US sports networks “better together” in shift from satellite to IP

August 17, 2020

By Steve Payne, SVP & Regional Head, Americas, MediaKind

When it comes to the delivery of premium live sports content in the US, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the dominance of satellite in backhauling the signals. It continues to deliver high quality video in a controlled, secure and reliable way. But the soaring demand for live content comes at a price for traditional satellite broadcasters; namely less availability of satellite capacity at a higher price, alongside more mature network distribution equipment.

The digital evolution has meant the industry is adapting quicker than ever before. Viewers now have access to a slate of rivalling and expanding programming with an array of choices from linear to digital and subscription video on-demand (SVoD) services. The expectation is for these services to be delivered in the highest possible picture quality, without lag, and in a reliable and compelling manner.

Sports broadcasters face starker competition for eyeballs than ever before, notwithstanding the unique challenges attached to the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of live events. But these limitations have driven creativity, and we have been so encouraged by the resilience and ingenuity of our customers and partners to maintain their standard of service and keep their signal on the air via remote working policies and reduced onsite staff.

Innovative technology solutions are improving workflows to cater to this burgeoning consumer demand and offer dual, hybrid environments to work within. At the same time, new, low risk commercial services are emerging and enabling sports networks in North America to leverage cloud technologies and SaaS models to become more flexible, agile and operationally efficient.

Cloud transition

IP (Internet Protocol) and cloud are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably – but they actually refer to different aspects of the ecosystem. Yes, IP is inherently the practical infrastructure to use if you are implementing microservices and cloud-based solutions, but they are not synonymous. Broadcasters in North America are in various stages of both their IP transformation and their adoption of cloud-based technologies.

The industry is ready for sports broadcasters to migrate from satellite to IP signal delivery in order to reach their audiences. Broadcasters and media operators have already started the transition to better integrate and deliver live content using IP and cloud-based solutions, while still employing traditional industry-specific hardware.

When we look at the CAPEX to OPEX solutions, the value in IP and cloud delivery is clear – from cost efficiency, mitigation of reduced satellite bandwidth due to the reallocation of frequency bands, and not to mention the flexibility for future technology applications. IP also opens up new avenues through back channel capability, enabling new features including content replacement or regional advertising. Traditional sports networks in North America must capitalize on these opportunities to be more competitive and to continue what they do best: providing fans with compelling, high quality live content.

Best of breed – a dying notion?

Broadcasters are increasingly looking for flexible, direct-to-consumer offerings that can be deployed in either public or private cloud. Conversely, we also understand that moving away from existing industry-specific, hardware-based infrastructure to cloud-enabled, microservices-based software can be a complex process to navigate for broadcasters.

There will always be a “better together” notion when it comes to selecting technology partners, and the ability to choose best-of-breed solutions that embrace openness of new technologies will supersede any past notion of vendor lock-ins.

When we used to speak of best-of-breed technologies, this traditionally referred to hardware – but this is a dying notion. Instead, it’s now about creating choice: not only for the viewer, but also in terms of ways of working and infrastructure, and that’s what we are doing for our customers.

End-to-end products and services do not necessarily mean sacrificing best-of-breed technologies in all cases, but ultimately, it is a case of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. We believe our customers have a preference for open, standards-based solutions that avoid vendor lock-in, as this has historically reduced issues with a lack of compatibility across their different broadcast operations.

The future of broadcast

The relationship between vendors and content providers must now be one of open collaboration and partnership – and our solutions reflect this. They have been designed to include support for technologies such as HEVC and 4K to enable broadcasters to migrate their full operations and distribution methods today, at a pace that best suits their needs.

Whether they wish to deliver their content through purpose-built hardware or commercial off-the-shelf bare-metal servers, private or public cloud, we don’t force a forklift upgrade approach. Our focus is to help them select the best technology and provide completely portable, cloud-native architectures that offer the flexibility to accommodate any business model.

Looking ahead to the next 12-18 months, we believe we will see more broadcasters move to IP over fiber signal delivery – as well as cloud and open internet – and away from traditional satellite distribution and contribution. This will bring a renewed focus around the need for reliable transmission and content protection, and therefore protocols such as RIST, SRT and Zixi.

In the more immediate term, I’m looking forward to the continued return of live sports in the US. In the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen the restart of the MLB, NHL, and both NBA and WNBA, which is fantastic for our industry. IP and cloud technologies have played a major role in enabling this coverage and in bringing happiness to the homes of millions of sports fans. Bottom line? Whatever delivery methods we use in the future, the live sports experience must always be accessible, reliable and in the highest possible quality.