Consolidated Video Processing Sets Stage for Next-Gen Service

Tom Lattie, VP, product management, Harmonic

Tom Lattie, VP, product management, Harmonic

September 26, 2011 – Major advances in broadcast-quality video processing systems have set the stage for rapid emergence of multi-screen services encompassing live as well as on-demand content as the strategic replacement for early-stage TV Everywhere initiatives.
Leading suppliers say they have developed the types of encoding, transcoding, packaging and server systems that will allow service providers to accelerate their push to IP-based delivery of services blending traditional linear and VOD premium content with over-the-top content, marking a sea change in how subscription TV is positioned and marketed to the public. “The move to live multi-screen services is very fast tracked,” says Nabil Kanaan, senior director of marketing at RGB Networks.

By year’s end, Kanaan says, major service providers will be close to if not already in early phases of commercial launches utilizing equipment that allows them to combine broadcast network TV with other sources through headend modules that support distribution in multiple compression modes and formats to everything from legacy set-tops to the latest tablets and smartphones. “We’re going to see a lot of services that are designed to go with the latest consumer toys that will be coming out during the holiday season,” he says.

Many trials are in sway worldwide, mostly under the radar, Kanaan adds. “What you saw with Time Warner Cable’s launch of live service to the iPad was just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “The live element of TV Everywhere is absolutely critical to service providers in their efforts to combat the impact of services like Netflix.”

RGB has been well positioned to support such a shift, having introduced its Video Multiprocessing Gateway (VMG) product family to enable transcoding for the multi-screen live broadcast model about two years ago. “Offering multi-screen services in on-demand mode is as commodity as it gets,” Kanaan says. “The problem as stated to us is, ‘I want to put my whole channel lineup on all devices as a part of my TVE initiative.’ That’s what we designed VMG to accomplish.”

Now, with demand for such capabilities finally taking off, the company has expanded on its portfolio with a smaller VMG unit cutting the chassis size from 14 racks to seven racks for smaller operators and edge-based deployment solutions. With new transcoding enhancements the VMG-8 chassis supports transcoding of up to 60 SD or HD inputs to 240 adaptive bitrate outputs while the VMG-14 chassis now supports up to 132 SD or HD inputs and 528 outputs, Kanaan says.

In tandem with these developments RGB has introduced the Enhanced Video Intelligence Architecture, which encompasses the VMG platform and RGB’s adaptive rate packager along with ad insertion capabilities that utilize adaptive bitrate streaming to facilitate targeted advertising down to the neighborhood, device or even specific individual subscriber demographics. “With eVIA’s hyper-targeted ad insertion capabilities, providers can increase revenue while simultaneously upgrading their networks to support large-scale deployments of both on-demand and linear content to multiple devices,” says RGB CTO Yuval Fisher.

A New Type of Encoding System

Meanwhile, marking a major shift at the core headend encoding level, Harmonic, Inc. has responded to the new multi-screen service requirements with development of the Electra 9000, a core headend encoder which, for the first time, supports simultaneous multi-codec and multi-format processing for broadcast, mobile and Web formats in a single rack unit chassis. The condensed chassis has capacity for up to four audio/video processing modules, each of which supports flexible combinations of up to four SD/HD inputs with up to eight broadcast output profiles and 32 multiscreen aligned output profiles, says Tom Lattie, vice president of product management at Harmonic.

“The flexibility of the platform allows customers to decide how they want to use those compression resources depending on use cases,” Lattie explains. “For example, an operator who wants to bring a single HBO feed into the encoder could generate a VBR (variable bit rate) encoded MPEG-2 HD and SD for stat muxing onto linear channels, CBR (constant bit rate) versions for SDV (switched digital video) and eight profiles of mobile Web for iPhones and iPads.”

Or any other mix is possible, including generation of the HD and/or SD streams in H.264 or a higher count of Web resolutions for multiple types of devices. “You can go from 70-inch to two-inch screens and cross the synchronized multi-bitrate boundaries and CBR/VBR boundaries, however you choose,” Lattie says. “Until now you’d have to use multiple components to do all that.”

Of course, operators also want to be able to support multi-screen IP services from existing encoding infrastructures, in which case they need to be able to take the live MPEG-2 feeds and transcode, package and stage them for live and on-demand delivery to all types of connected devices. This is where the RGB VMG fits in, and it’s also the role that Harmonic has assigned its new ProMedia set of software solutions.

Harmonic is offering the ProMedia product family as software modules that customers can install on existing servers or pre-packaged components with Harmonic’s appliances for simple placement in racks with other headend gear. “We’ve made it easy to add ProMedia modules to an existing broadcast video infrastructure to deliver high-quality video services to any IP-connected device, including tablets, smartphones, PCs and TVs,” Lattie says.

