January 27, 2014 – As the case grows for a lower cost, more flexible and higher quality alternative to satellite for delivering TV programmers’ content to cable headends an innovative approach to terrestrial transport used by broadcasters here and abroad is starting to gain the attention of cable operators.
A number of factors are contributing to rising interest in terrestrial alternatives to satellite, including the need to aggregate ever more channels of niche programming, to support the delivery of local programming from centralized headends and to ingest video at much higher levels of quality than has traditionally been the case. For example, such considerations have become a key part of the transport strategy at Comcast, which, along with using its national fiber backbone for its own needs, is marketing the network to other MSOs through its Comcast Wholesale arm.
Swedish-base Net Insight is offering another approach to addressing these requirements through a set of solutions which are designed to greatly improve efficiency and quality of service over leased IP transport links and the open Internet. So far, in its new foray into the North America cable market the company has claimed success with one unnamed Tier 1 cable operator, which is deploying the firm’s Nimbra VA 210 platform to enable front-haul content acquisition of programming from six remote broadcasters over local Internet access networks.
This deployment, which delivers the programming to a centralized headend, is the first phase with additional streams and broadcasters likely to be added in the future, according to Per Lindgren, CTO and senior vice president of business development at Net Insight. “Net Insight together with the Tier 1 operator is challenging the traditional use of satellite for front-haul content acquisition in the cable TV market,” Lindgren says.
The ability to support high-quality access of contributed live content over local public Internet connections is a key part of the end-to-end solution set Net Insight offers. While cable operators may have their own backbone networks optimized for high-quality video transport, the costs of getting content from broadcast and cable network sources onto those backbones over private line facilities can be a barrier to all-terrestrial replacement of satellite transport. Yet, as the number of local and national contributors to the channel count on cable services increases, adding to satellite capacity becomes cost prohibitive as well.
The Net Insight Nimbra VA 210 Internet access solution employs content-aware forward error correction (FEC) and selective transmission to enable video streams to be transmitted over Internet connections at quality comparable to satellite feeds but at far lower costs, says Thomas Wahlund, head of business segments at Net Insight. “If you put our solution on top of the content supplier’s Internet access, you can pull that content into the operator’s network at about $30 per month,” he explains.
Of course, as operators look to supplant traditional MPEG-4 and MPEG-2 satellite feeds with much higher quality contribution signals, possibly using JPEG 2000 or even uncompressed feeds, the access links will have to be superior to best-effort Internet. But, as Wahlund notes, the Nimbra VA 210 approach is more than adequate for niche content.
The higher quality access requirements as well as the need for robust video transport across IP backbones is addressed by another aspect of the Net Insight product suite involving deployment of its Nimbra 300 series Media Switch Routers, the latest iteration of which is the Nimbra 390. By positioning the FEC, time transfer, traffic shaping and other QoS functionalities at each hop in whatever IP networks are used for content acquisition, operators are able to create a lossless end-to-end infrastructure where each link is optimized in ways that can’t be done when FEC is only performed at network end points, Wahlund says.
As another first step in this direction, Net Insight has brought a U.K. cable operator into the fold. “They’re delivering uncompressed streams into their headends,” he says. “The feedback we’re getting is they’re seeing much higher quality on the channels they’re feeding with content acquired over this new backbone.”
Another use of the higher quality performance from terrestrial ingested content is maintain existing quality levels on distribution channels at lower bitrates in the re-encoding process, Lindgren notes. “The Nimbra platform offers cable TV operators the potential to become more competitive in the new media landscape by increasing the utilization of bandwidth to boost the number of TV channels,” he says.
Net Insight officials believe such benefits will prove highly persuasive to stateside cable operators. “In the U.S. MSOs have big national networks which they could optimize for terrestrial transport of all their TV content from sources to their headends,” comments Wahlund. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in the use of our technology to make this happen.” There’s also interest in using the Nimbra platform to open up guaranteed QoS video transport space for wholesale offerings, he adds.