate coverage of their entire country without the need to lay cables or the roll out other terrestrial networks. As well as MENA there has also been interest from East Africa, West Africa and southern Africa, despite all the new submarine cables that are being deployed around Africa and the Middle East.”

Pryor says that as satellite operators launch new hardware to serve the Middle East, Newtec will look to exploit the additional capacity to expand the number of customers MENOS services as well as the geographic footprint of the network.

“Our immediate limit is satellite capacity. There is some room for expansion at the moment but ultimately it is something that is limiting MENOS at the moment. This should be resolved by the middle of this year when we get more bandwidth. Some of the customers that we have talked to, will only come online when that capacity is made available,” reveals Pryor.

The argument in favour of dedicated fibre line file transfer is that these services permit point-to-point delivery. Satellite transmission requires broadcasters to pay to send the information over a wider footprint, even if there is only one intended recipient.

“It’s true that in point-to-point certain types of infrastructure work well but satellite has the advantage when you are sending the same contribution to multiple broadcasters at the same time. One of the other issues is resilience. There are a number of cases of fibre cables being cut by ships’ anchors or natural disasters. Satellite has proven itself resilient,” says Pryor.

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