By Sean Williams
The issue of broadcast test and measurement is often one which gets lost in the mire of industry topics. But it is a vital part of the market, and one whose landscape is proving ever more difficult to traverse, with the staggering array of technologies available to networks today. Digital Broadcast catches up with those in the know, and discovers a fertile breeding ground for growth.
No matter who you are, from provider to consumer, you should know how big a deal test and measurement is to the quality of service of broadcasters in the Middle East. As a relatively fledgling market, and one at which the pace of platforms, formats and technology is railing along at a frightening pace, it is imperative that major players keep customers happy, and revenues rolling in.
No broadcast event has been so heavily scrutinised and criticised in the region as last summer’s FIFA World Cup fiasco, which blew a significant hole in Al Jazeera’s rising stock as a quality provider. Signal failures, the switching of commentary languages and all-round confusion over accessibility rightly caused a furore, prompting the Qatari firm to point the finger of blame at jammers in Jordan. Another Gulf heavyweight often experiencing glitches in its service is ADMC’s English Premier League coverage, as many football fans will testify.
Surely it’s simple to make sure a signal is passed on to the consumer without any hiccups, but with the broadcast market exploding open to initiatives such as video-on-demand and IPTV, and with the freight train of HD and 3D rumbling ever closer, the pressure is on to ensure that modern broadcasting is up-to-speed with its own intricate innards.
Ralph Bachofen, vice president of sales and head of marketing at US firm Triveni, believes that test and measurement as a whole will become big industry news in the coming years – months, even. However he argues that bottom line-obsessed operators are keeping unduly critical tabs on the sector. “I think that test and measurement generically will be a big topic,” he says. “Every region in the world is in the process of completing digital conversion, so everybody has spent millions of dollars on infrastructure.
“But of course, like most bean counters out there, they count the cost of test and measurement closely: ‘do you really need that?’ and so on,” adds Bachofen. “A lot of service providers are investing a lot of money in test and measurement equipment. They have this great infrastructure in place, but they really have no idea what’s happening within this infrastructure. And I think it begins with a hand-off between service providers as well.”
It was the handover from analogue to digital which lit the touch-paper for today’s test and measurement market, alongside another change in the standards paradigm. “All of a sudden digital was starting to get big in terms of Audio Engineering Society (AES) audio,” says Carl Dempsey, president and CEO of Wohler.
“Then something slightly more complicated came about around 1995, which was STI (Service Transport Interface). No-one in America knew what it was – in fact, we did it because we had a lot of customers in Asia and Europe – they did STI before the Americans, although the Americans don’t like to admit that.
“I was in New Orleans at a big trade show, and we’d just won a big award in England for doing a big STI installation,” adds Dempsey. “We had a big banner and trophy and banner about STI, and this old guy from the bayou or somewhere comes over to me and says, ‘boy, what’s this STI? Is it part of Ronald Reagan’s defence initiatives?’ That’s when I realised we were in the wrong market!”
Nowadays, of course, the industry is very different, and portioned up between the heavyweights of cable and satellite, with the advent of IP services creeping into the Middle East fast. Bachofen insists that there’s no major disparity between the mediums. “There’s not so much implementation difference: challenges are different among service providers,” he says. “With satellite providers, latency may become an issue. But from an implementation perspective there’s not much difference. For an IPTV provider, for example, the challenge there is interfacing to the middleware because there’s really no IPTV middleware standard out there. So that’s a bit of a challenge.”
Bachofen is also well aware of the complexities of today’s industry, and insists that test and measurement firms need to be on their toes, every step of the transport process. “What we do is look at the transport stream in very much detail: we call it comprehensive monitoring analysis. We look at every aspect of the transport stream – not just the video, but also the audio, because it’s important, especially as in the Middle East or any European region you need to have multiple line,” he says.
“We also look at the metadata,” adds Bachofen. “Your video can be perfect, but maybe there’s some mistake in the metadata, so the transport stream or the metadata can be messed up. So the video may be good, but the set-top box can’t tune because the metadata is incorrect. Or your parental settings on the TV don’t set up correctly and you’re recording a programme you were not supposed to record. So we look at these things in real time, all the time, from a transport stream aspect.”
