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Content via IP from the sky

Warner Bros.' agreement to use Pathfire's satellite-delivered–IP technology to send syndicated content to 835 stations puts the studio in the company of ABC's NewsOne and NBC News Channel. They're all believers in the use of Internet Protocol for content delivery. It may also signal a turning point in critical mass for interest in such use of IP.

Granted, with major news organizations like ABC and NBC using IP-based delivery, that is already some serious mass.

Satellite-delivered IP "has been done with news for a while and on the consumer-based market, like satellite multicast," says Tom Geiges, principal systems engineer, new service concepts, for satellite provider Loral Skynet. "So it's a well-developed platform. When you're talking about broadcasting or multicasting, that is where satellite IP for non-real time is extremely effective. And if you know your traffic modeling and time sensitivities, you can get even greater efficiencies."

The use of the word Internet
instantly conjures up images of PCs on a wide-area network sending content back and forth via e-mail or other Internet-based delivery method. But Floyd Christofferson, Pathfire senior vice president, broadcast, explains that, in this instance, IP does not mean Internet.

"In this sense, it means a non–real-time addressable movement of content," he says. "We're using IP over satellite because the Internet would choke on a fraction of this volume of content."

The attractiveness of IP for non–real-time delivery is that it is extremely bandwidth-efficient. And bandwidth-efficiency can turn into cost-efficiency. Sending video content encoded into packets of information requires much less bandwidth than conventional satellite transmission. And, for syndicated content that may arrive days before playout, there is no risk of content's not getting to the station in time for broadcast.

The Warner Bros. setup, which will deliver content from Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, will include Pathfire's multicast server installed at the studio's Content Distribution Center in Los Angeles. According to Christofferson, Warner Bros. will have complete control of the system, although Pathfire's Atlanta facility will monitor the health of every server and router at the 835 stations: "We have a window into the Warner Bros. system, but they are the ones that control it."

NBC News Channel was the first Pathfire customer and has been sending out news items to more than 200 affiliate stations with the system for more than two years.

The system is based on Pathfire's Digital Media Gateway, a modular system that includes receivers, application servers and interfaces that sit at a television station and receive the IP content. Pathfire owns the equipment at the stations.

Stations putting in this system "should be at ease," says Bob Horner, president of NBC News Channel. "It's a style of delivery that is so much more logical than what preceded it."

There is some effort in installing the server and a modest amount of upfront work, he says, adding that it saves much work on a continuing basis. "There is so much less maintenance of tape machines, and there is a welcomed simplification of operating procedures. Yes, it's new, and it may sound a little strange, and people may get nervous about a new piece of technology. But we've been doing it for a couple years now, and it works great."

The trick for syndicators and broadcasters is finding the companies that can provide satellite-delivered IP. "The key item on IP delivery is that satellite has a lot of natural advantages to it," Geiges explains. "The challenge is finding the right business players that become the distributors of that capability."

Loral Skynet is looking to position itself as a generic IP-platform enabler and will have IP capabilities in place later this year, Geiges says. "IP-enabled platforms won't help only in on-band, like Pathfire is doing in Ku-band, but it will be able to be used in C- or Ka-band."

For example, he says, C-band is an extremely reliable frequency band and requires less overhead and retransmission than Ku-band. So, if a one-hour program needs to be delivered in 90 minutes, C-band is the most stable bet. Ku-band, however, is the winner if time sensitivity is not an issue.

"Long-form content," he adds, "will most likely be a tradeoff between a high-performing Ku- or a C-band scenario."

Ka-band will most likely be used for non–time-sensitive acknowledgements and affidavit and management functions sent back to the central hub. Those functions are often done via modem, which creates opportunities for security breaches. Another advantage of Ka-band for return-channel functions is that it doesn't have the bandwidth limitations of broadband.

Satellite-delivered IP offers one similarity to the more familiar capabilities of the Internet: It is addressable to a specific address, which means that, even though the content is delivered via satellite, it can be received only by a station on the address list.

The servers that Pathfire uses play a key role in the process. A combination of Dell and IBM servers is currently used, and Pinnacle ES-100 servers will join the mix and be deployed at The WB-affiliated station that receive Warner Bros. content.

"The WB likes Pathfire and Pinnacle and sees our products as synergistic," says Dan McGee, Pinnacle Systems general manager, Broadcast Solution Group. "So we decided to use a different version of our ES-100 server to build out Pathfire's network."

The ES-100 (which Pathfire will call the 320) will have the same decoder card as other Pathfire servers so that it can receive the content delivered. It also will incorporate other station interfaces and automation functionality.

Among advantages on the station side is that a technician will not need to be pointing a dish and rolling tape. Says Christofferson, "It's an unattended receipt of content that is already show-prepped and has frame-accurate timing," he says. "All of the commercials will be inserted with accurate start times, durations and tagging. In fact, station personnel will be able to log on from home and see if the content is there."