LAS VEGAS—We are in the age of software-defined everything—networking, storage, infrastructure, data centers. Now get ready for software-defined television. “SD-TV” is not hype. It’s a reality that’s coming soon to television studios and living rooms near you.
It’s happening on two fronts. First, as was apparent all over the million square feet of exhibit space here at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) 2016 show, Internet Protocol is taking over as the future of video production and distribution.
A new industry consortium, the Alliance for IP Media Solutions (AIMS), announced the support of more than 30 members, including production and delivery platforms (Grass Valley, Imagine), networks (21st Century Fox, CBS) and, most significantly, IT vendors (Cisco, Arista), which are getting into broadcasting like never before.
AIMS is not a standards body, but is coordinating several standards into a cohesive road map for implementing IP standards into products so there is a seamless IP path from “glass to glass,” from the camera to the TV set, and also creating a transition plan for broadcasters from the legacy SDI (Serial Digital Interface) standard to IP.
IP means that broadcasters can buy commercial IT equipment off-the-shelf instead of closed, proprietary gear, which will save money, but that is not the real driver of IP adoption. One of the major forces behind the transition to IP is Imagine Communications, which last year began migrating the broadcast operations of Disney, along with the ABC Network, to a virtual cloud environment. That work is still proceeding, but the trend is inevitable, Imagine CEO Charlie Vogt told me.
“The goal all along is less about cost efficiencies and more about how we accelerate the ability to generate more revenue,” he said. “The main driver is Internet and IP. With AIMS, we saw the need to create an ecosystem of equipment suppliers in this space to adhere to standards to pave the way to innovation.”
Also, like the telcos adopting SDN and NFV, the real opportunity for disaggregating hardware and software is enabling the ability to respond to a fundamental customer demand—to watch any content they want on any device at any time, anywhere.
“Whether the industry saves money is a trivial question,” said Brad Gilmer, Executive Director of the Advanced Media Workflow Association (AMWA), one of the standards bodies working with AIMS. “The point is broadcasters can’t go back. They are doing things [with IP] that would have been impossible in a pure SDI infrastructure.” Plus, he added, younger viewers are watching more TV on devices rather than on the real thing.
The second major trend hopes to do something about improving the viewing experience on televisions.
New Standards Soon to Bring Software-Defined TV to Your Living Room
The broadcasting industry is on the verge of adopting ATSC 3.0, a next generation, IP-based, over-the-air broadcast standard that can deliver UHD TV to any television with a compatible tuner.
People of a certain age, including me, who remember the day when TV was three channels on a TV with aerials and vertical-hold problems will appreciate the idea of getting hundreds of streams or channels of 4k programming. People currently shackled to cable, Internet or satellite providers will appreciate the ability to get free content without fees, hassles, and throttling.
ATSC 3.0 would replace the current digital tuner standard, ATSC 1.0, which has been used since the digital switchover of 2009. The new standard enables better data rates over longer distances, with greater penetration than the existing signal—and programmability.
It’s being rolled out first in South Korea, which has pushed for the standard to be ready for broadcasting the 2017 Winter Olympics in Seoul. Over the next few years, as TV makers as well as phone and device makers start adding ATSC 3.0-compatible turners to their products and broadcasters start sending out content on 3.0, stakeholders say, consumers will really start cutting the cord.
Those stakeholders can’t predict how things will shake out when that happens, but they do believe that all current means of delivering content, from cable Internet to satellite to wireless broadband, get called into question.
“The transition to digital left the [broadcasting] business essentially unchanged, with few options to be competitive. This is a reset, a massive reset,” said Mark Aitken, vice president of Advanced Technology for the Sinclair Broadcast Group. What started out as an effort to merely advance the digital standard is going “to reinvent the nature of the industry, not as TV but as a different kind of wireless provider.”
That is the potential, certainly. The broadcasting industry has a great opportunity to bring back the good old days when the networks ruled the world. Success will depend on how well they adapt to the change this is going on all around broadcasters.
Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. He has an extensive background in the technology field. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture, at TechTarget. Before that, he was the director, Editorial Operations, at Ziff Davis Enterprise. While at Ziff Davis Media, he was a writer and editor at eWEEK. No investment advice is offered in his blog. All duties are disclaimed. Scot works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.