Van Duke, Director of USA Operations, PlayBox Neo, Surveys the Expanding Frontier of CDN-based Delivery
The broadcast industry has its roots firmly entrenched in wired telephony. Back in the late 1880s, slightly before my time, the early model was audio program distribution via conventional telephone lines to paying subscribers. The core technology was developed Alexander Graham Bell whose American Telephone & Telegraph Company grew into one of the world's most powerful telco service providers. Telephone-based subscription music services sprang up in various countries and everything looked rosy until the invention of what would nowadays be termed disruptive technology: radio. This was a one-to-many form of communication rather than the essentially one-to-one technique of wired telephony. But going wireless worked so well that it even threatened to disrupt the newspaper industry.
Telco-based broadcasting revived in later decades with the introduction of cable television services, carried along wide-bandwidth copper cable. But the biggest disrupter of all was satellite broadcasting, initially to large downlink antennas at the cable TV head-ends and eventually via much smaller antennas direct to home. When digital technology became affordable, the number of channels available via terrestrial as well as satellite-based became very large indeed.
A defining characteristic of true broadcasters is that they will explore any avenue that looks a practical way to transmit their content. The internet was an obvious candidate once the delivery infrastructure was up to the challenge. That took a very long time but has been achieved in most of the world's densely populated regions, major cities in particular. Global investment in optical fiber has been impressively high and is ongoing. Among the first adopters of internet based broadcasting were the national TV channels extending their reach to expatriate viewers far beyond their terrestrial or satellite footprints. They were soon joined by national mainstream broadcasters using computer delivery networks, CDNs, to accommodate 'red button' side channels: temporary TV channels available as opt-outs to supplement major sports events for example. These typically allow viewers to select their preferred camera angle or view a minority-interest event taking place in parallel with a primary event. Side channels can of course be delivered via auxiliary satellite or terrestrial digital channels but become much more cost-efficient using CDNs.
The big move forward into OTT for established broadcasters was the introduction of catchup video and audio services, allowing audiences to view part one of a series, for example, when they have just noticed and tuned into part two or three. These have proved extremely popular, particularly among people who like to watch television programs via mobile devices. Leasing CDN capacity is an added overhead for broadcasters who are already paying for terrestrial and/or satellite delivery media but the advantages are substantial: channel managers can now obtain and compare program viewing statistics much more accurately than before and use this information to guide their content planning.
Mainstream delivery via CDN
Using CDNs as a primary broadcast delivery route rather than merely as a side-channel or catch supplement is not a new idea. It has been around for years. CDN-based delivery is far cheaper than leasing space on a satellite transponder or digital terrestrial multiplex. This has made the internet a logical proving ground where new-startup channels can prove their worth before progressing to the traditional broadcast mainstream. The internet has now reached a high level of maturity, supporting successful video-on-demand services with increasingly large subscriber bases.
This is where the next frontier comes firmly into view. CDN-oriented broadcasting using technology such as PlayBox Neo Channel-in-a-Box modular systems and our service-structured Cloud2TV software have shown very clearly their ability to function as the core of television channels that see internet delivery as the central focus of their business rather than an interim phase of their business.
Our Channel-in-a-Box series is based on standard modules which can be combined to match practically any scale and size of playout operation, from a single channel transmitting in one language up to a full scale multi-channel network for viewers across many language areas and time zones.
Figure 1 shows the system being used to handle playout of 30 high definition channels at Florida-based broadcast media services provider Olympusat.
Figure 2 illustrates the general workflow for a single channel of SDI/IP playout. Content scheduling, promos, commercials, graphics preparation, subtitling and billing can all be handled within a single server under fully automated control while retaining the freedom to insert live content after any currently airing file or, for a big-breaking story, to switch instantly to live pass-through.
PlayBox Neo's Cloud2TV takes playout up to the next level in terms of new-start-up flexibility. Fast and easy to deploy, it gives network operators the freedom to scale their activities with unprecedented precision while side-stepping the capital cost of holding reserve equipment on standby. Cloud2TV is also the perfect solution for any channel manager seeking the security of a disaster-recovery center without the rental and staffing costs entailed in equipping and operating an off-site studio.
Figure 3 shows examples of the Cloud2TV (top left) and Channel-in-a-Box control screens.
The right business model
The key to making CDN-based broadcasting work is finding the right business model. Traditional satellite and terrestrial broadcasting tends to focus on subjects of proven mass interest: news, sport, entertainment and light documentaries. This leaves a large number of producers pushing for air time with ideas hitherto dismissed as too specialized to be commercially viable. Their time has come. Minority sports organizations, venue owners, newspaper publishers, hobbyists, pressure groups, local-interest associations, airports, shopping malls...that is just the start of a potentially endless list. CDN-oriented broadcasting is a perfect vehicle for specialized content. It knows no boundaries.