Live from London: Lau, NBC Olympics proving potential of IP Multicast

NBC Olympics operations and facilities at the IBC in London look and feel very similar to its operations in both Vancouver and Beijing. But beneath the hood, one will find a variety of new technologies that have helped the network make the move to completely file-based operations and, thanks to an IP-based routing and networking facility, a more flexible and dynamic operation.

“This is the digital and multicast games, as we have more circuits than ever before,” says Craig Lau, NBC Olympics, VP of technology. “The network complexity has grown dynamically. In 2000 at the Sydney Olympics, we had a few VS3 and T1 circuits, and now we have dual 10 Gbps pipes. It’s like going from a couple of SD channels to thousands of HD channels.”

The massive 10 Gbps pipes are a major reason NBC Olympics will deliver more than 5,500 hours of Olympic action to viewers via TV and the Internet in a little under three weeks. That works out to more than 275 hours of content available each day.

An important technical partner for the effort is Cisco. NBC is relying on a converged IP network to help transport thousands of video assets within the London IBC and venues and to facilities in New York and Los Angeles. For example, the NBC Highlights Factory at 30 Rock in New York City can select clips and edit content, even as recording is still ongoing in London.

“The circuit chart used to be a quarter of what it is now,” adds Lau. “With content being sent to YouTube, VOD, live streaming, and broadcast, the complexity of how we route signals has become a whole new challenge.”

And getting operations steady was not without its learning curve. “Multicast routing surprised both us and Cisco, because most of the signals want to take optimal paths,” he explains. “But we want to route signals down the paths we want them to go, and getting a signal to take that path is not always easy.”

An event the size and scale of an Olympics can also make it difficult to kick the tires on a system completely. It’s not until the massive number of feeds (close to 90) begin crisscrossing the network can one know just how well it will hold up.

“This really becomes our lab because all the testing we can do is on a singular scale,” Lau says. “It’s difficult to test the amount of feeds and equipment on the network, including the EVS and Avid systems as well as 25 different remote sites and everything else at the IBC.”

Benefits to all
IP multicasting is doing more than just improve distribution of content for the production team. It also improves the way the entire NBC family, including sales and marketing personnel, can watch content, because it no longer needs to be dubbed off tapes or DVDs. With the use of Cisco’s Videoscape platform, NBC Olympics is able to deliver six live TV feeds of coverage to smartphones and tablets and to hotel hospitality suites. Complete will full DVR functionality, the system allows users to call up Olympic competition on demand, as well as feature stories and even promotional videos for the Sochi 2014 Games.

That last ability comes in handy for sales executives, who previously would need to pop in videotapes and DVDs. Now they simple pick up the remote, click on the VOD menu, launch the Sochi promo video, and start talking about marketing opportunities for 2014. And all at 17 Mbps.

“It makes all the content available to anyone,” adds Lau.

Like the sales teams, he is already thinking about the Sochi Winter Olympics, which are less than 18 months away, and bandwidth, he says, could be an issue compared with London. And then there is the need to study IP multicast more closely and better understand it.

“We almost need a database to track the source of the video signals, the IP addresses of the components in the chain, and where the signal is going to,” he explains. “We may build an application to make sure we can track the network more closely.”

And one of the early races featuring Missy Franklin, a swimmer from Colorado, turned out to be a proving ground for IP multicasting. KUSA Denver approached NBC Olympics about getting a feed of the race live to the station so that family and friends of Franklin could watch it. The first thought was to use satellite but, instead,  a private YouTube channel was created.

“Ten minutes later, the feed was at KUSA. It was pretty amazing,” says Lau. “Tthe general manager asked if there was anything he could do for us, and I said, sure, tape it so that, if she wins, we have the reaction of the crowd. It was a great emotional segment facilitated by our ability to send the feed over the Web.”

The KUSA Denver delivery mechanism and the ability for NBC Olympics personnel to have access to a wealth of content on demand via tablets and IP streaming to HDTV sets hints at the future of broadcast TV. There are still plenty of issues in allowing consumers similar access to content, not the least of which is the cost to the provider for serving out concurrent streams of one event to millions of viewers. More important, that simultaneous hit could cripple the streaming-system backbone and have a negative impact on image and sound quality.

“The capacity is not there yet on the Web, as there are still places in the U.S., like farmland areas, where TV is still pervasive,” adds Lau. “We are still about eight to 10 years from IP multicast being that pervasive. But, as WiFi gets better and better and the industry learns how to load-balance the system, companies like Cisco and others will move more in that direction.”

And it’s pretty clear that content creators and distributors will move along with the technology providers to that new world.

“Ultimately, there are so many channels of content out there and a variety of ways to get them,” says Lau. “So everything has to converge sooner or later, and the cloud is the perfect place. But everything is heading in [the direction of anytime, anyplace].”

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