The four components to the ProMedia group include the real-time video processing and transcoding system; file-based transcoder supporting a large array of acquisition, editing, broadcast, Web and mobile formats; carrier-grade adaptive streaming packaging system supporting numerous HTTP streaming standards with multiple output formats from a single source, and the ProMedia Origin HTTP and RTMP streaming server for originating stored content in multiple industry-standard protocols. “With this product suite we can bring to bear the complete infrastructure that meets all live and on-demand business models in both single-screen and multi-screen versions.,” Lattie says.

Harmonic has focused on a single compression system, H.264, for the ProMedia platform, given the dominance of that standard in IP video. Critically, Lattie notes, with the move to supporting a full-service TVE strategy, operators want to achieve high quality with maximum bit-rate efficiency in the multi-device space, which means Harmonic could no longer rely on third-party codecs for the IP-side of the transcoding process.

Until now maximizing bit rate efficiency on IP video delivered to different devices wasn’t a top priority, he says. But the emergence of rate caps on broadband usage and surging consumption of video on mobile devices has made bandwidth conservation a top priority.

“We’ve made our name in the broadcast space delivering better picture quality at lower bit rates,” he adds, acknowledging that on the software transcoding side “we were on par or maybe a little behind others.” Now Harmonic has dropped use of third-party codecs in favor of building its own from scratch.

“It’s really important to get more channels into the transponder, the QAM or the DSL line,” he says. “This is where the rubber hits the road in customer evaluations. Previously in streaming scenarios the main requirement was you just had to get it working. Now, just as it’s been in the broadcast space for a long time, customers are lining up the leading compression vendors and turning the knobs down to see where the picture breaks. The one that breaks last gets the business.”

At the recent IBC show Harmonic showed its ProMedia Carbon file-based transcoder generating side-by-side 720p HD video streams performing at equal quality, one from a third-party codec at six megabits per second and one from the new Harmonic codec at 5.5 mbps. “We’re now able to do even better quality at 4.7 mbps,” Lattie says.

Mixing elements of ProMedia with use of Electra 9000 produces the optimal results insofar as the Electra 9000 can perform the stat muxing of the IP feeds to maximize bandwidth efficiency, which is something the ProMedia system alone doesn’t do, while the adaptive rate packaging and interfacing with various digital rights management systems required for connected-device distribution is the purview of ProMedia packaging. The Origin server, too, is an important adjunct to maximizing the converged efficiencies of the next-gen headend, Lattie adds.

On the Horizon from Digital Rapids

In another sign of the pressing demand for convergence of broadcast with Internet content solutions, Digital Rapids, a leader in the IP multi-screen encoding space, says it will soon introduce a carrier-grade encoder, the StreamZ Live Broadcast system, which builds on its StreamZ Live suite to support encoding from uncompressed baseband inputs as well as transcoding from compressed live sources. The platform combines H.264 or MPEG-2 encoding for broadcast distribution while concurrently outputting standard or adaptive bit rate streaming formats, including the latest adaptive bit rate technologies from Adobe, Apple and Microsoft, says Tony Huang, senior product manager at Digital Rapids.

“Multi-screen initiatives have become an integral part of television and content providers’ business models, and their technical operations are converging as a reflection of that,” Huang says “The StreamZ Live Broadcast hybrid encoder provides a unified, flexible encoding platform to support this convergence while minimizing workflow complexity and reducing operational costs.”

StreamZ Live Broadcast can be managed and controlled through an intuitive Web interface, local front-panel controls or through the scalable Digital Rapids Broadcast Manager software for multi-channel automation, scheduling, monitoring and failover, Huang adds. The management system provides direct control over individual content streams so that live transmission outputs can be simultaneously archived to files for storage and on-demand distribution.

Integrated content management through all phases of video processing is vital to the convergence of broadcasting and multi-screen IP service, Lattie observes. This represents a break with how things were been done before as reflected in the Media Prism management system Harmonic built to accommodate the TVE environment.

Now, Lattie notes, Harmonic has brought the IP video management requirements together with the network management system that operators use to run big headends, where managing configurations, redundancy, alarms and much else across thousands of encoders has long been the norm. With the transcoding system, the management platform must have the flexibility to scale with additional boxes and locations over time while combining automated quality control with “vision metrics” that allow operators to ensure everything is working as expected. “Customers see this as a natural evolution of their main services, so we’ve spent a lot of time integrating these functionalities into the regular media asset management system,” Lattie says.