SVGE Analysis: Eurovision offers Flexible route to fibre future

Eurovision – the EBU’s broadcast distribution division – is offering its new live transmission service Flex for use at events including the Rio Olympics and UEFA EURO 2016 Championships. The service, which marries a new set of portable Flex terminals to the Eurovision FiNE global fibre optic network, has been in development for just over a year following a market review by Eurovision.

“We service tier-one major live sports productions right down through short term transmission, newsgathering and streaming solutions,” explains Graham Warren, Director of Network at EBU/Eurovision. “For tier-one organisations and events our service is highly reliable, increasingly reliant on fibre bandwidth (as opposed to satellite) and moving toward very high quality video, some in 4K. This will not change in the short to medium term.

“But while we also service the lower end of the market with streaming solutions, we felt there was a gap in the middle which could be serviced better. This sort of event or organisation requires medium quality video, perhaps with mobility, and is associated with cost effective coverage such as ENG and tier-two sports events.”

Flex is a hybrid IP solution that gives Eurovision customers a cost-effective way to bring content on to the Eurovision global network. It is also designed to provide transmission resources in places where traditional broadcast fibre isn’t available or would be prohibitively expensive.

There are two principal applications. One is for mobile ENG and another for point to point contribution. Eurovision is also looking at providing audio over IP and streaming direct to the internet.

To do all this it has developed a set of Flex-compatible software-driven terminals. These include a mobile backpack solution for bonding up to eight 3G/4G cellular connections and a unit small enough to fit between a camera body and a battery pack that can still offer up to eight 4G modems, a LAN connection, satellite/Ka-Sat/BGAN support and 32 GB of removable storage for recording video locally. There’s a rack-mounted encoder with two bonded Ethernet connections that can be expanded with eight 3G/4G modems and designed as a back-up for SNG trucks.

There are also a series of encoding devices including the Flex IO, a 1U high-IP encoder and decoder terminal, with two Ethernet connections for managing equipment and connecting to public internet or the Eurovision FiNE Network; and the Flex O, a receiving (decoder) edge terminal for two or more simultaneous live broadcast video streams with the ability to connect over fixed networks (Eurovision FiNE, corporate internet, ADSL).

These packages include a service providing access to the Flex web portal, for self-administration and control of maximum bitrate, video resolution and delay as well as management of connections to other Flex receiving terminals.

Eurovision is also developing a software-defined network controller called SON, or self-optimising network. It detects where the Flex terminals are located, captures a stream to the internet automatically – thereby reducing manual intervention – and routes the signal on to its destination selecting the best route possible.

The current Flex online web portal shows user statistics of network use and reliability and will be enhanced with a new version by the end of this year. “It’s a self-provisioned service – there’s no need for a network operations centre,” says Warren.

Higher bandwidth and higher quality

The Netherlands encoding specialist Mobile Viewpoint is Eurovision’s first partner in IP mobile news gathering but the EBU has already lined up other third-parties to provide Flex support. “There are fewer and fewer requests to use satellite and fibre connectivity and more use of the public internet both with ourselves and our competitors,” says Mobile Viewpoint CEO Michel Bais.

(Mobile Viewpoint is separately developing a system with Euromedia Group and Avid that will enable broadcasters to route low-res proxy files via the cloud for remote editing).

The system has already been deployed by Eurovision in the US to cover the presidential campaign. It will next see action during the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Stockholm in May. Flex will provide back-up connections for 28 participating nations for the live-to-air voting segments, in the event that satellite links fail.
“We will provide the point-to-point configuration and will remotely take control of the terminal and flow the signal back to the venue in Stockholm where it is decoded,” says Warren. “This is a major event (viewed by 197 million people in 2015) and we realised that the voting element was less redundant than it could be. Now we’ve added some real solidity to back up the satellite.”

The service will also be deployed in Rio and offered to non-rights holders at stand-up positions in several locations for the Games. The plan is to install mobile hotspots augmenting a broadcaster’s connectivity through the WiFi and/or cellular network and ingest into the Eurovision network.

While the French soccer stadiums playing host to the Euro Championships are well served by fibre, Eurovision will likely offer Flex in a similar way during the UEFA Championships tournament, for news stand-ups outside the venues.

“The service maximises use of any available connectivity at a certain place, captures it to the internet, routes the traffic to our closest POP, and pushes it back to the destination. This happens automatically.”

There are limits. The technology, while fully HD capable, is suited to sports and news type activities at typically less than 15 Mbit/s rather than higher bitrates used for tier-one sports or the outreaches of video quality at 4K.

“Everything points to IP and the importance of software-defined programmable networks as enhancing the degree of flexibility you can achieve with this kind of service,” says Warren. “As the technology evolves and we see a more IT-centric approach in software apps and data centres, it would be reasonable to imagine that, down the line, Eurovision Flex could cope with higher bandwidth and higher quality.”

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