It may have been the major national and international broadcasters who initially led the IP revolution, there’s now plenty of evidence that smaller organisations such as regional broadcasters are catching up - finances permitting, writes David Davies.

We are approaching the end of the first decade of the media IP revolution. Later this year it will be 10 years since the publication of the first version of the AES-67 interoperability standard for networked audio. Given that standard’s subsequent incorporation into SMPTE ST 2110 - the standards suite that now provides the foundation for the industry’s migration to IP - it could be argued that this was the starting point for the IP landscape as we perceive it today.

Steve Reynolds, President at Imagine Communications(1)

Steve Reynolds, Imagine Communications

Inevitably, a lot of the coverage around that milestone will focus on the landmark IP-based initiatives of major national and international broadcasters - but what of the progress made by smaller players, including regional broadcast organisations? With this in mind, IBC 365 spoke to a handful of leading industry vendors and groups to ascertain the appetite for IP at a more local level, and the impact that an increasingly uncertain environment might be having.

Steve Reynolds, President of Imagine Communications, concisely captured the general tenor of the feedback. Acknowledging that budgetary issues are a factor at present, he nonetheless observed that: “We are seeing an increased uptake at the local and regional levels in the broadcast market,” which he attributes to the growing maturity of IP in general and ST 2110 in particular: “There is a lot more core trust now that the technology is seen less as a bleeding-edge development - and so therefore involving a much-reduced emphasis on experimentation - and is instead perceived as something that is becoming easier to deploy.”

‘Not updating to IP for IP’s sake’

To a certain extent, there will always be a trickle-down effect involved in the adoption of any major new technology. The larger broadcasters - often supported by sizable R&D teams - will have the time and resources to explore and add new technologies to their workflows more quickly. Then as confidence grows and price points begin to fall, it’s inevitable that smaller organisations - such as local and regional broadcasters - will start to investigate how they might benefit from the new developments, perhaps by initially experimenting with one service or area of operations.

Read more Protocol Progress: Market for IP innovation sees global maturation

But it’s arguable that IP has had a more nuanced and complex journey because of the major infrastructural investment - from switches to cameras and beyond - it entails. Speaking in his capacity as Head of the Technical Work Group at IP media solutions association the AIMS Alliance, John Mailhot indicated that a like-for-like replacement of SDI by IP would be missing the point - and instead each broadcaster needs to have a clear understanding of what they will gain by moving to IP, and how that fits into their overall renewal cycle.


Prinyar Boon, PHABRIX

“I don’t think anyone is really going to update to IP for IP’s sake; it’s usually accompanied by some form of infrastructural update,” he said. “This often has to do with capacity planning, or the age or size of the [existing] system. Many enterprises will have had big updates some time ago and are now facing issues that mean their core SDI router is quite long in the tooth, so naturally they are going [to look at IP]. But then they need to have a clear idea of [what they want to achieve].”

Prinyar Boon, product manager at PHABRIX, echoed many of these sentiments: “It’s not simply about replacing what you have in the SDI world in a 2110 world. [IP] needs to be part of a roadmap to something more and something interesting. Then are factors such as the depreciation cycle, the capacity to train staff… and the age of the staff, too.”

‘Long lead times and budgetary concerns’

There is no doubt that a comprehensive - and ever-growing - ecosystem of solutions for 2110 environments is now in place. But that doesn’t mean that rapid access to new solutions - especially of IP routers - is guaranteed, and certainly not in the light of the pandemic-era supply chain crisis that is still affecting technology provision around the world.

Tom Fitzgerald(1)

Tom Fitzgerald, Black Box

“Availability of IP routers can still be challenging,” confirmed Boon. “It can be many months of lead time on campus-grade switchers, and up to a year on 2110 switches. So that’s another factor in the mix.”

Emerging out of the pandemic era, there is another pressing matter for many smaller and regional broadcasters: budget. The planned cutbacks to BBC local broadcasting are among the most well-publicised, leading to a wave of strike action in March. But there are plenty of signs elsewhere that both public and private sector broadcasters are being affected by a rapidly changing media landscape in which existing forms of revenue - be it licence fee, subscription or traditional advertising - are under pressure.

It’s no great surprise, then, that there has been an inclination in some quarters to reduce or postpone new investments. Focusing on the US market, Reynolds confirmed that budgetary factors are in evidence “here as well; it’s definitely not a localised phenomenon.” Meanwhile, Mailhot said that “between the pandemic and the general recessionary thing, there has been a tendency to put off [tech] refresh work for a few years.”

However, among some smaller players, these same pressures may also be helping to strengthen the case for using IP. Reynolds pointed to the increasing cost-efficiency of IP infrastructures on a per-point level (port meaning input or output), including for local operators where a “sub-200 port” configuration might be relevant. Moreover, “the infrastructure that you need to put that together [is more accessible], with dozens of vendors who can work to pull it all together. SIs have got a lot smarter about this, too,” said Reynolds.

Simultaneously, the rise of remote, at-home and hybrid production is also heightening the imperative towards IP. As Tom Fitzgerald, KVM product manager for Black Box, remarked: “Broadcasters need to [enable] access to systems, both physical and virtual, from remote locations. This can reduce costs as fewer people have to travel to a live event, for example.”

“The flexibility that a station can get out of an IP infrastructure really resonates with this moment in time,” said Reynolds, alluding to local production opportunities such as more efficient OBs and an ability to cover more stories at any one time. “So while broadcasters clearly have to think about cost, they are also asking questions such as ’What does this enable us to do from the perspective of station operations?’”

Educational emphasis

If all of this points to the IP journey reaching an important milestone, then the recent change in emphasis at one of its primary enablers, the AIMS Alliance, confirms it. Along with continued work on developing the IPMX standards, “which are taking the 2110 work and implementing it with JPEG XS [video compression standard] and other codecs,” Mailhot said that there has been a “shift from being a technology oversight organisation into more of an educational one.” Hence the considerable amount of work now taking place to develop “new education tools that can be used by end-customers to ensure they can deploy these technologies with confidence”.

Access to clear and concise information will undoubtedly be important if IP is to reach its full potential - including among smaller and/or local broadcasters. But in terms of how IP-based production itself is likely to develop in the short to mid term future, the last word goes to Reynolds.

“Hybrid is going to be the main theme for the next few years,” he predicted, “with the [prevailing idea] of being able to have ‘on the ground’ and ‘in the cloud’ operations that are serviced with the one standard technology stack, which will be built around 2110 and JPEG XS. As we move towards virtualised cloud production, there will be a need [for increased flexibility] in terms of being able to run any part of an operation. A unified technology stack will hold the key not just for the smaller operators, but the bigger ones as well.”

Watch More IP Live Production