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Balancing cost and quality

Journal Article from Caton Technology

Tue 08, 02 2022

Jason Ho

Senior Business Development Director, Caton Technology


We do not need to talk around the concept of IP connectivity in media: that argument has already been won. For contribution circuits – from remote events and locations back to base – there is also an acceptance that IP is the way to go.

But there are a number of potentially conflicting constraints:

  • accessibility
  • reliability – images and sound have to arrive in synchronisation, with no freezes, glitches or significant latency
  • quality – consumers expect crystal clarity, especially in sport
  • cost

These would have been live issues now anyway, but the pandemic and the absolute need for remote working has forced the issue. Broadcasters, and particularly sports broadcasters, have scrabbled to find solutions. This year’s IBC Awards are dominated by remote production solutions, from the Olympics to e-sports.

Finding the bandwidth is the issue. Where once we could turn to C-band satellites, that spectrum is being transferred to 5G (and 6G) cellular and thus unavailable for ad hoc links.

Major venues will have large amounts of dark fibre capacity, which is fine. But that does not apply to secondary venues, and certainly not to the makeshift studios and production control rooms set up in people’s homes.

Adding fibre links means months of planning and installation. It also means commitment to a lengthy contract: most people cannot consider committing to paying for a service for years when they want it for hours.

The solution is already in all of our hands: the open internet. It can be implemented at very short notice, and you only pay for what you get.

But internet bandwidth will be constrained and not necessarily deterministically provided. You need to use codecs which deliver the optimum quality for the bandwidth available, and most important you need a transport layer which provides quality while working within the network limitations.

While the IP advocates talk about the benefits of open standards and COTS hardware, the inescapable fact is that professional video is a very different – and very much more demanding – data stream than anything else. So the transport protocol must be designed for realtime, broadcast-quality transmission.

At Caton we call this Caton Transport Protocols (CTP). We designed it for international transmission over open IP networks, while providing the service assurance that broadcast users expect.

As well as reliability, it also meets the challenge of quality. Sports broadcasters routinely expect 4k and HDR Ultra HD. At Caton we successfully demonstrated 8k delivery two years ago.

A second quality consideration is synchronisation. If you need to carry multiple sources over the public internet, where each individual stream will take a different path, the chances of sync errors grow rapidly.

But in sport, all the sources have to be timed, and the audio and video locked together, or the audience will immediately lose faith in your coverage. If the audience cannot be intuitively sure what is actually live, you lose credibility.

Quality, latency and synchronisation are relatively easy to maintain from point-of-presence to point-of-presence, and service providers will be comfortable in offering, say, four nines reliability on that basis. But that is not what users want: they need to be confident in the circuit from location to the studio, so they expect last mile performance to be part of the SLA. That much more challenging requirement is part of CTP.

Once you accept transmission over the open internet, then it is as easy to route signals to the cloud as to anywhere else. So you can simultaneously write to cloud storage while broadcasting live, and make the content available to multiple remote editors.

Again, this is not new, but most cloud editors depend upon low-resolution proxies. Caton has applications which overcome the limitations of VPN to allow the editor to work on real content.

Putting the material in the cloud means you can apply big data, processor-heavy tasks to gain added value. You might, for example, use artificial intelligence to accelerate and automate localisation.

In a simple application, this could be generating scores and information feeds in multiple local languages. But if you apply video analysis and face recognition, you could automatically generate descriptive reports and live text commentary, extending the reach with no additional operational cost.

The sports audience is very diverse. The hardcore fans will want rich statistics and detailed analysis from former players. But a much larger part of the audience wants to enjoy the game and, with a lower starting, will have more to gain from carefully-pitched additional information.

That is important because if you draw in the casual viewer, you popularise the game through understanding. If you popularise the game, you grow your audience. If you grow your audience, your grow your revenues.

The latest Cisco research says that 82% of all internet traffic will be video in 2022. Of course, much of that will be social media and YouTube, but premium quality video will play its part. Using appropriate tools, like CatonNet Video Platform (CVP), means that the public internet can deliver against the broadcaster’s four criteria: accessibility, reliability, quality and cost (and new revenue opportunities).

Remote production, in any genre, can now reasonably be expected to deliver uncompromised quality and synchronisation, automated localisation, and increased viewer engagement. That is a huge advance for the industry.

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