The next generation in broadcast distribution

by Staff Reporter | March 5th, 2012

Robert Bell, executive director, WTA

The distribution service providers, whether on the ground or in the sky, see the explosion of content as an undiluted positive, writes Robert Bell, executive director, World Teleport Association as teleports and internal networks deliver content in any format, through any path, to any device

Since the first wild-eyed entrepreneur uplinked a signal to a satellite, broadcasting has been a primary market for commercial teleport operators.   And no wonder.  Long before the word “broadband” existed, television was the world’s first broadband application, requiring large-scale bandwidth and high reliability, because billions of dollars or euros, pounds or dirhams were riding on it.

The relationship between teleport operators and broadcasters has had its ups and downs.  One long-time TV distribution executive told me that his company never really wanted to go into the satellite business once television moved off long-distance telephone lines and into the sky.  But the poor performance of inexperienced teleport vendors forced his company to build its own teleports.

That was a long time ago.

Market pressures have forced operators to improve – or forced them out of business – until today’s broadcast-centric operators provide a quality of service that easily meets the needs of the most demanding of media companies.

What do broadcasters want?

Those needs, however, are undergoing the most dramatic change in decades.  For a research report titled What Customers Want: Media & Entertainment, WTA interviewed broadcast distribution executives in the Middle East, Europe and USA.  Their biggest challenges are staying on top of technology change with ageing infrastructure and expanding distribution with stable or declining budgets.  Both are the result of the many new distribution channels for video content, from catch-up viewing on the Web to connected TV and second-screen viewing, and even TV to the handheld.  All are in their infancy right now.

One broadcast executive in the Middle East told us that satellite TV is booming but internet access lags far behind.  “In this market,” he said, “everybody is glued to TV.  We are an emerging market and people are watching 2-3 hours of TV a day.  People are preparing for the new platforms but the content will be introduced first on television before moving to the smaller screens.”

One hundred per cent of broadcasters we interviewed, however, expect to be distributing more content over broadband in the next two years.  Viewers will have a growing range of options for consuming video content.  Broadcast business models built on distribution to a carefully controlled network of satellite dishes, cable set-top boxes or terrestrial transmission towers will have to change in major ways.

Some broadcast companies still prefer to own and operate every conceivable part of the distribution chain.  As one well-known distribution executive said to me, “If I could afford to own it all, even the satellites, I would.”  But the outsourcing of programme origination, play-out and turnaround has become commonplace, and teleport operators are delivering the SLAs needed to make their broadcast customers comfortable.  The most successful teleport operators have a powerful argument to offer: by providing a distribution center for multiple channels and networks, teleports can justify making investments in state-of-the-art facilities, automation and route diversity that individual broadcasters frequently cannot.

Back to the future

So what does the future of distribution look like?  To find out, WTA researched and published a study called Future TV and the Teleport.  We set out to answer the specific question: will the changes being forecast for the broadcast business be good or bad for teleport operators and satellite operators?

Press coverage of today’s video revolution leans toward the alarmist, to say the least.  Satellites will be blown from the sky by fibre-based content distribution networks.  Broadcast networks will crash and burn as everyone buys programming a la carte on their computer or tablet.

What we found when we interviewed knowledgeable people around the world, however, was quite a different story.  Content owners and their service providers both believe that the value of content will only increase in a world of multi-path distribution.  If content is king today, it will be emperor tomorrow.  Media companies could still miss the opportunity by insisting on doing business as they have always done it.  But every broadcast executive we interviewed was fully alert to both the opportunities and dangers.

The distribution service providers, whether on the ground or in the sky, see the explosion of content as an undiluted positive.  More customised feeds, more camera angles, more video formats – all translate into more business.  And the increasing complexity of distribution plays in particular to the strengths of the teleport operator.  We spoke with several in the Middle East, Europe and US who were in the midst of building out entirely new teleports and internal networks to deliver what their customers need: the ability to ingest content once and deliver it in any format, through any path, to any device.  The core value of the teleport has always been the ability to connect the incompatible.  Like broadcasters with their content, teleport operators believe that ability can only become more valuable in coming years.

Two stories make the point.  An executive in charge of contribution and distribution for a major news channel said, “Data transmission is becoming the best way to move content around.  It’s a great opportunity for a satellite service provider.  Instead of selling me a 36 MHz transponder, they can now carve it up into as many pieces as they want and charge people to run IP-based data over it.  But it’s going to require a differ­ent mindset.  I still run into people, younger than me, who think that we’re going to send a satellite truck and buy 9 MHz on a satellite.  That kind of thinking has to disappear.  People have to realise that I no longer have to plan things in a linear way.  When I call my vendors and say I need 500 Kb, that’s what they need to sell me.”

A service provider told a different but equally compelling story.  His company was handling broadcast contribution and distribution for a major golf tournament.  The tournament ran long, however, and the final round had still not been played when the broadcast window ended.  The broadcaster elected not to pre-empt its regularly scheduled programme – but millions of viewers still wanted to see the final.  So the teleport operator began feverish work with the content owner and the internet distribution company.  They created enough temporary capacity overnight to support hundreds of thousands of simultaneous live Web streams.  The broadcast went live on the Web on a Monday morning – and the site did not crash.  “It took all of us working together,” said the teleport executive, “to make it happen.”  We can expect to see more of that kind of close cooperation in the future.

Robert Bell is executive director of the World Teleport Association (www.worldteleport.org), which represents teleport operators, carriers and technology providers in 20 nations. 

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