With the wealth of data now incorporated into broadcasting, it’s unsurprising that size really does matter. “What’s happening now is that the studios are shrinking, there’s less rack space, and the space is becoming critical,” explains Dempsey. “So our units are being used in areas where they weren’t being used before. In the past our units weren’t used in transmission areas. They were used in tertiary and secondary areas. Now they’re being used in transmission which means we’ve got to be doing different things: we’ve got to put dual power supplies in there in case one goes down.”
Not only do test and measurement systems need to be smaller, they also need to be simpler, so companies don’t need to spend millions hiring specialists to fixed isolated issues. “Monitoring devices need to be used by non-skilled people, which need to have very detailed but accurate and understandable information about what is right or wrong,” claims Samuel Fleischhacker, Thomson Broadcast product manager for test and measurement. “Typically what we do in our solutions is to provide nice user interfaces to help operators not to be experts, and to have a very quick diagnostic about what is wrong in their system in real time.”
Simplicity may be the key, but it’s a constant struggle with the vanguard of broadcast technology bursting boundaries almost daily. The onslaught of new platforms, and the resurgence of that most desirable of geek-chic accoutrements, 3D, is difficult enough for the average consumer to keep track of. And an imminent emphasis on standards means that test and measurement pros need to be more savvy than ever. “Outside the US there will be some changes in the standards – at least I hope so – because currently most of the US is using TR100290, which is a great standard that started out well,” says Bachofen.
“The problem is that it’s not very granular. That means that it’s either good or bad. From an implementation perspective there can be so many things wrong because digitalisation is so complex, and a lot of things can happen,” adds Bachofen. “So what the EPR Standards are looking at is ‘how can we have more granularity?’ We here in the US have implemented some of those granularities, and are trying to influence the standards outside the US. It helps service providers identify the problem in a certain location, faster. And usually they won’t get disturbed by false alarms.”
Bachofen also admits that mobile anaylsis will become more of an issue in the next 12 months. Samuel Fleischhacker claims that Thomson is more concerned with the move to IP technology than 3D, which is still in its infancy. “Today for test and measurement we don’t focus on 3D,” he says. “We are essentially focusing on the good integration of our solutions to address the IP head-end market. Even though it’s a process which began many years ago, in the application for head-end, for terrestrial, we still use ISI interfaces. But they are progressively switching from ISI (Integral Satcom Initiative) technology to IP technology. And our idea is to have a good solution to help them migrate from ISI to IP.”
Video on demand is another tricky path for test and measurement firms to tread, with different expectations held by operators for each project. Fleischhacker insists that it is the multitude of formats offered to the customer which presents the most problems. “I need a tool which looks inside the file and say that it is the correct encoding system, the correct resolution, that no audio is missing and the duration of the film is ok,” he says.
Video on demand, HD, 3D and the emergence of IP broadcasting, are becoming increasingly important formats and mediums for firms to deal with in the Middle East. But what do experts feel are the major issues facing the test and measurement industry in the coming months?
“Scalability is going to be an issue, because if you are a fast-growing region, and you’ve got a lot of subscribers with competition coming in, I think that what the region will face is scalability,” argues Bachofen. “There’s a big distribution issue too, because it’s not a small region by any means. Even if you go to the UAE it’s not small, it’s very distributed. It’s not like Switzerland, where I’m from: a tiny country in the middle of Europe.”
Yet Bachofen concedes that the two nations have their diversity in language in common, thus pushing issues like subtitling to the fore. “In terms of closed captions, there are language issues in the Middle East that have to be addressed,” agrees Carl Dempsey. “Years ago I’d say that the Middle East was playing catch-up. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. They’re building state-of-the-art facilities, and I don’t think there’s the sort of latency as before.”
Fleischhacker insists that the Middle East is no different to the rest of the planet in terms of the issues facing the industry, and believes that the future is more a case of smooting out the broadcast transitions being made right now. “It’s a worldwide problem, with the transition from ISI systems to IP systems.
“The second one is to be able to manage our product for the transition from SD to HD and from MPEG-2 to H.264/MPEG-4,” he says. One thing’s for certain: with the rise of technology, importance of standards and burgeoning expat communities, test and measurement in the Middle East can look forward to a busy and challenging 2011.