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Will broadcasters go fully digital in 2022?

Journal Article from ETL Systems

Fri 15, 07 2022


Andrew Bond

Sales and Marketing Director at ETL Systems


Thirty years ago, viewers had a very limited choice when it came to TV - only able to access a handful of channels transmitted via an analogue signal directly into their homes. Just a small selection of live sporting events was broadcast.

Times have changed; take the Winter Olympics in Beijing as an example - held across 13 different locations and spanning three regions. While this is nothing compared to the broadcasting scale of the recent Summer Olympics in Japan, it still presented a number of challenges for broadcasters.

So what are the challenges broadcasters will face in 2022 and where can new technology help?

The Digital IF Interoperability consortium is a working group of experts developing an industry standard for a digital/RF interface. Digitisation will allow broadcasters to move an analogue signal via a digital network. Credit: metamorworks/Shutterstock.com

Doing more with the same or less

During mega-events like the Olympics, broadcasters will be getting a feed from the event organiser, but they will also want their own piece-to-camera shots and to get their own take on the action, live. Yet covering the ever-increasing variety of locations is a growing challenge both practically and financially.

In the 2022 Winter Olympics, there were seven more events in the calendar compared to the previous Winter Olympics. As demand and connectivity grow, there is a seemingly non-stop escalator whereby crews have to cover more without exceeding their existing finite resources.

Away from these global events, once niche sports like cycling are becoming more popular. This too is generating demand for news crews to be sent to a greater variety of locations, but without the expanding budgets to mirror the expanding event footprint, particularly in light of recent world events that have had a significant impact on broadcasters.

The need for speed and control

Ensuring minimal delays in the transmission chain and full control of the signal is high priority for broadcasters. There are four main transmission links we can think about:

1: The camera to the control room
2: Control room to a local hub
3: International transit
4: To viewers in the broadcasters’ territory

At each of these links in the terrestrial network the transmission is routed via switches, which each cause milliseconds of delay. The cumulative impact can result in latency and a poorer experience for viewers - especially those relying on a real-time link.

For this reason, broadcasters continue to choose to skip many of these transmission links by using the satellite network, speeding up delivery and retaining control by not relying on networks operated by third-party countries.

Caption: Broadcasting technology for coverage of events like the Winter Olympics is evolving as demand and connectivity increase. Credit: Paolo Bona/Shutterstock.com

Meeting customer expectations

Meanwhile, customers want and expect the same experience and service from their broadcasters that they get digitally down their gigabit-per-second broadband lines and 5G subscriptions.

Many broadcasters are moving to digital as far as possible as a result. The challenge is that delivering this level of service for customers living in remote locations is just not possible.

In 2020, the US Government’s Federal Communications Commission provided $16bn to its rural diversity fund to get more people connected online. Then, as part of Biden’s spending package in 2021, he added a further $16bn. This gives an indication of the scale of the digital divide in the US, let alone the rest of the world. In the UK, around 1.5 million homes are still not connected to the Internet. This limits broadcasters’ ability to reach the poorly connected or disconnected without RF.

Will analogue ever die?

Satellite links will continue to be relied upon by broadcasters to deliver content to and from a significant number of locations.

A recent article by Eurisy highlighted how satellites and terrestrial networks are working together, with video travelling via satellite and then distributed over fibre to be delivered to the viewer. This mix of analogue and digital is applied elsewhere too, even in the most advanced digital networks like 5G, where signals are still sent over the air to your phone.

The big questions being asked by network architects now relate to how these signals are being converted from analogue to digital and vice versa.

ETL Systems has been collaborating with a working group of experts who are creating an industry standard with the goal of digitizing the RF spectrum. As part of the Digital IF Interoperability (DIFI) consortium, we are working towards creating a standardised interoperable digital interface/Radio Frequency (IF/RF) based on the widely adopted VITA 49.2.

It will enable broadcasters to move an analogue signal from one place to another using a digital network. This exciting breakthrough technology will decouple the network operation centre from the antenna, leading to many benefits for broadcasters.

In 2022, we expect to see this new digital technology providing even better link availability and RF signal quality, plus greater operational flexibility in switching and routing. Over time, operational and capital costs will be reduced, making it accessible to broadcasters with smaller budgets. At the same time, it will be possible to offer stronger digital encryption of analogue signals.

From the conversations we are having with some of the world’s largest broadcasters, the sector is adopting digital technologies wherever it makes sense. But it’s also clear that they will always need satellites and RF signals, with a hybrid of both becoming the new norm.

Even a digitized RF spectrum is really about moving an analogue signal over a digital network. Regardless of the digital and analogue question, technology moves forward at pace to assist broadcasters in 2022 as they continue to strive to do more with the same or less.

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