The concept of channel-in-a-box is nearly mainstream and the technology will continue to evolve. Manufacturers now attempt to take the channel out of the box, making it even easier for would-be broadcasters to bring new content to viewers
The economics of channel-in-a-box are compelling. First of all, the software and hardware bundles are relatively inexpensive devices – giving them a low capex footprint. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, channel-in-a-box technology offers a plug-and-play solution; the traditional playout infrastructure involves the integration of products from a number of vendors, with the consequent installation complexities and, a potential risk of finger-pointing when something goes wrong. Channel-in-a-box devices also save rack space and eliminate the need for much of the wiring, so they are fast and simple to install.
A key application of the channel-in-a-box is to get channels on air quickly. One of the surest ways to market test a new idea for a channel is to broadcast it. Experimental channels can be on air in weeks – perhaps days – rather than months. And if the experiment fails, then the channel can be taken down overnight, with the hardware redeployed so there is virtually no capital loss.
It also opens up the prospect of the pop-up channel. Broadcasters can now set up channels for short periods to meet special needs. If you want a World Cup channel, for example, then all you need is a channel-in-a-box device and a delivery chain and you can be on air, digging deep into your audience’s expectations and earning new revenues that previously were not available.
Taking the channel out of the box
The reason that channel-in-a-box devices can replace legacy playout infrastructures is due to the ever-growing power of standard IT hardware. The logical next step, then, is to implement the whole process in software, so all the broadcaster – who will almost certainly own a rack or two of blade server power – needs do is buy a licence for the channel.
So, now we have the channel without a box.
The whole process is virtualised. To the broadcaster, this means another step change in channel agility. No need to wait for days to get a channel on air – now it can be implemented in moments simply by entering a software key. You could even have a channel template, so the planning is almost instant.
For the vendor this means a shift in the business case. No longer are you selling hardware, which has a clear and visible value. Now you are selling a licence, which might be for a relatively short period. Think of the pop-up channel for a sporting event – a really flexible vendor will offer licence pricing for just the few weeks that the channel is on air.
In that application, and in many others, licencing for use would match the broadcaster’s business model. That makes the idea of pop-up and experimental channels very attractive.
Moving to the cloud
Is playout from a virtualised environment practical yet?
Inevitably, as soon as someone mentions virtualisation, someone else will mention the cloud. If we can virtualise something as technically demanding as television playout in on-premises hardware, why cannot it be done in the cloud?
At least in theory, it can be achieved. The hardware running inside a cloud processing centre is identical to that running in the in-house processing farm. So from that point of view, the software of the channel without a box can happily run in the cloud.
That said, we are still far away from using cloud playout services just yet. The most obvious point is that content transfer requires a very big pipe, which poses a challenge. It is not just that we want a big pipe, we reliably need a big pipe – audiences expect television to always work, and will not tolerate any freezes or jumps, black or silence.
The transfer has to be seen to be secure too. The prospect of someone interrupting the stream is unacceptable. Malicious hackers could simply disrupt your stream, or worse, add something unpleasant to it. Content owners will also need to be reassured that their intellectual property is being properly safeguarded.
But these are issues that will be overcome in the near future. The big cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services will be able to offer dedicated, firewalled cloud space. They could also provide the dedicated bandwidth. The world of broadcast needs to convince cloud providers to think the way we think.
Realising new revenues
Even today, there is much that can be done with virtualisation and the cloud. Since everything is in the IP domain these days, it is simple to move content, for instance, for distributed playout. That simplifies local insertion of content and commercials also. What was once a single channel is now a fully localised service with tailored regional content attracting more viewers, and local advertising attracting more revenue.
While we tend to think of channel-in-a-box services as automatic, it is perfectly possible to give virtualised and cloud channels full manual control, mixing live and recorded content. Our pop-up sports event channel can include live coverage and debates as well as packaged programming, which means more opportunities for transmitting advertising.
We can also use the “rent by time” model of cloud processing on the next order of magnitude down.
Broadcasters, today, are faced with the challenge of delivering catch-up services on a multitude of platforms, and this is inherently a “lumpy” demand. Sometimes there will be a lot of content to be transcoded, and at times there’s virtually none. Some content – the main evening news, for instance – is expected to be available on demand the instant transmission stops.
Virtualisation is ideal for this. Our software allows for live programmes to be recorded as they are transmitted, and play online as soon as transcoding is complete. To handle the peaks in demand you simply spool up another processor or two, either in your on-premise server farm or in the cloud.
We are close to reaching the point where the technologies and techniques of the IT industry are sufficiently advanced to be able to support most of our requirements, to the level of reliability and predictability that broadcasters (and their audiences) expect. Smart vendors have developed software products that take advantage of this new processing and connectivity power.
There are challenges still to be solved, such as moving large content files into and out of the cloud. But I am sure they will be solved in the near future. The result will be an environment where broadcasters can concentrate on what they do best – building relationships with their audiences – while the underlying technology provides the delivery platform, in a simple and seamless manner.
Karl Mehring is Senior Product Manager for TV Everywhere at Snell.