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ART chooses IP delivery for Ramadan programming

Mustafa Tell.

Arab Radio and TV, Jordan, recently opted for IP over satellite to transport its Ramadan content from its headquarters in Jordan to its distribution centre in Italy. In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, ART’s general manager of broadcast operations, Mustafa Tell, and the team from solutions provider ONE Media Corp share details of the technology that has revolutionised broadcasting in the Hashemite Kingdom

Jordan-based pay TV network ART recently opted for an IP alternative to transmit its video services for Ramadan to its distribution centre in Italy instead of employing the traditional satellite route. The installation, undertaken with the help of US-based ONE Media Corp, helped ART reduce the cost of distributing its video services by almost 80%, according to Mustafa Tell, general manager of Arab Radio and Television Broadcasting Operations.

“Normally, it would have cost us about USD 45,000-50,000 to uplink Ramadan programming over satellite to our distribution centre. We have reduced our costs substantially by using ONE Media Corp’s ONE CONNXT IP solution,” says Tell.

Seeing the results, other TV operators in the Middle East are also mulling the use of IP instead of satellite. Some, like Jordan Radio & Television, are considering the use of this technology to broadcast matches from the stadiums back to the TV station. Others are considering packaging a whole channel and using this technology to send it to distribution centres while still others are thinking of this technology as a more cost-effective backup to satellite.

In July 2012, IP tests were conducted at Jordan Media City and according to Tell, “our engineers were blown by what this technology could do”.

Interestingly, the chief developer of the ONE CONNXT solution is Fadi Kahhaleh, a Jordanian American. The ONE CONNXT technology works very similarly to satellite. The system has an encoder box installed at the sender’s end and a decoder box at the receiver’s end. Both boxes are developed by ONE CONNXT. Video feeds from different sources, whether tapes or servers, are sent to the encoder. The decoder that is matched with this encoder is then permitted to receive the video feeds, view, record and play it back.

Although ART has deployed this system, it is not moving its bouquet entirely away from satellite to IP delivery. It is merely looking at the most cost effective options to transport video effectively.

One of the big concerns that most parties raise in such cases is how this would work in areas where broadband is poor.

However, ONE Media Corp’s CEO Dave Almstead says the technology and algorithms it has created enables video to be transported “from anywhere in the world on a point-to-point or a point-to-multipoint basis.”

“We have used this successfully to transport video and it is far less expensive than satellite. We’ve been using it since August 2011, taking four channels of video from Singapore to the US 24/7 and bringing that back and then distributing it out to the network.

“We specifically developed the One World Sports channel bringing sports video from Asia (Singapore) back to the US. When we looked at our budgets initially to do this, one of the things that became very clear was that transporting 1500 hours of satellite video a year with two hubs across such a long distance was going to be an insurmountable amount of money to make in order to make the business work. As a result, we went with IP. After a couple of months of operating it, ONE Media Corp realised we had a technology that was worth sharing with other broadcasters,” says Almstead.

“ART saw the value particularly in this current market place where revenues aren’t continuing to rise at double digit rates every year. If you can get the same quality, security and dependability then this was an effective way for them to manage their bottom line.”

The change at the transport level will not impact the end user in any way as it’s only from ART to its distribution point, says Tell.

It’s a game changer for new broadcasters with small budgets, adds Almstead.

“If you’re a new broadcaster, you have to think of substantial infrastructure costs to uplink and downlink to a satellite. The costs to put in the infrastructure and maintain a satellite channel runs into a few hundred thousand dollars. The cost of transport for a year 24/7/365 depending upon how many locations are going point to point will begin from USD 30,000. IP’s annual cost is about a month’s worth of satellite costs,” adds Tell.

Going with the IP service merely entailed deploying two ONE CONNXT boxes and having a fairly decent internet connection, says Tell.

“We tested this in multiple places. When we first received the system, we tested it in Singapore and the United States and everyone said it’s because they have a good internet connection. They said the same about Italy and Europe. Our engineers in Jordan are all accustomed to satellite services and have worked in a satellite environment so they didn’t think it would work. So we decided to test it in Jordan. We tested it for a week and there were absolutely no issues,” adds Tell.

Almstead adds that people have often been sceptical about IP services because of the paucity of broadband connectivity, which they invariably link with wireless connections.

“People link wireless with broadband and wireless no matter where it is, has always been notoriously poor. It has all kinds of failed possibilities, because wireless adjusts to interference.”

One of the biggest challenges for the team, therefore, was to convince the engineers that it would work, says Paul Dingwitz, CTO of ONE Media Corp.

“It is convincing people to move out of the mindset that IP means low internet quality. So, in Jordan, we had a group of six engineers come and look at the quality without giving them the technical specifications. We asked them simply to look at the picture and give us their feedback. They were astounded. They assumed it would be a high-end 10-15 megabit SD signal and when we gave them our specs, their eyes popped. If they hadn’t seen it in person, they would never have believed it.”

