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New broadcast ecosystem: Tech panel debates at the ASBU BroadcastPro Summit

A lively exchange on cloud adoption and the deployment of AI in broadcast workflows ensured that the post-lunch tech panel had the rapt attention of attendees at the 2018 ASBU BroadcastPro Summit. Issues covered also included workplace culture vis-à-vis technical changes, evolving satellite solutions and developing better user experiences on multiple platforms.

Titled ‘Tech Panel: Addressing the Demands of a New Broadcast Ecosystem’, the panel consisted of Adriaan Bloem, Senior Manager Online Platforms at MBC Group; Ali El Husseini, Vice Director of Technical Operations at TRT; Dave Mace, Cloud and Digital Services Manager at OSN; Ghassan Murat, Managing Director at Eutelsat MENA; and Muath Barakat, GM of Technology at Intigral.

Moderator Paul Wallis, Managing Director of Deluxe Middle East, set the ball rolling by asking Ali El Husseini how a large media organisation such as Turkey’s TRT began implementing workplace transformation to enable technologies such as IP and cloud. “Where do you start to implement the change?” was the apparently simple question.

The broadcast veteran began by outlining a truth we often overlook while we navigate a maze of technical jargon – that the way the workflow culture responds to technical upgrades determines the success of any such overhaul.

He said: “It is not just about change in technology. Technology gives you a set of tools, but the first challenge is workplace culture. How will people approach this change? We are a huge organisation employing around 9,000 persons with more than 30 channels. People and workflows must be the starting point of any change. You don’t have to rush into it. The multiple options need to be discussed internally and externally with vendors and then a roadmap needs to be created. To overcome any cultural resistance, the approach needs to be workflow-based. If you attempt to tackle every aspect from enterprise and operations to content generation and distribution, you will end up with a lot of problems that you cannot fix.”

Ali El Husseini, Vice Director, Technical Operations, TRT.

Speaking specifically about the estimated timescale for the massive technology overhaul underway at TRT, El Husseini said: “We have divided it into two parts. The foreign language channels that are fewer in number will take around two years for a complete migration to IP. The Turkish-language channels will take longer, given that there are 30 in number.”

Wallis then asked the same culture vis-à-vis technology question to the one representative from the satellite industry.

Ghassan Murat of Eutelsat MENA acknowledged the challenge satellite operators face with audiences moving to multiscreen devices, OTT, VOD and so on. “As a satellite operator, we needed to transform ourselves and at IBC this year, we launched Cirrus, a hybrid satellite-OTT delivery solution that allows broadcasters to offer a flexible, seamless content experience across multiple screens. We believe that Eutelsat, as an operator with more than 6,000 channels, can offer enough economies of scale to provide a one-stop solution for broadcasters. While the branding, look and feel of individual OTT platforms will remain within the broadcaster’s purview, we will take over the burden of managing headends and so on. We see satellite and OTT converging and we have an ambitious roadmap for this platform.”

Acknowledging the centrality of the cloud question, Wallis then asked Dave Mace about the significant work undertaken by OSN towards migrating to cloud and the benefits the broadcaster has seen.

“We have undertaken large-scale migration to the cloud,” said Mace, Cloud and Digital Services Manager at OSN in his opening remarks. “We are essentially in the business of entertainment and content, and any service that we operate from glass to glass will be shifted to cloud. We are seeing the obvious benefits of business continuity, disaster recovery, agility and scalability.”

On the frequently asked question of cost implications, Mace said: “If broadcasters think they will save money in the first year of migrating to the cloud, they are mistaken. In the long term, there will be cost savings. More importantly, having your platform in the cloud allows you to scale up or down with ease, experiment with new initiatives and fail with less pain.”

Muath Barakat, GM Technology, Intigral.

Having developed a cloud-based platform capable of delivering video to client apps and devices, Intigral’s Muath Barakat concurred with Mace on the benefits of migrating to the cloud. He observed: “Cloud definitely makes you agile, and broadcasters will probably find it better to start small, identifying areas in the infrastructure that can be shifted. There is no need for broadcasters to immediately migrate all processes and workflows to the cloud. With video, you have a huge amount of data that can be very costly to maintain on premise and impossible to monitor across borders, and having it stored in the cloud is a lot more cost-effective. Shifting spend from Capex to Opex is a distinct advantage of cloud operations. Ultimately, the decision to go to cloud will depend on each individual business case. At times, it will make sense to move from Capex to Opex mode, but at other times it will not. The total cost of ownership (TCO) will have to be studied carefully here.”

