Cloud computing benefits for broadcast media industry
Broadcast media players are exploiting the flexibility of cloud computing to drive value-added content offerings
Change is being driven by a broadcast revolution, where video is being transmitted to multiple platforms
Broadcasters like Virgin Media are drawn to the cloud model because it lets them reach specific consumers
UltraViolet launched its cloud-based service in October 2011 with the first movie 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow: II'
The broadcast media market is discovering the business advantages that basing its communications on a cloud model can bring.
Broadcast media is a late convert to cloud computing, but it is proving to be an enthusiastic one. The benefits are especially timely for an industry undergoing a transformation as it embraces the concept of 'TV Everywhere' at the same time as migration to IP networks for transmission.
These two trends fit well together as broadcasting migrates from dedicated (and largely proprietary) infrastructures to IT-based platforms better suited to delivering video to a vast array of devices, rather than just conventional TV sets. This, though, brings challenges: the devices come in all shapes and forms, which increases the complexity of delivering a format at sufficient quality and without consuming an unnecessary amount of bandwidth.
The BBC, for instance, has to support 18 different video formats, and while it does have the necessary expertise and resources, such support can be daunting for smaller providers. These have to compromise by choosing just a few target platforms, restricting their audience as a result. However, now the cloud model is emerging as a solution.
Unfortunately though, one of the factors that makes the cloud model appealing – the enormous bandwidth and storage capacity consumed by video – is also holding it back. For larger operations in particular, the general cloud conundrum is the fact that data has to be uploaded and stored within it, consuming bandwidth in the process.
If a broadcaster delivers video directly to the consumer, for example, that is one transmission. If the cloud is involved in the middle, the video has to be sent twice, and for a large operation that can amount to a lot of money.
At this stage it is worth considering that there are three areas that can benefit from the cloud model: content providers such as the big Hollywood studios; broadcasters including the BBC; and pay-TV operators such as BSkyB.
These categories overlap so that, for example, broadcasters may produce content and pay TV operators may own it. There are also sub-divisions, with some broadcasters being state-funded and others, such as ITV, 'Free to Air'. Commercial broadcasters are funded by advertising.
All of these operators are interested in cloud as a vehicle for reaching as many people as possible, but there are some conflicts of interest. Content owners holding the rights to broadcasts are anxious to avoid the cloud breaking existing agreements. Traditionally, rights to premium content such as movies and sport have been broken down into geographical silos often defined by country or even regions, as has happened in the US.
This can inhibit cloud distribution of video content but it is also an opportunity – the cloud itself can become the 'place' where digital rights are negotiated and applied. The cloud can provide economies of scale in distribution for the content owner by serving multiple distributors, which may be broadcasters or pay-TV operators, avoiding the need to deal with each one in turn.
Secure and trustworthy
The key here is that the cloud must be trusted by the rights holders and have sufficiently rigorous security in place, according to Noureddine Hamdane, executive vice-president for strategy and communication at Viaccess, a France Telecom subsidiary specialising in secure content distribution.
"The cloud model is actually a better option as content owners can use a trusted third party who then can serve many distributors," says Hamdane. "Of course, there is need for robust security for both controlling access from distributors' facilities and for streaming/downloading content to end-user rendering devices.
"Assuming such robust security is in place, a feature such as network PVR [personal video recorder] can definitely be offered to end-users without compromising the content security." Network PVRs enable consumers to record programmes they may want to watch later on the network or 'in the cloud', rather than on in-premises PVRs such as domestic devices.
This aspect of cloud as a rights arbiter could be significant for the whole digital entertainment industry since it can, in principle, allow consumers to access digital content they own or subscribe to anywhere in the world, on any device. This principle is enshrined in the idea of the digital locker, which is being promoted by the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) Group backed by most key players across the industry from movie studios to consumer electronics vendors, with two notable exceptions being Apple and Disney.
This is being done through the UltraViolet initiative, which is intended to give universal access to content wherever people have the rights to it, intending to recreate the value of the traditional DVD or CD. However, there is still some way to go for this to happen; at present subscribers to pay-TV services, for example, cannot access it in, say, a hotel room let alone a TV in another country, and if they can some of the content would be barred.
UltraViolet launched its cloud-based service in October 2011 with the first movie, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2', debuting on the platform in November 2011. This represented a significant step forward for digital content, with the issues still to be resolved being more business than technology related.
Cloud, meanwhile, is also making an impact on individual broadcasters and service providers in distribution. For now, however, larger operations are precluded by cost from adopting the model, as pointed out by Boris Felts, vice president of marketing at Envivio, whose video compression and streaming technology is used by leading providers of pay TV services such as AT&T, Orange, and BSkyB. "It is still too expensive for high volume applications, because of the bandwidth cost of uploading the content and getting it back," Felts says; but for smaller operations the savings in complexity and associated in-house expertise more than make up for the extra bandwidth costs.
Even for large-volume video distribution, the cloud model will show its worth as the cost of bandwidth falls to the point where savings in in-house infrastructure and software development outweigh the transmission costs: a trend that has long been occurring in enterprise ICT.
This will be encouraged by another trend: the ongoing migration of broadcast infrastructure into the data centre, rather than the dedicated plant that has been used traditionally. "In Europe right now we see, for major operators, software and applications running in their own data centre," says Felts.
At the same time, although bandwidth costs are still too high to move the whole operation to external cloud services, less data-intensive functions are being outsourced already.
This can include applications for managing the overall workflow, the handling of metadata describing the content which can help consumers find the programmes they want to watch (including details such as genre), and information such as points in the video stream where adverts can be inserted during the distribution process, as well as weblinks to merchandise retailers.
