PBS Pushes File-Based Future

PBS wants to make delivering a one-hour high-definition documentary to its member stations as easy as sending them a text e-mail.

So the public broadcaster has issued a “request for proposal” (RFP) for an Internet Protocol (IP)-based system that would transmit programs as compressed digital files to more than 180 public-television stations, instead of sending them via satellite as real-time program feeds that need to be physically recorded by a video server or tape deck.

The “Non-Real-Time File Distribution” project represents the second phase of PBS' “Next-Generation Interconnection System” (NGIS), a $120 million initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting whose goal is to put a program-delivery system in place that will last PBS for the next 10 years.

PBS currently delivers about 200 hours of programming, only a small portion of which is live feeds “passed through” and broadcast locally at the same time. Instead, most of the content that PBS delivers isn't broadcast for days, sometimes weeks; sometimes, it will be shown twice during a 24-hour period to fill airtime. It all needs to be recorded, stored and managed by the stations.

In the new system, files would be received and stored on a “cache” server, basically a digital mailbox, which would then communicate with traffic systems to transfer files to playout servers for broadcast or to archive systems for storage. The entire system, which PBS would like to have operational by December 2008, would be connected via a secure wide area network (WAN) that would link back to PBS headquarters in Virginia and allow PBS to control the flow of content to the cache server.

The benefit of such a system is that it could reduce the amount of satellite capacity the broadcaster requires for program delivery, because a file can be sent at slower-than-real-time speed to limit bandwidth requirements. Stations could fix errors in program files by requesting missing packets through the WAN, without having to re-record a satellite feed or request a taped copy to be sent.

And the file-based system, which will comply with industry standards such as the Material Exchange Format (MXF) to ensure interoperability between devices, would further automate the program-ingest, playout and archiving processes and potentially reduce stations' operating costs.

The first phase of the Non-Real-Time File Distribution project was completed in January. That phase secured new satellite capacity with SES Americom and converted PBS' real-time distribution from proprietary Motorola DigiCipher II systems to Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB)-based satellite IRDs from Sencore. The second phase, the non–real-time system, began in May 2005 when PBS issued an initial RFP, but it was delayed last year when Congress held back some $35 million in funding for the project.

That remaining money has come in, and PBS is now ready to do business. The new RFP, which gives detailed requirements relating to workflows at stations, was issued on May 31, and responses are due July 2. PBS would like to decide by October, says Jerry Butler, senior director of PBS' interconnection replacement office, and begin beta testing at a few stations by late fourth quarter.

The RFP is expected to draw responses from all the major server and automation vendors, some of which may submit joint proposals. PBS is looking for quotes on some 370 cache servers (including backup units for each station), as well as associated software that would permit communication with existing traffic systems for file transfer. Each cache server should have 4-6 terabytes (TB) of storage, enough to store 10 days' worth of programming, and comply with the MXF standard to allow interoperation with existing servers and automation software.

Getting such a cache server to communicate with playout servers and traffic and automation software shouldn't be too big a challenge, says Steve Krant, VP of sales and marketing for automation supplier Sundance Digital, one of the bidding vendors. He says the software required would be similar to software that Sundance has developed to interface with Pathfire and DG Systems cache servers already used to deliver syndicated content and commercials.

PBS estimates that about 150 hours of content a week will be sent through the non–real-time system, with 50 hours continuing in real-time mode. The broadcaster wants to be able to send programs two days before air date and keep them on the cache for seven days afterwards, at which point they would be purged from the cache at PBS' direction. Stations won't be able to input content into the cache or erase it, just pull particular programs. While that has been a “bone of contention” among stations that would like a more flexible box, says Bruce Jacobs, chief technologist at Twin Cities Public Television, it is necessary.

“I think PBS is approaching this exactly the right way,” says Jacobs, a member of PBS' enterprise technology advisory committee and chair of its NGIS subcommittee. “You have to know you have enough space for arriving content, so you have to control what's in the cache. I encourage people to think of this not as an archive but as a mailbox. And like a mailbox, it has limited space.”

Some 50-75 PBS stations still don't have a playout server or automation and thus wouldn't be able to utilize the file-based system. So within the RFP, PBS is also asking for fresh quotes on playout servers, automation and archive systems. The purchase of that hardware may be up to the station, or it may be funded out of the NGIS program or through other federal grants, says Butler.

OmniBus, which said its ITX system was PBS' choice for the NGIS cache server last year but was never awarded a deal because of the lack of funding, wouldn't comment on the new RFP.

But Omneon Executive Chairman Larry Kaplan confirmed that his company, which already has the biggest market share for playout servers among public broadcasters, will be actively going after the NGIS project. “We're very interested, and we believe we have a very competitive offering,” he says, adding that MediaDeck, a low-cost (under $36,000) server with 4 TB of storage introduced at NAB, “was designed with PBS in mind.”

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