Next-Generation Distribution for PBS

Groundbreaking project shifts network to file-based program delivery
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PBS is setting the pace among broadcasters by moving toward file-based distribution. The project, known as the Next Generation Interconnection System (NGIS), means that PBS can cut down on costly satellite capacity. It also allows PBS member stations to further automate their master-control operations.

Broadcasters will study PBS' foray, as issues like minimizing transmission capacity and automating workflow at the station level are of interest to all.

NGIS is being funded to the tune of $120 million by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In addition to handling program distribution for PBS and its member stations, it will also be used by American Public Television (APT) and the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA).

PBS has received $85 million from Congress, which has allowed it to sign a new deal for satellite capacity and contract for satellite integrated receiver/decoders (IRDs) that will be installed at 176 stations by fall. PBS expects the remaining $35 million to come in 2007, which will allow it to install IP receivers and “catch servers” at stations to receive programming as files delivered over satellite, fiber connections and perhaps even just the Internet.

Eventually, the packet-based transmission scheme will let PBS take advantage of least-cost routing to send content, which could be on satellite or fiber, depending on the application.

Most stations will probably continue to receive their content via satellite; the Internet backchannel allows minor transmission problems to be easily solved. Moreover, the ingest of content as files on the catch servers will streamline station operations, because an incoming file could be easily transferred to a station's playout server under the control of automation software.

There are three major elements to the NGIS project. The first is securing the satellite transport. Second is the terrestrial component, which involves creating a virtual private network (VPN) for stations to send return feeds in non–real-time and installing fiber-optic links from major production facilities and feed points. The last piece is the catch servers, which give PBS a way to deliver non–real-time files to stations.

Phase one is mostly complete. At NAB, PBS announced a 10-year contract with SES Americom for Ku-band capacity on four SES satellites. PBS has also contracted with tech firm Sencore to provide stations with Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB)-based satellite IRDs for the real-time reception of network programming. Those receiver/decoders, which cost around $5,000 to $6,000 apiece, will provide a baseband output for recording on tape decks or video servers and replace aging Motorola DigiCipher II systems.

Moving to IRDs that use the DVB transmission standard was a big consideration. “One of the goals was to move to a non-proprietary platform,” says Jerry Butler, senior director, PBS Interconnection Replacement Office. “DigiCipher was a single-source, proprietary technology.”

Another of PBS' goals for NGIS is to use off-the-shelf hardware wherever possible. One of the front-runners for the catch-server equipment, which ingests and stores video files, is automation-software supplier OmniBus and its iTX content-storage and playout system, which uses standard IT-based storage to replicate video server functions.

PBS demonstrated the iTX system to member stations at its technology conference in Las Vegas prior to NAB. While at NAB, OmniBus declared that iTX had been selected by PBS as the catch server for NGIS, with shipments scheduled for the third quarter. But Ed Caleca, senior VP of technology and operations for PBS, says PBS is still evaluating server vendors, with a decision likely this summer. (OmniBus Senior VP of Sales Dave Polyard confirms that no deal has been signed.)

OmniBus is already working with PBS on ACE, a new multichannel broadcast system designed to allow member stations to take advantage of modular technologies and automated workflows, including remote monitoring of on-air operations from PBS headquarters in Virginia. Other ACE vendors include Omneon Video Networks, Miranda Technologies and Broadview Software.

The NGIS catch servers would run separately from ACE, which is simply a technology option for stations, but could easily transfer files to that system. ACE functions like a “station in a box” and provides a comprehensive solution for playout, automation, master control and data movement. While ACE is configurable to a station's specific needs, a typical six-channel ACE system that provides one high-definition, four standard-def channels and one backup SD channel costs $1.5 million to $1.7 million.

That's a bit expensive for PBS stations that have already invested in a video server or automation system. Since ACE became available last spring, only five stations have implemented the system, although Caleca says six or seven more will soon follow.

The next ACE station will be WHYY Philadelphia, which is spending roughly $2 million on a six-channel ACE setup and an associated StorageTek digital-tape archive. That should be on-air by late June.

Purchasing the ACE system made economic sense for WHYY. “We did not have an automation system running, so we didn't have a large investment for automation,” says Chief Technology Officer Bill Weber. “We also incorporated a powerful library system, as we're very much into building a library of content. When we looked at the cost of buying an automation system in the traditional way and added a library system on top of that, it was approaching the same number.”