"We see these processes that don't involve large amounts of traffic migrating to the cloud now," Felts reports.
This hybrid model is likely to prevail for some time, says Stefan De Beule, multimedia solutions director at Alcatel-Lucent, which, as a major supplier of communications technology, focuses on IP video distribution more than traditional broadcasting. "Not every element can or should be moved into the cloud," explains De Beule. "That is why we propose a hybrid architecture where the business logic is moved into the cloud through our MVP Cloud, which provides the central logistics system for multi-screen video publishing. Then video processing, delivery and encryption should be kept local."
At this level the cloud model is becoming increasingly prevalent in broadcasting, believes De Beule. "Broadcasters want to distribute their content via a multitude of online outlets, and the same trend is now also occurring in the more traditional pay-TV world, as pay-TV content is becoming part of an online multiscreen experience." The cloud provides economies of scale here, with an extra dimension for content owners or providers brought by the fact that common infrastructures are increasingly being shared by different distributors. This means that the cloud provides access not just to a common platform, but also to multiple outlets for distribution.
"In other words, one of the advantages of this cloud-based approach is that a real 'content hub' is created, which comes as a benefit to all players involved," says De Beule. "Broadcasters can more easily distribute their content, while telcos and cable operators have easier access to more compelling content. There are now initiatives under way in many countries to set up a 'content hub' to allow this easy sharing of content while ensuring business policies."
Software at speed
Another big potential advantage of the cloud model in broadcasting lies in reducing cost and development time of software, which is becoming important as the field relies increasingly on apps running on PCs, tablets computers or smartphones as well as the proliferating generation of Internet-connected TV sets. Such apps bring interactivity supporting functions like voting on games shows, and also integration of the video with Web-based information and graphics.
Speed to market is becoming vital for pay-TV operators, and the cloud model can score heavily here, according to Tarun Kripalani, platform product manager at Active Video, a US company specialising in cloud broadcasting through its software- based CloudTV platform. "We enable service providers or broadcasters to develop applications only once and get to market faster," is Kripalani's claim. "Instead of spending nine-to-12 months developing and testing, we can do it in a matter of weeks."
This is because the process only has to be done once, rather than separately for each target platform, which could be a particular pay-TV operator's set-top box, or a tablet device like the iPad.
The cloud can also provide access to common applications that most individual operators could not afford on their own, according to Alcatel-Lucent's De Beule. "Customers can benefit from advanced subscriber management services which maintain a detailed subscriber profile for each customer, supporting authentication, payments, preferences, audience measurement, advertising, and customer service needs," he says.
Functions now distributed to set-top boxes on customer premises can also be centralised to improve performance and simplify maintenance, although this may not strictly be a cloud – it may just mean running them in the operator's data centre; again, 'utility' data management services are the underlying enabling technology. The overall thrust, though, is that the case for the cloud model in broadcasting is evidently becoming ever-more compelling, even if it is still in its infancy and awaiting developments such as cheaper bandwidth to achieve its full potential.
Virgin Media taps the cloud for revenues
Virgin Media is one of the first pay-TV operators to exploit its own network infrastructure to provide cloud ICT services outside the broadcasting sector in competition with traditional IT providers. The UK operator has teamed-up with IT hosting vendor Savvis, which will provide computing resources, while Virgin Media contributes high-speed access over the same core infrastructure used to deliver its pay-TV services accessed via its Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) access network.
This bold joint venture is offering virtual data centre services pitched initially at medium-sized enterprises with 250 to 1,000 employees which are big enough to require some form of data centre facility to run business applications, but not so large that they have all the required infrastructure themselves.
As the UK's second largest pay-TV operator after BSkyB, with four million customers and delivering over cable rather than satellite, Virgin Media has developed an extensive fibre based network which is under-used during the business day. "Our network is designed and scaled for peak use based on consumer usage between 6pm and 10pm," notes Virgin Media's chief operating officer Andrew Baron. "Our network is substantially empty at times business customers want to use it."
Although the fibre network does not reach all potential customers, it passes within 50 yards of 85 per cent of them, according to Baron, which is sufficiently close to connect them at 100Mbps over the final coaxial hop using the DOCSIS 3.0 data over HFC technology – enough for most virtual data centre applications.
Share and share alike is profitable
For broadcasters, use of the cloud approach in the sense of shared infrastructure long predates use of the term "cloud". This technology started using high-speed communications in a limited way in the 1980s – or even before – to transmit video between plants or studios, but the cloud era began with the digital revolution in the 1990s as a way of faithfully delivering particular broadcast signals at the physical level, such as coaxial or twisted pair. For broadcasters the network was almost a magic black box, depicted as a blob resembling a cloud on network diagrams, delivering signals reliably to their destination.
The network then did nothing at a higher level, such as changing the bit-rate used to transmit the video or the format in which it is displayed. That has all changed with the network having become the end-to-end infrastructure, and the broadcast platform the 'blob' or cloud within it. The change is being driven by the revolution now taking place in broadcast, where video is being transmitted to multiple platforms rather than just the TV set in the living room. This creates a need to deliver video in many formats and at varying bit rates, as a mobile handset such, as an iPhone, has very different display feed needs from a 60in plasma or LED screen.
This is also where the modern broadcast cloud can score well, by enabling broadcasters or rights holders to pump their content in and have it delivered in the correct format to all the possible end points or platforms, without having to invest in the requisite infrastructure themselves up front.
Clever cloud service providers will find ways to turn themselves into 'mini-telcos' with a portfolio of scalable offerings;. However, as they gravitate toward this uncharted market the prospect of becoming subject to the same regulation that conventional telcos and ISPs are bound by becomes more likely.
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