Level 3 Tests Uncompressed HD For NFL Feeds

For this National Football League season, transmission services provider Level 3 Communications is testing the delivery of uncompressed high-definition feeds of Denver Broncos home games from Invesco Field to the broadcaster carrying the game, using its Vyvx national fiber-optic network.

The feeds rely on the same fiber-optic links into Invesco Field that were used in coverage of the 2008 Democratic National Convention and are sent with High Bit Rate Audio Visual IP (HBRAV-IP) technology, which Level 3 is pushing to be standardized by SMPTE. The goal of the 1.5 gigabit-per-second backhauls, say Level 3 executives, is to deliver better quality than the existing compressed feeds used for sports coverage, which generally run in the 270 megabit or 45 megabit per second range, and remove the complexity of encoding and decoding the signal at either end of the transmission path.

CBS, which as the American Football Conference rights-holder has five Bronco home games on its broadcast schedule, has agreed to participate in the trial by backhauling the uncompressed feeds to the CBS Broadcast Center in New York.

Level 3 has tested uncompressed HD backhauls in the lab before, but this is its first time doing long-haul transport of 1.5 gigabit signals. Denver was picked as the starting point because Level 3 enjoys good local connectivity there, and if the Broncos’ uncompressed feeds are successful, Level 3 aims to backhaul NBA games from the Pepsi Center in a similar fashion. But Level 3 also has multiple 10-gigabit per second links running between major cities across the U.S., and could extend the capability to other cities. One of those could be Miami, where CBS will be covering the Super Bowl in February.

“This is allowing us to test new technology with vendors in a live environment, and gauge our customers’ interest,” says Derek Anderson, senior product director for Level 3’s Vyvx business.

Level 3 won’t say which NFL rightsholders have used, or plan to use, the uncompressed service this season. But CBS confirmed it is participating in the trial to evaluate the quality difference compared to its standard 270 megabit links. After monitoring it during the first three quarters of the Sept. 20 game between the Broncos and Cleveland Browns, the network did go to the uncompressed feed during parts of the fourth quarter.

“It looked wonderful,” says Bob Mincieli, director of broadcast operations for CBS Sports. Mincieli says that if the uncompressed link looks as good in pre-game monitoring this Sunday, CBS is likely to use it again during the pivotal matchup between the Broncos and the New England Patriots.

CBS already has experience with uncompressed HD backhauls over a short distance. For the past three years, the network has used Verizon fiber links to transmit 1.5 gigabit-per-second feeds of the U.S. Open from the U.S. Tennis Center in Queens to the broadcast center in New York.

But the operational and financial considerations are different for a long-haul feed, says CBS vice president of broadcast distribution Brent Stranathan. For one thing, where CBS can’t get redundant fiber paths from a venue it uses satellite as a backup, and that requires compressing down to 45 megabits per second. CBS already has invested in Harris NetVX MPEG-2 encoders for that purpose, and it wouldn’t just throw those relatively new encoders away because uncompressed HD links are available. Stranathan notes that Level 3 also has yet to discuss pricing for the 1.5 gigabit service.

“For long haul this is the first time that it’s being attempted, and it’s still a little premature to weigh in on the viability of it,” says Stranathan. “If they want to double the price, it may not be worth it.”