Fast and Easy

In the late 1990s, Cisco Systems was a darling of the Internet boom. Five years later, it's holding similar sway with broadcasters.

Emmis Communications is the latest to embrace Cisco routing and networking technologies. With the group's 25 TV and 22 radio stations more closely aligned then ever, Emmis has married traditional broadcast engineering and IT.

“Those two areas have truly converged,” says Curtis Taylor, Emmis chief information officer. “There's no more engineering and IT department. It's now just the tech department.”

That's thanks, in part, to Cisco gear. Based on Internet Protocol (IP), whereby video and audio signals are converted into files and then transferred across the group's wide-area network (WAN), it makes a broadcast facility faster and more nimble, says Taylor, making it easier to access data.

The Cisco gear includes 3,550 routing switchers at the stations. Devices at Emmis stations are hooked into the router via Ethernet plugs. Once connected to the router, the device can then exchange data, audio and video files with other equipment on the network. Tandberg encoders and decoders also play a part, helping get content distributed as files by prepping it for ingest onto content servers.

This slick connection gear has practical application to daily broadcast life. The traffic and sales department can now react to changes more quickly and easily. Emmis has set up Private Video Networks (PVNs) on the WAN, making it possible for traffic and sales personnel to dial in from outside the network and watch digitally stored confidence feeds to ensure that a spot ran properly.

But that's just the beginning, says Marty Draper, Emmis vice president of corporate engineering. For example, what if a baseball game requires an alternate traffic log? That can now be changed without having to make a trip into the station, he says. “The user connects to the PVN and tunnels into the traffic system to publish a new log.”

Taylor says that same ease of movement will be used to move content.

“Once it's data, we can share it across any site,” he says. If there is a big story in Hawaii that may have national appeal, for example, Emmis will be able to get video and audio sent immediately to other stations.

That fluidity is a boon to newsgathering, too. A news crew, instead of using microwave or satellite transmission from the field, could edit and complete a package, find a local WiFi hotspot, and send the content to the station.

An additional plus is the cost saving. The new WAN uses three 100-Mbps Metro Ethernet links at a cost of $5,000 per month. Previously, Emmis relied on a combination of microwave and three 45-Mbps DS-3 fiber links at $45,000 a month.

Also, an IP-based system removes the reliance on satellites for content distribution across the country. Cisco Systems Corporate Marketing Manager Marc Froemelt says the system offers more reliability than satellite, which can be disrupted by meteorological events. “Unless you're an ABC or NBC with access to a satellite, you're looking for alternatives,” he says. Cisco also has the ability to deliver every video frame, a major concern for broadcasters.

For Emmis, the next phase is to educate every station on the impact of IP and every staff member, not just engineers, on the importance of strong IT skills. Indeed, jobs in the engineering department now require networking certifications and general knowledge of networking tactics.

Says Taylor, “You can never underestimate the value of training, which is spreading well beyond the tech department.”

He believes that underscores the promise of IP: Using it can mean happier advertisers, more timely news and, hopefully, higher ratings.