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Mon 13 Dec 2010 12:00 AM

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IPso Facto

IP standard-based intercoms are the way forward, and misconceptions about the technology are outdated, says Trilogy Communications’ Barry Spencer.

IPso Facto
Barry Spencer, Trilogy Communications.

We’ve been in communications for a long time, but at the beginning
of the 2000s we thought that the next generation of systems wouldn’t be based around
one big, central switching matrix. People were looking to decentralise, and we viewed
IP as the way ahead. Internet had taken off, and we felt that the future of broadcasting
was going to be focused on IP rather than traditional video, audio, and bespoke
communications transport streams.

So we developed Mercury, our first IP-based system.
But while Mercury was great for interconnectivity over IP networks, it didn’t have
all the capabilities, performance and functionality that traditional broadcast people
were looking to for their talkback and intercom systems. That’s why, two or three
years ago, we started developing the Gemini system, which is based on a core IP
platform, but looks far more to the end-user like a traditional matrix-based system.
So it’s combining matrix functionality, performance and technology, with an underlying
IP capability.

If you think of a large or even medium-sized TV station, typically
its main kit is housed in a central apparatus room (CAR). For communications, that
means that if you have two or three studios on different floors of a building, or
a sprawling building in itself, in each studio you’ve got communications cabling
for cameras, wireless systems and floor managers, which all has to be crawled through
the building – sometimes from the top of the building to the basement – to get back
into the CAR. And the cabling difficulties and costs are quite horrendous. Our approach
with Gemini is that, because it’s based on a distributed matrix network, you can
deploy smaller matrixes in different parts of the building and connect them over
a single cable, or even fibre. So it has greater benefits from the point of view
of reducing the cost, time and difficulty
of connecting up everything in a communications system.

Gemini has IP capability, so you can connect to the outside world:
you could connect from Dubai to Baghdad for example. People like CNBC have got
offices all over the Middle East and eastern regions, and what they tend to do is
dial up a telephone call in the morning, staying on that call for a couple of hours
handling co-ordination between various news bureaus. With IP, you don’t have to
pay the costs of the telephone calls; your connection is effectively free. We felt
that IP was the way to go from that point of view, but also now you see that you’re
no longer sending pure video between sites, it’s all IP-streamed. So the whole broadcast
world has embraced
IP networks.

Red herrings

In the early days, when we first set about IP, we approached
people like the BBC, who had our equipment in different buildings. We said, “why
not connect them up over an IP network?” It replied that its IP network was handled
by its IT police, who wouldn’t allow anyone else’s systems to connect onto their
precious networks. Since then I think everyone has grown up a bit and broadcast
engineers have become IT-literate, meaning they can manage their own IT networks.
So the myth that we would break firms’ PC networks if we went on connecting to them
has disappeared.

The second misconception surrounding IP is the audio latency
- the delay - of getting across a network. Now we’ve reduced that by using clever
algorithms in our processing, but the concern was also that there might be delays
or failures in getting through the IP network. With IT we’re not sending any data
around, it’s all buffered, and as long as it gets to the other end in a few seconds,
everyone’s happy. You can’t do that with live speech, when someone is trying to
give a command to a cameraman at a live event, and customers were concerned about
that. But professional design of IT networks, which prioritise voice over IP (VOIP)
audio traffic over massive video file transfers, just faded away because the networks
weren’t being managed properly.

Network bandwidth is another perceived problem. When we first
launched our Mercury system, most IT networks were on 10Mb/second networks. That
soon went to 100Mb/s, then a Gigabyte (Gb). So our tiny little 100kb of audio is
now trivial compared with the broadband capabilities of modern networks.

So a lot of these issues have broken down over the years. Broadcast
has woken up, and now everyone is talking about IP television: it’s no longer about
putting out a few channels over terrestrial transmitters or even satellites; the
whole media world is changing. And IP is a huge part of it.

Exciting times

I think Dubai has been the pinnacle
of opportunity over the past ten years: a lot of expat broadcasters went out there,
set up various TV channels, and the growth in Dubai has been phenomenal over the past few years,
with the exception of the global financial crisis. However, I think there are two
other places with excellent potential: Saudi Arabia, because up until now it has
basically only been government TV, and as they start to open up a little more there’s
great opportunity for more TV channels to come online. But they’re a bit slow. Iran, although we’re unable to deal with Iran due to political
pressures, is a massive market. However Abu Dhabi
has set about taking on Dubai,
and there has been a huge amount of investment over the past
few years.

Unfortunately we’ve been unable to get in with the major projects.
We’ve done some small things, but for us the big one on the horizon appears to be
Oman TV, an ongoing project on which we have worked with Sony. The whole Media City concept
began in Egypt in the 1990s,
when it built Cairo’s
6th October City. Since then Dubai
Media City
grew, and Abu Dhabi Media Zone sprung up. And I suspect that, as they grow, one
or two of the other countries in the region will attempt a similar thing. The future
is very bright indeed.

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