Predictably, the prohibitive cost of connectivity in the region was mentioned. As a corollary to the connectivity question, Wallis asked Adriaan Bloem of MBC if the talk around 5G was translating into any real plans on the ground.

Adriaan Bloem, Senior Manager Online Platforms, MBC Group.

Bloem responded: “Everybody expects all video content to move to OTT and the internet, but we do not currently have the mobile network capability to handle it. If everyone stopped watching satellite TV and watched TV on devices right now, the internet would break down. We definitely need 5G. Also, as broadcasters, we must be acutely aware of how end users are consuming our content. We have seen viewers in countries with 4G having great viewing experiences, even if providers in that country struggle to deliver video streaming via old-school fixed connections. So 5G is needed and will help in enhancing the viewer experience.”

Elaborating on the user experience, Barakat of Intigral said: “We tailor delivery options for our clients across public or private CDNs, satellite or OTT and IPTV. We offer multi-platform solutions for video streaming as well. At the end of the day, content is king, but at the same time if you cannot ensure viewer experience regardless of content, audiences will find another satisfactory platform.”

Highlighting that the cloud question has moved well beyond just a simple case of selecting a cloud provider, Bloem added: “The actual challenge we now face is managing our services across multi-cloud … we use multiple cloud providers and deploy our services across them.” While initially companies were mostly uncertain about cloud reliability and security, Bloem elaborated that the vanguard has moved on: “From my perspective, I want to select the best option in terms of cost and latency for each use case. However, the mechanisms to, for instance, deploy containers across multiple cloud platforms continue to be in their infancy.”

There is no single multi-cloud infrastructure vendor. A multi-cloud strategy typically involves a mix of the major public cloud providers, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google, Microsoft and IBM. Moderator Wallis stated that moving forward, systems integrators would need to integrate multi-cloud services into their offer and present it as a unified service to broadcasters.

Bloem also highlighted spot pricing in the cloud ecosystem, where discounts are given for using capacity off-peak. Significantly, he cautioned against the misuse of terms such as cloud and that it goes beyond rebranding an erstwhile “hosting company”. He added: “When you first move away from traditional infrastructure and move to cloud you need ‘servers’ as a metaphor, but once you transition beyond that, such metaphors are not needed and it is certainly not an efficient way to run your operations.”

At this point, El Husseini of TRT struck a sobering note around the realities broadcasters have to grapple with as they attempt to migrate to the cloud. “The hype now is to go cloud and to push forward IP production, to create a new ecosystem. The two streams are supposed to move in parallel and they do not, posing a dilemma for established broadcasters as to which comes first. Let us split this into use cases and track the results. A channel-in-a-box concept, with no live inserts, can be migrated easily to a cloud-type platform to cover both IT enterprise and broadcast. Content management tools can be even automated.

“The other use case is a live sports or news channel. The challenges range from field ingest to field camera usage, streaming back to HQ, processing the feed, making it ready for production and sending to playout. Archive access for both sports and news will be expensive … connectivity and bandwidth-wise, either on-premise or on hosted services.  We are talking about transcoders, storage, media transport and so on. Then you have to consider office-associated services such as IT, security, enterprise systems, booking systems, control systems … where do we start? Obviously, the answer will be with the infrastructure, network and connectivity.

“The cost of establishing infrastructure to handle both media production and effective workflows is high, and in many well-established organisations it is hard to convince CFOs that the ROI on this change will be seen in a couple of years. Availability, agility and reachability comes with a price!”

Dave Mace, Cloud and Digital Services Manager, OSN.

To Mace’s query as to what it is about news channels that is not conducive to being on the cloud, El Husseini clarified: “News and sports channels cannot tolerate being off-air, and viewers will not tolerate latency. Most critically, being a government entity, there are regulations regarding the location of data, especially in countries that might shut you down.

“Another issue we face is with broadcasting live sport. We have rights for various sporting events, including the Turkish league. However, bandwidth continues to be a challenge, especially with the 4K productions. With multiple users downloading and interacting as games are underway, connectivity does not hold up. I believe we need to have a conversation with telcos on the specific issues around live video broadcast. We are also waiting for regulations around 5G to be established. With 5G, the three issues of spectrum, fragmentation and speed need to be resolved. As broadcasters, we need clear roadmaps before we start migrating.”

