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Wed 14 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Keeping IT real

As the Middle East broadcast industry becomes increasingly reliant on digital technology, many of the region’s largest IT vendors are eyeing new opportunities in the sector.

As the Middle East broadcast industry becomes increasingly reliant on digital technology, many of the region’s largest IT vendors are eyeing new opportunities in the sector.

IT departments of the region's television broadcasters have been faced with a difficult task of late, working hard to select and implement new technology in order to ensure their content acquisition and transmission systems are future-proofed.

Due to the limited amount of satellite bandwidth available within the local market, however, it is no secret that very few broadcasters in the MENA region are currently broadcasting in high definition.

The main thing that will help [IT companies] to claim a big market share is simply having quality products and I doubt that companies new to the field could replace those that have been working with the industry for thirty or more years. - Haitham Dargouth, Head of Technical and Broadcast, CNBC.

Nonetheless, this doesn't mean that the industry is not HD-ready.

The implementation of new technologies has dominated IT departments across the content delivery sector in recent years, and were more space available, many would be ready to make the switch to HD immediately.

The Middle East's content delivery glut has not put a halt to the adoption of new technology across the industry however, but resulted in a shift of focus among many broadcasters, which have implemented IPTV technology.

Since then, some of the region's - and indeed the world's - largest IT vendors have arrived in the media sector with a sudden focus on the now almost totally computerised industry through a series of acquisitions and a range of new HD or IPTV products.

One such IT company that has leaped headlong into the industry in recent years is Cisco Systems, which was boosted by the 2006 acquisition of Scientific Atlanta, which specialises in IPTV and switched digital video systems for service providers.

Adrian Pickering, executive director of emerging markets for Cisco Systems, says the company is attempting to accommodate for new trends in the field of content delivery technology, with a focus on the evolution and distribution of datacentres.

"With the increase in availability of digital content, broadcasters and telco service providers are looking to evolve and virtualise their datacentres," comments Pickering.

"The most effective way of distributing content and utilising the network is not by having all your content located in the same place - you really want to adopt distributed architecture because if you don't, you are not going to utilise your transport network as effectively as you otherwise could.

"We are currently developing a platform that has the intelligence to anticipate viewer preferences and now that we are delivering entertainment over IPTV, we can take a much more detailed, granular approach to viewing habits," he adds.

Allowing for increased monitoring of viewing trends is one of the major benefits of IPTV when compared to more traditional delivery platforms.

However, many broadcasters in the Middle East are still reluctant to embrace this new technology.

The same attitude has generally applied to the adoption of HD technology in the region.

While some broadcasters are technologically prepared for the inevitable shift, many are happy to bide their time until more satellite bandwidth space is made available.

Haitham Dargouth, head of Technical and Broadcast for CNBC, says the Middle East's content delivery industry lags behind the rest of the world in regard to the adoption of new technology.

"The Middle East is definitely behind in this area," says Dargouth. "The US and Europe have almost universally adopted the latest digital technology and are moving ahead with it but in the Middle East only a few channels are doing so."

"I don't think vendors are the main cause for this trend. For example, in Europe, the infrastructure is already there for broadcasters to move ahead with the technology, but we don't have that here."

"In our region, 99 percent of broadcasters are waiting for more satellite bandwidth to become available before they make the switch," he adds.

Dargouth does not believe the entry of some of the bigger IT vendors into the broadcast industry will dramatically alter the situation.

He claims traditional broadcast technology vendors will continue to dominate the content delivery sector, while IT giants could be well positioned to make gains on the periphery of the industry.

"These big IT companies may step in and take a portion of the market, but I don't think they will ever supersede traditional broadcast technology manufacturers," comments Dargouth.

The main thing that will help them to claim a bigger market share is simply having quality products and I doubt that companies new to the field could replace those that have been working within the industry for thirty years.

"These companies will always provide helpful tools but I don't think they will ever create products that will become a major part of the broadcast machine."His comments contrast those of Gabriele Di Piazza, managing director of Microsoft's media, entertainment and communications sector, who argues that broadcast engineers are becoming increasingly comfortable working with successful, well-established IT vendors.

"If you look at TV audiences, they are more fragmented than ever so the media and broadcast companies need to work harder than ever to capture that audience, and the consumers on multiple channels," comments Di Piazza.

"There is now a very low barrier to adoption and the phase where there was concern about an IT player targeting the broadcast sector has disappeared. Obviously, there are still playout applications that remain hardware-based but I would say that most mainstream [broadcast] applications are based on IT technologies.

"Microsoft plays different roles depending on the geography. We have developed various software solutions, and also as a consumer company we have products like Xbox and Xbox live marketplace, which makes us an enabler and distributor of content," he says.

"So the role we are trying to play is across the whole relationship rather than just as a technology supplier."

Di Piazza highlights the advantage some of the larger IT vendors have when they move into the specialised broadcast technology sector.

Microsoft, in particular, has made its intentions clear and is aiming to capitalise on the inevitable technological shift that is set to occur in line with the trend towards IPTV and high definition broadcasting.

Di Piazza says Microsoft has already introduced a number of products which will ensure its long-term interests in the broadcast sector.

"Silverlight is a web interactive application that enables rich interactive applications cross browser and cross platform content," he explains.

"It is capable of delivering digital content using multiple platforms and devices while providing a range of interactive functionalities.

"We are seeing increased demand for our Mediaroom IPTV offering."

"I think that there are a set of technologies in both the managed space with things like IPTV and also for the unmanaged space."

"Silverlight has also been licensed to companies like Nokia, so we are starting to see greater convergence between internet and mobile technologies."

"As previously mentioned, we also have the Xbox and Mediaroom products and associated technologies. We are providing the various tools that enable what we brand ‘connected entertainment.'"

While the Middle East broadcast sector still lags in regards to the adoption of HD technology and with many stations not fully utilising the capabilities of IPTV, many believe that broadcast technology specialists will hold their own against the IT heavyweights for the foreseeable future.

"They may take a small portion of the broadcast technology market, but they will never completely replace the traditional broadcast technology suppliers," says CNBC's Dargouth.

"Of course they may claim some business, but it will all depend on the products that they make available. I don't think any other companies are going to come along and replace the well-established broadcast technology companies overnight.

"Although, there are certain factors that could see these organisations take a healthy percentage of the market. If they were able to offer more competitive prices, or improved interfaces for example, they may become more popular in the content delivery industry, but they will never completely replace those established specialists."

In the approaching years, the Middle East broadcast industry as a whole is bound to begin revamping its technological arsenal to accommodate HD and improved IPTV capabilities.

However, it is the expanded presence of the world's biggest IT vendors that will prove the unpredictable factor in the equation.

While the Middle East broadcast industry trails the rest of the world technologically, the big players will have to wait for adequate basic infrastructure to be established before they can truly begin to succeed with their predominantly HD and IPTV-based technologies in the local market.

Microsoft Silverlight 2

Silver Streak

Demonstrating the growing importance of IT technologies in the digital content delivery sector, Microsoft recently partnered with US broadcaster NBC to support the live streaming of approximately 2200 hours of sporting footage during the Beijing Olympics.

The coverage was made available through the use of Microsoft's Silverlight 2 technology, which allows interactive applications to accommodate cross-browser and cross-platform content.

Users were able to download a Silverlight plug-in to access the content, which included a roster of events not featured in the linear television broadcast schedule.