Williams Puts Last Touches On an All-IP Video Network

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Broadcasters and video producers will soon have the option to ship all of their live or taped video via an all-Internet-protocol network, with the debut of Williams Communications Inc.'s new service.

The Tulsa, Okla.-based network operator has launched an IP MPEG-2 broadcast-video service that can ship both live and stored video content between networks, affiliates and other content owners on both a point-to-point and point-to-multipoint basis.

Williams's Vyvx service already ships video for broadcasters via the company's fiber-optic network. It handles 80 percent of all live pro-sports transmissions and 65 percent of all live news telecasts.

That digital transport was powered by switched asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) methods. But now the system has been upgraded to offer IP transmission.

That's an advantage for broadcasters that want to combine their broadcast and Internet-distribution systems, said Williams product manager for enhanced IP services Curtis Barone.

"One, it enables the broadcasters to deliver not only live, broadcast-quality video across an IP platform, but they can also deliver IP video as files or support their data requirements for it," he said. "Another benefit to this is given that it is the IP platform, it provides an infrastructure for the broadcasters on both sides of the fence in terms of digital production and digital distribution. It helps bridge the gap between [them]."

Williams has already conducted an extended technology trial of the IP-video system. It's now in the early stages of a field trial with a production service.

The company is negotiating with several broadcast groups interested in using the system, but hasn't disclosed their identities, said Barone.

The technology could make life a lot easier for broadcasters, because the process of sending IP files to a server for storage can be automated. That's not the case with videotape.

Many broadcasters have converted to digital video, but content is still transferred via point-to-point circuits, or by shipping digital tapes.

"In the end, at the receiving side, you have a combination of somebody at a tape machine hitting record to record it to tape as well as capturing it to server," Barone said. "What this does is it enables that same type of distribution process, but it's across a terrestrial-based network that enables delivery from a file server into a file server."

Using a terrestrial network to send content — rather than a satellite feed — also allows for two-way communications.

"With a terrestrial network you have bidirectional [capability]," said Williams director of IP solutions architecture Mike Brown. "A lot of these guys are looking at this as enabling new revenue streams, allowing them to create new business relationships with the people they currently do business with, where these new business models require more of an interactive, one-to-one type exchange, instead of one-to-many, where everyone gets the same thing."

The Williams system can transmit video content at speeds greater than 45 megabits per second, comparable to the standard 45 mbps of throughput Williams offers for non-IP video traffic.

Typically, though, broadcasters tend to encode their video for 15 to 20 mbps of throughput, Brown said.

There is a difference in terms of costs. Though he cautioned that it's not a direct comparison, Barone said the cost of full-IP transmission "will be a little more to do that, but you get the flexibility of being able to deliver a live broadcast quality stream or a file-based stream on that same infrastructure."

Dispelling IP's dubious reputation among Internet video schemes may prove to be a bigger challenge.

Broadcasters will not stand for the chronic packet loss and jitter that occurs when video files collide with other types of data on the lawless Internet.

Williams's answer is a multiprotocol label-switching (MPLS) scheme that can give video files the top priority.

"In this case, the video takes priority over any file transfer or any lower-priority traffic," said Brown. "So if, for instance, I have a DS-3 running at 45 [mbps] and I want to send three 15-megabit streams, those will totally lock out the other traffic."

That might sound like a traffic-management headache, but it's "actually pretty straightforward," he added. "We are doing capacity planning, and saying, 'How much priority-one traffic do I have in the network?' and making sure that we always have that much headroom out there."

Even if Williams's system does ease the fears of those wary of IP video, the company does not expect a huge rush for the product right away. Broadcasters must weigh all options in their overall conversion to digital, including the expense of purchasing servers.

"Especially the big six broadcasters, they all have their very own unique and specific ideals about where this industry is going and what's going to be the right solutions and technologies," Barone said. "This is not a scenario where they will all jump on board tomorrow."

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