“We are essentially in the business of entertainment and content, and any service that we operate from glass to glass will be shifted to cloud”  Dave Mace, Cloud and Digital Services Manager, OSN

With the panel clearly divided on the issue of cloud, Wallis turned the focus to AI and machine learning. “Personally, I see tremendous benefits, especially around the localisation of content, with AI slated to transform subtitling technology,” he observed. He asked Murat if AI has made a difference in Eutelsat’s operations.

Ghassan Murat, Managing Director, Eutelsat.

Elaborating on Eutelsat’s Cirrus, which is intended to be a turnkey content delivery solution for both satellite and OTT platforms, Murat said: “As I mentioned earlier, we have a long and ambitious roadmap for Cirrus. And part of that roadmap is targeted advertising where the engine is AI. We are aiming to free up broadcasters to focus on content and subscribers while the platform takes care of end-to-end logistics.”

Mace highlighted compliance, in which AI plays a critical role at OSN. “One of the first use cases for AI is in the area of compliance. It is significant for us, as assets are monitored for content that needs to be flagged. With AI you make less mistakes and it speeds up the process of monitoring. It goes beyond that as well. If you want to locate a particular sound bite, you just need to search and download. You do need human intervention for context, to ensure a clip is cut cleanly and for general quality control. While machine learning will never replace people in certain roles, especially the creative areas, it helps you do the job quickly.”

Concurring that machine learning will never replace people, but help them do their job well, Bloem added: “One of the reasons Google, Amazon and Microsoft have been particularly successful with video analysis is because they have huge training sets. Unlike popular misconception, there are no androids controlling the data with a mind of their own. AI works great when it’s relatively generic and repeatable many times. I cannot apply the same for very specific uses at MBC. So, what we should aim for is things that don’t need 100% accuracy. For instance, there is a business case to be made for indexing our archives with AI, so we can unlock them for our audience. But the whole idea that AI will take over jobs is mere fearmongering.”

While Barakat of Intigral agreed with Bloem on trusting AI where 100% accuracy is not needed, he added: “AI and machine learning are being used already in Intigral in the writing of articles. A large number of Dawri Plus articles are automated and written by machines. I believe AI and machine learning is getting so advanced that it will soon replace a lot of jobs. Self-driving cars, for instance, will soon become a reality.”

El Husseini observed: “We have seen production lines in factories being taken over by AI over the past thirty years. While certain jobs, especially in areas of aviation and security systems, have been taken over, AI demands new skill sets. As for broadcast, China has an AI-powered presenter. Two years ago in Denmark, a whole radio show based on AI was launched.”

On the question of the significance of CDNs and what constitutes a successful one, Bloem said: “CDNs are incredibly important for streaming video. It is really crucial in this region, where there is not a single company that will make this problem go away with a simple one-stop solution. With 5G on the horizon, I would love not to have to think about it this much, but until we improve interconnectivity in the region and increase the capacity of networks, the issue around CDNs will persist.”

MENA IP video products and billing services provider Intigral has only recently expanded its CDN capabilities, with the first PoPs operational in Riyadh to be followed shortly by similar PoPs in Jeddah and Dammam. For Dawri Plus, its digisports platform for delivering live match streaming, and its OTT streaming service Jawwy TV, the company has also contracted with a third-party CDN.

Agreeing with Bloem about how critical CDNs are, Barakat added: “Companies have to rethink their strategies to deliver the all-important content to the end user with minimum latency and problems. The business case to approach a third-party provider or build your own CDN will obviously depend on the cost per gigabyte, among other factors.”

Paul Wallis, Managing Director, Deluxe Middle East.

The cost of connectivity in the region reared its head again at the end of the discussion. Wallis asked if there is any viable alternative to satellites in terms of cost-effective, end-to-end delivery of video to millions of consumers.

“Satellite is certainly not dead or dying,” asserted Mace. “It is still the cheapest way to deliver one to many, and until distribution on IP is developed as a viable alternative – some cloud providers believe they can offer that – satellite with its economies of scale, especially in this region, will continue to dominate.”

Experts estimate that in markets such as Europe, streaming will likely be a viable alternative to satellite for the majority of channels, with direct costs of OTT distribution typically falling 15-20% annually. Not here, though, as Murat of Eutelsat concurred with Mace on the resilience of satellite TV, which has an unprecedented penetration of 94% across 14 Arab MENA countries, according to the company’s figures.

“Satellite will remain the main distribution network in the region,” asserted Murat. “At the same time, we are working towards greater integration between satellite and IP. Cirrus represents a big step in that direction, with dual offer of turnkey DTH services and OTT multiscreen delivery. For this region, we believe the integration between satellite and IP will add huge value in terms of growing audiences and advertising revenues.”