New workflow bottlenecks emerging with the move to 4K and SaaS

Have you upgraded to a 4K television yet? Feels like we have barely all made it to 1080p and we already have 4K and soon 8K televisions being marketed to us.  There is a promise of higher resolution, more lifelike images, deeper color, and higher contrast. All of these amazing advancements enhance our viewing experience, but the hidden reality is that the need for bandwidth to deliver such rich content as well as the capacity to store it, is also growing.

It seems like it wasn’t long ago when the storage capacity of a DVD, around 4GB, was enough to store a full-length movie at the highest quality available. Along came HD and a full-length movie grew to 25GB. Now we have 4K movies coming in at 100GB +. In just a couple of years, 8K will push that same 2 hour movie up to over 400GB! Old standards have evolved, and new ones have emerged in order to accommodate this explosive growth trend. Behind the scenes, the need for tools to produce, store, and move this content is evolving just as fast. 

As you can imagine, all this data needs to be stored somewhere. Traditionally, content is stored on-premise in massive storage arrays. However, as content size grows, it’s becoming more difficult to keep on-premise storage in-line with the ever growing capacity needs. On-premise hardware is very costly, requires substantial amounts of space, and can become obsolete very quickly. It is very costly to procure this hardware, let alone scale it at the same rate as the year over year media content growth rate.

Cloud storage such as Amazon S3 and Microsoft Azure Blob provide a very attractive alternative to traditional on premise storage. Cloud storage can scale from storing a very small amount of data to massive volumes of data automatically, while still offering nearly the same (or less) cost of ownership as traditional storage. The per GB per month pricing model is also appealing as it falls in line with the seasonal needs of the broadcast industry.  You only pay for the storage you use, and only when you use it. Because of this, the media and broadcast industry is exploring the option of moving some, or all of their content to the cloud.

This migration of content to the cloud has driven the need for many ISVs (Independent software vendors) to adapt and create SaaS (Software as a Service) solutions. From archiving and storage, to transcoding, workflow,QC, playout and MAM, these services need the fastest possible access to content.

While there is a fantastic ecosystem of services and storage options in the cloud that enable all facets of content production, there remains the ever growing issues of file transfer speeds. For example. although transcoding may now be done in the cloud with a SaaS solution, it must operate on files already stored in the cloud. How do you get those files to the cloud? Traditionally FTP or SFTP was the technology of choice for moving content around. But with the file sizes growing and internet speeds increasing just as fast, it turns out that FTP, due to it’s ever present issues with latency, is not able to keep up. It’s like trying to drive a horse and buggy on the highway.

A whole industry emerged to solve the problem of slow file transfers about 10 years ago. Vendors like FileCatalyst pioneered accelerated file transfer, when the transition to HD was in full swing. Since then the files have gotten larger, and network speeds faster. Hence the need for accelerated file transfer solutions has increased exponentially. There is a large number of accelerated file transfer solutions available from open source technologies to commercial solutions. These solutions guarantee that your files will be delivered as fast as possible from one location to another, recovering valuable time. For example, with FTP it could take more than 15 hours to send a 10GB video file (only 8 – 10 minutes of 4K depending on compression) on a 1Gbps link from LA to London. 

However, as traditional media and broadcast ISVs have had to evolve with the shift to SaaS in order to leverage cloud storage, so have file transfer solution vendors. These days, you don’t need to just move your files fast, you need to get them in and out of your cloud storage, be it in Amazon S3, Azure Blob, or some other cloud storage. This is what, among other things, separates basic and open source file transfer solutions from more advanced commercial solutions, the ability to integrate natively with cloud storage. 

If you are already using cloud storage in conjunction with one or more SaaS solutions, or are considering it, and have a need to get content into your storage, an accelerated file transfer solution is definitely something that needs to be considered. The issue of moving 4K (and soon 8K) content into the cloud is a major issue that is only going to compound. Maximizing your ROI means eliminating all the inefficiencies in your new cloud based workflow. Solutions have evolved along with the industry to ensure that the move to cloud storage and SaaS is not going to introduce new bottlenecks to your workflow.