ART itself has a lot of internal convincing to do to take it any further than it has now.

The Ramadan programming was appropriate for conducting tests as the drama series tend to come in late, says Tell.

“We usually send them to our centre in Italy and it costs USD 45,000-50,000 to do that for the whole month of Ramadan on satellite. The annual cost of IP delivery is less than that so we decided we’ll try it as it is not live. It actually comes in bits and pieces so it was easy to send to our broadcast centre in Italy. From Italy, it is broadcast to the Americas and Australia. From Jordan, we broadcast it to the Arab world.

“If our engineers are 100% convinced, we may look to expand our efforts with this service.”

Tell adds, however, that ART will continue to use satellite extensively.

“We are using a combination of fiber and satellite to send content to the Americas and Australia presently and there, we would like to switch to IP. The ones in the Middle East will continue to be kept on satellite because we have long term partnerships with satellite providers here and there’s more resistance from the traditional users. We need to stress that we’re not thinking of sending our channels to the customers from the internet, we are thinking of sending it only to our distribution centres,” adds Tell.

The distribution centres itself require no additional infrastructure to undertake this project, explains Dingwitz.

“We are using existing infrastructure that is already in place because the system is very flexible and the requirements are not so stringent. Generally, a business level internet connection that has 3-4 megabits available for SD and a little bit higher than that for HD will do for our work. We can go substantially lower than that with bit rates to achieve the same quality. Right now, we have tested with Italy, Jordan and Egypt. We are checking the specs and they already have that.

“The bit rate in this case is adapted based on the content and not so much the connection speed. So, for high motion content, the bit rates are higher while for lower motion content it drops down. If it’s a news channel or something with very low motion, the efficiency is astonishing. If it’s a sports channel with high motion football or cricket, the bit rates are slightly higher because it’s more motion. So traditional internet thinking is adaptive bit rate meaning if the connection speed at my house is lower it adapts to that and the quality gets worse and worse. But our technology is based on the content itself, so that doesn’t happen.”

Almstead declares that the big difference between what went before in terms of IP capability was that it was created for the IT world and stretched to meet the demands of broadcasters.

“This IP service has been built by broadcasters for broadcasters. We are our own client. We’ve been using One World Sports for a long time and done some work with Fox sports on high motion ice hockey. We send signals from Australia to Toronto, from Singapore to London and from Italy to New York. It’s worked thus far.”

In fact, the solution is offered as a managed service to end users.

“We have a master control staff that manages, watches and keeps track of all the statistics so we’re proactively monitoring it. It’s no different than a master control would at a teleport facility or a channel. Our engineers often know that there’re problems even before the operational people do at the facilities, so we’re proactively working with the teams at each location, and that’s key for broadcasters,” explains Almstead.

If the internet stops working, the team explains that there are mechanisms in place “to adjust to outages”.

“Outages occur no matter what platform you’re using whether its satellite, fiber or IP, and you just have to be able to adjust to those outages and work around those,” explains CTO Dingwitz.

“There’re many different levels of outages — local, global and continental. We work with each content provider and broadcaster to determine which level they want to adjust for and sometimes it’s for all levels, and we have mechanisms in place to put up slates or alternate footage if there’re outages.”

Tell adds that issues with satellites are just as prevalent although less publicised.

“We have a lot of cases where we actually had problems with the satellites, and not necessarily with the satellite itself but from the uplink station or the reception or the receiving station. It’s the same risk wherever you go. The difference is, here you’re paying much less for a similar service. Actually, the money I save could be used to invest in a backup system,” he adds.

Almstead adds that the biggest concerns that spring to one’s mind when they talk of IP is lack of stability and quality, and these have been addressed successfully by the company.

Seeing what this company is offering, a satellite solutions provider in the Middle East that is running out of capacity is also looking at a potential IP service to offer broadcasters, we hear.

“They themselves would like to use IP to save their satellite capacity. Of course, we cannot connect from house to house so they still need satellite for all of that,” explains Almstead.

Tell adds that the reason ART also went for a solution from this IP provider was because its solutions are primarily “software configured”.

“With this provider, we don’t have to have different boxes in our service for HD or SD. The same equipment supports both formats. Every other one has grade 1 or grade 2 boxes and if you want to upgrade from SD to HD, you will have to go for another box. This is entirely software configured”.

So does this mean the beginning of the end for the satellite business?

Not really, laughs Almstead.

“The satellite business is a big and strong business on several different fronts and can take care of itself. I was shocked to hear at the Washington DC satellite convention that 75% of satellite capacity is being accessed for DTH distribution. Having said that, IP services are catching up and offering a more cost effective alternative to satellite that end users are studying carefully.”