BY ROBERT SZABO-ROWE, SVP ENGINEERING & PRODUCT MANAGEMENT, THE SWITCH
With close to six decades as the staple means of global live video delivery, satellite’s role in the TV ecosystem is quickly fading in favor of IP-centric approaches. The demand for all types of live programming has soared over the past two decades — even more so in the wake of the pandemic.
As a result, broadcasters and sports rightsholders are recalibrating their content and distribution strategies in favor of more efficient options, both in terms of cost and operation. Finding themselves needing to do more with less, internet based delivery models are coming to the fore as a compelling alternative to commercial communication satellites.
The declining use of satellite within live video delivery has also been triggered by the growth of over-the-top (OTT) streaming to reach new and wider audiences. Streaming powerhouses and specialist platforms are redefining how fans engage with live content, changing the game and forcing all participants in the video ecosystem to ramp up overall distribution capacity using IP-based methods that utilize private fiber networks and the public internet to deliver live feeds.
As these trends accelerate, sports and news broadcasters must re-evaluate the role internet-based delivery models will play in the future of their operations. Some of the critical factors they must consider include balancing capital expenditure (CAPEX) and operational expenses (OPEX) and, increasingly, the potential that IP delivery offers over satellite for future-proofing their businesses.
IP is not an off-the-shelf approach for broadcasters and rightsholders, but instead provides options for content contribution and distribution. These range from leveraging the public internet and dedicated leased lines to hybrid set-ups that mix and match different transports to balance cost per GB, capacity, latency, and availability.
The shift away from a satellite-first approach is seen by many broadcasters as necessary for their future operations due to the lower cost per circuit and flexibility to quickly scale up and down that IP offers. Many also see opportunities in the fact that IP solutions provide inherent redundancy and the raw bandwidth to support 4K HDR broadcasts.
Fiber options that can be used alongside IP, such as dynamic synchronous transfer mode (DTM), deliver their own advantages. DTM provides a highly scalable transport and switching layer between IP and fiber for next-generation networks and can deliver a direct point-to-point connection for UHD native video — at lower latency and better predictability than the open internet.
Hybrid options mean that satellite doesn’t have to be eliminated entirely from a live video delivery workflow, and it can still play a central role in live content provsion. This includes for distribution across a wide geographic area with numerous destinations, where it can be a simpler and more cost effective route to take. Even then, it can be integrated with IP-based elements for further ground based distribution.
A History of TV Satellite Delivery
The geosynchronous satellite traditionally used to carry TV signals requires substantial capital investment and has an operational lifespan of about 15 years. Even though the average per GB cost of satellite bandwidth has dropped significantly over the last decade, this limited operational window places a cap on how low prices can fall.
Satellite can also be more inherently complex for broadcasters than straight IP-based delivery, adding additional steps and costs to the production process. IP-centric workflows using satellite require steps to encode, transmit, and then decode content. Plus, booking satellite circuits is a pre-planned process involving a rigid schedule. While buying “always-on” satellite capacity may be an option for larger organizations, smaller, more cost-sensitive workflows face inherent technical and CAPEX barriers.
However, satellite is evolving, and the next generation of low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations are launching at a rapid rate. These offer low latency and use IP transport, making them potentially more efficient for broadcasters with end-to-end IP workflows.
The incredible amount of fiberoptic cable laid over the last decade has formed the bedrock of the industry shift to IP. When paired with 5G technology, the combined infrastructure capacity can exceed the equivalent satellite footprint. In practice, IP ensures that a video stream — from a football stadium to a production center on the other side of the continent for instance — will deliver a consistent circuit and low latency for a significantly lower cost than the equivalent satellite feed.
Furthermore, building workflows centered entirely on IP-based video feeds creates new opportunities for broadcasters and streaming services to meet the expectations of multidevice consumers. IP workflows make dynamic content creation much easier to manage while unlocking the potential of remote and cloud-based production to support more flexible and efficient content creation for multiple platforms.
Satellites, on the other hand, are not always reliable. Heavy snow or rain can affect transmission and reception, causing signal degradation. What’s more, the unpredictable nature of live event coverage can be a factor. A delay in a press conference or game kick-off can mean that the allocated circuit may not be available when needed — so often excess, potentially wasted capacity, needs to be booked.
Regional Sports Networks offer a great example of how shifting from satellite to IP-based content distribution strongly benefits broadcasters seeking to balance scalability and costs as they look to the future. New England Sports Network (NESN), home of the Boston Red Sox, Boston Bruins, the New England Patriots, and Boston Celtics, worked with The Switch over the last two years to replace its existing satellite distribution network with a next-generation hybrid private fiber and internet distribution model.
NESN’s migration to a terrestrial distribution platform enabled it to build direct private fiber into its affiliates in areas that the broadcaster identified as its most important markets. This rollout resulted in a significant improvement in signal quality delivered to the affiliates and a corresponding reduction in monthly costs to the client for the distribution network.
Taking a Grounded Approach
The role of satellite communication within the TV ecosystem will certainly not vanish overnight. However, the shift to IP-based delivery workflows is set to accelerate. Global telecoms giants are rapidly driving costs of satellite capacity as they purchase more satellite spectrum for 5G. Meanwhile, broadcasters are looking for the scalability, redundancy, and other benefits that IP-based delivery and workflows offer.
With high-profile live events such as the World Cup on the horizon, the migration to IP will enable sports leagues to increase fan engagement, and rightsholders to spend less but still do more. For many, the time is now to shift from satellite to an IP-centric approach, offering a quick-to-deploy “on-demand” service and billing model.