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Beyond Movies: UltraHD Sports & Linear Programming

Sports leagues, advertisers and broadcasters looking to impress sponsors, develop their future technology platform, and impress fans have started to invest in at least a single UltraHD camera rig and production system, capable of producing a predictable pace of premium UltraHD content.  Many distributors today are thinking of delivering this content as demonstrations, with a relatively few offering ongoing services in UltraHD.  Some recent UltraHD content distributed to consumers, including sports and arts content, includes:

  • Sports: Champions League, Barclays Premier League, UEFA Europa League, FA Cup, ICC World Cup, Bundesliga, MLB weekly Showcase games, Notre Dame (US College) football, Olympics (demonstrations), PGA Masters
  • Arts & Culture: Vienna Opera ballet “Le Corsaire”, Madrid Teatro Real Parsifal Opera, J-pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (8K trial)

Many of these events were delivered as one-time experiences. In Pay TV systems, they are most commonly delivered as “applications” or one-time channels made available in the program guide.  However, a shift to live linear channels (which operate on a 24 x 7 basis) has begun.  Many operators with early experiences in launching these UltraHD services have started to migrate from event-based UltraHD programming to ongoing UltraHD programing.  Some operators are broadcasting a single channel, driving consumption around a few sports leagues, and filling in the additional hours with some premium licensed movies, licensed UltraHD demo content, or a combination of the two.  Other operators are jumping straight into two channels, one sports oriented and a second movie oriented.

Some live, linear 4K / UltraHD channels include:

  • Europe: BT Sport Ultra HD, Sky Sport Bundesliga UHD (Sky Germany), Sky Sport UHD (Sky Germany), VRT’s Sporza (KPN / Netherlands)
  • Asia: SKY PerfecTV! 4K Experience (JSAT / Japan), U-max (Korea), KT (Korea), SK Broadband (Korea)
  • North America: DirecTV in 4K, SES Fashion One 4K, SES NASA TV UHD, SES High 4K TV

Over the Top (OTT) services have been early to UltraHD primarily with dramatic and cinematic video-on-demand (VOD) content; increasingly, they are augmenting their platforms to support live UltraHD video and looking for opportunities to showcase their platform capabilities.  YouTube announced in late November that its platform fully supported 4K live streaming, and Amazon’s AWS launched video direct and provides 4K streaming services to a variety of publishers, including major league baseball (via BAMTech).  Amazon has tapped into its Elemental acquisition to support 4K live workflows.

From the Pay TV side, today, operators are not charging directly for UltraHD (4K) content, but there are clear benefits.  UltraHD content is only available to consumers in the highest technology & programming tiers – increasing ARPU.  Indeed, the best argument to separate the UltraHD Sports and Movie channels, rather than dividing the programming by time, is to ensure that subscribers interested in UHD subscribe to both the premium Sports and Movie tiers!  Assuming that UltraHD customers wouldn’t change services to an alternative without UltraHD programming, UltraHD customers will have fewer choices in alternative programming, especially where operators can leverage exclusive content. This leads to reduced churn in the subscriber base.  

From an infrastructure perspective, most operators continue to prefer software based video encoders for their 4K channels.  Many operators are carefully eyeing the development of the DVB Ultra HD Phase 2 specification (just approved in mid-November 2016) and the ATSC 3.0 standards, which are nearing approval.  Addition of elements such as High Dynamic Range (HDR) color, format issues such as 8 versus 10 bits of color.  Ericsson (based on the Envivio products), Ateme and Elemental have been some of the vendors driving UltraHD deployments; Harmonic has been somewhat more quiet.  Ericsson has had some focus on contribution (BT Sport), supports KT SkyLife UltraHD, Telefonica Vivo, and some others.  Ateme has supported a number of French and European demonstrations, RTVE, French distribution of a European football tournament, a football match demonstration for TV Azteca, Brazilian Turner Esporte Interative (contribution) and Eurovision (contribution).  Harmonic supports Claro Chile (America Movil), AsiaSat 4K (based in Hong Kong), SES’s demonstration channels and has engaged with NASA on a variety of UltraHD demonstration and production (as well as VR).  Elemental is public with a large number of broadcasters, including Globosat, Net Brazil, BT, KT, SK Broadband, Tata Sky and DirecTV. 

All in all, the penetration of UltraHD panels is strong enough to justify launching services.  North America will surge from 16% at the end of 2016 to nearly 30% at the end of 2017 and over 60% by the end of 2020.  Western Europe lags North America by about 6 months in terms of adoption, while Asia has pockets of stronger and pockets of weaker adoption.  Operators should be looking at acquiring content rights and structuring their packages to increase ARPU and decrease churn among the highest end consumers within a market.

ABI Research estimates that there are approximately 50 live services worldwide at the end of 2016 including:

  • About 4 broadcast internationally, primarily through SES with 3-5 regional satellites
  • About 24 services in Europe and the Middle East (18 of which are Western Europe)
  • About 6 services in North America
  • About 10 services in Asia 

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