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Driven by the IP NOC, Video Operations Enter a New Age
By Claudio Lisman
This article was first published by Streaming Media, April 7, 2021.
If any single dynamic could describe the state of today’s video industry, it’s this: a steady movement away from centralized, studio-based, SDI operations to decentralized, remote production enabled by IP technologies and solutions. Video operations everywhere are embracing IP’s game-changing efficiency, cost savings, and flexibility for meeting rapidly changing requirements. And it goes without saying that natively IP-produced video is a natural fit for delivery to OTT platforms and online streaming services.
This evolution was already well underway before 2020, and then suddenly the world found itself confronting a global pandemic. Video operations had to adapt—almost overnight—to remote collaboration workflows that could keep team members safe while ensuring production continuity. Whether they were just beginning to explore IP or were already well down the migration path, video producers have had to accelerate their IP adoption exponentially over the past year. Another dynamic is the exploding demand for online video content, which only accelerated further in 2020 with legions of viewers stuck at home and craving new programs.
In this article, we will chart the media industry’s ongoing evolution from traditional satellite- and microwave-based signal transport to today’s IP-based operations—and what video producers and their audiences might expect in the coming decade.
An Ongoing Progression
To fully appreciate the IP revolution of today, it’s useful to look at the evolution of video signal transport technologies over past decades. When I began my career in the 1980s as an engineer, the process of acquiring video signals from the field (say, for a live on-location interview) was completely reliant on bulky microwave and satellite equipment.
Back in the day, microwave transmission was strictly line-of-sight, which meant that reaching further than 25 kilometers required erecting a tower boosted by a power amplifier. Those first amplifiers used fragile and expensive tubes that consumed a great deal of power. Satellite communications were a similar story, requiring ever-greater antenna gain and amplifiers—and often several satellite bounces—to get the signal across the necessary distance. And of course, all this equipment was analog, which meant limited bandwidth and a limited number of supported channels.
The steady move away from analog and toward digital technologies began to set the stage for the IP-driven world of the future. Analog compression techniques based on chipsets gradually gave way to software-based compression, which meant orders-of-magnitude improvements in transmission efficiencies. Satellite capacity grew from just a few television channels to hundreds, and this drastic increase in payload has transformed the way we broadcast content. Microwave antenna technology evolved as well, with smaller-aperture antennas able to transmit better video quality at higher gain and using less power.
On the Cusp of an IP Revolution
IP-based technologies represent the next logical phase in the digital video progression, and their adoption is accelerating in today’s media operations. One example is the new breed of IP-based bonded cellular compression and transmission systems that offer a reliable, cost-effective, and high-quality option for remote production and live contribution from the field, such as coverage of breaking news.
The most advanced bonded cellular solutions replace the unwieldy antennas and expensive uplink trucks traditionally used for field acquisition with devices small enough to hold in your hand or, at most, wear in a backpack. Camera operators and producers can bond together 10 X 1Mbps upstream SIM cards to achieve 10Mbps of throughput, which is more than enough to deliver an HD stream and negate the need for a satellite uplink. In simple terms, all you need is a small encoder and a 110 or 220 power source to reach the world.
To understand the next evolution of IP-based video transport, think of an internet browser as a tuner that works in much the same way as traditional RF-based tuners. Instead of sending a video signal on an RF frequency, you’re sending it over the internet – but without the high-power antennas and cumbersome field equipment needed for RF transmissions. But the missing piece is management: producers need the ability to manage IP streams in much the same way as they’re used to doing with an RF-based network operations center (NOC) in an SDI-based environment.
The IP NOC: A Foundation for the Future
In a conventional production, the NOC controls the routing switcher and manages camera signals and calibration, color correction, embedded audio, and other functions such as chroma-keying remote sources without artefacts. The ability to switch and manage IP signals in the same manner requires a new way of thinking – a NOC that enables IP signal management in the cloud.
The essential IP NOC brings together the state of the art in IP-based signal acquisition and cloud-based media asset management (MAM), offering a paradigm shift from traditional broadcast operation centers and satellite trucks to smaller and more nimble transmission gear, cameras, and capture devices. IP technologies can be incorporated easily into production workflows, with the ability to ingest SDI as well as non-baseband sources.
The benefits of an IP NOC are compelling. Here are just a few:
- The ability to acquire signals from a virtually unlimited number of inputs using a wide range of protocols (SRT, WebRTC, HLS, RTSP, etc.), and the ability to monitor those sources without the need for video monitors or a routing switcher.
- The ability to output signals via an Ethernet switch for live multicamera monitoring, real-time transcoding to house formats, live editing, and finally publication, distribution, and/or retransmission.
- The ability to extend MAM to the cloud, giving all remote production personnel access to the video assets they need from any location, and at any time.
While the above capabilities are currently available, the concept of the IP NOC is still in its infancy. Just on the horizon are several new innovations, such as streamlining the ability to route multiformat signals from IP sources directly to specific IP destinations, and also new protocols that that reduce video-over-IP latency to milliseconds. One of the most significant developments is the cloud-based MAM’s ability to ingest “growing files,” giving an assistant director or producer the ability to create a rough-cut edit in real time as a live feed is being recorded. It’s easy to see how this will create powerful new efficiencies and time savings for producers, directors, and editors alike.
If the events of the past year have taught us anything, it’s that remote workflows—driven by the latest IP-based tools and technologies—really are the wave of the future for video operations. Gone are the days when global signal transmission required multiple satellite hops, sometimes up to seven or eight, resulting in sometimes-unacceptable latency. Powered by breakthroughs such as the IP NOC, video operations are able to leverage the power of the internet to produce programs from anywhere in the world and transmit them instantly to anywhere in the world. For broadcast and streaming operations, the possibilities are without limits.