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INSIGHT: 1st Experiences With All-IP Broadcast Exchange Networks
by Serge Ven Herck, CEO, Newtec Cy

This article describes how the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) has become the first broadcasting union in the world to successfully migrate towards a full IP based integrated Radio and TV exchange system. Three main topics are covered:
  • The evolution of technology that ASBU implemented since the Sydney Olympics in 2000
  • The main advantages that have been experienced during the first six months of operation of the “all-IP” exchange network
  • The way ASBU plans to cope with future technology evolutions

ASBU + The Evolution Of Technology
The first Ordinary General Assembly of Arab States Broadcasting Union convened in February 1969 at Khartoum, Sudan, to officially declare the creation of the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU). The ASBU is a professional, non-profit organization which groups all the Arab governmental radio and television corporations. Since 1996, various Arab privately owned radio and television channels have also become member. The ASBU has been joined by non-Arab, foreign radio and television corporations as Affiliate Members. The ASBU strong professional relationships with international and regional broadcasting unions.

The ASBU members exchange video and radio content amongs each other using what is called a broadcast exchange system. In the old days, this exchange was performed in a straightforward way, transmitting analogue video content over satellite from one member to another member.

In 1999, the ASBU implemented the first fully automated digital audio exchange system over satellite, which contained web based reservation, telephony and intranet functionality.

In 2000, during the Sydney Olympics, the ASBU was the first to exchange video via a digital television exchange network using 8PSK.

In 2002, the ASBU acquired an IP based training system to enable its members to benefit from distance training. The system was set-up in cooperation with the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO). ALECSO is a specialized agency having its headquarters in Tunis with one main mission: enhance and coordinate educational, cultural and educational activities in the Arab world. In 2004, the ASBU achieved another first by transmitting, during the Athens Olympics, fully BISS-E encrypted TV signals.

During all those years, the ASBU relied on Newtec to help develop and introduce those groundbreaking technological evolutions. By introducing those services and those distinct technology platforms during this period of eight years, the ASBU started facing major challenges:
  • How can ASBU introduce new services that are requested by its members, for instance file transfer, intranet access, archiving and VoIP?
  • How can the ASBU increase its revenues by adding other users to its network?
  • How can the cost of the satellite transmission be reduced?
  • How can a small technical team continue to cope with an increasing number of platforms and technological complexity?
  • How can errors, due to manual planning of the transmissions, be reduced?
  • How can capital expenditure into new technologies be limited?
The multichannel, multiplatform universe that is in place with most of the broadcasters and broadcasting unions requires massive investment to keep pace. The cost of keeping up with technology evolutions such as DVB-S2, MPEG-4, VoIP, store and forward, digital archiving, digital file exchange, email and Internet access increasingly fuels the need for a radical change in network architecture. Integrating the video world with the IP world enables the technology revolution, providing a solution to all challenges the ASBU was facing.

Implementing MENOS
The ASBU, Arabsat, and Newtec signed a partnership agreement in June 2006 to develop and implement a revolutionary, cost-effective IP-based satellite exchange service. The goal was clear; provide one network solution that provides one solution to all challenges mentioned before.

The “all-IP” based service was named MENOS (Multimedia Exchange Network Over Satellite) and was launched on Arabsat BADR-4 in Ku-band. MENOS is intended to be used daily by all 28 members and associated members of ASBU in order to exchange real-time or file based radio and TV content. MENOS is an industry revolution as it includes all of the following capabilities:
  • Fully automated radio and TV exchange sessions
  • More efficient transmission of high quality audio and video, reducing satellite usage costs
  • Store and Forward File Transfer using always on broadband connectivity
  • VoIP Voice Coordination Channels
  • Secure Virtual Private Networks
  • Archiving of audio and video content
  • Internet/Intranet access
  • Video and Audio conferencing
  • Distance learning and training
  • Automated billing of consumed services
The new MENOS service is based on one network platform and replaces all previously existing satellite systems used by the ASBU members.

MENOS is fundamentally different. With IP as the core-protocol, all exchanged material transits through a central hub station, which also provides permanent two-way satellite IP connectivity to all remote stations of the members. The multimedia content, whether it is audio, video, or data, can be transmitted in real-time or be transferred as data files. It can also be archived in the central hub station for later access by other stations. The reservation of the bandwidth and the line-up procedure are fully automatic and the uplink stations are smaller and much less expensive than traditional systems. The two-way IP connectivity is ideal for VoIP coordination channels, e-mail exchange, Intranet and Internet access, other collaboration tools and IP services.

MENOS is also unique in the way it uses the satellite capacity. Advanced DVB-S2 modulation technology, combined with the statistical multiplexing of the data, voice, television and radio signals, ensures the optimum efficiency of the bandwidth usage and thus reduces operational costs.

Among MENOS’ key advantages is its deployment of easy-to-use terminals. Once installed, MENOS terminals are connected to the network in an always-on mode. All network services and terminal features are available on a single graphical user interface. Starting a video or audio transmission requires no line-up procedure as the bandwidth reservation is done automatically.

Different types of MENOS remote terminals are available, depending on the type of applications performed at the remote site. Data terminals only provide data and VoIP connectivity and can be used for Internet, Intranet, Private Networks, and interactive collaboration tools. Radio terminals provide all the service of a Data terminal in addition to radio exchange services. Television terminals provide all the service of a Data terminal in addition to television exchange services.

MENOS terminals can also be integrated into mobile units, in the form of DSNG trucks or Fly-Away kits. Through a MENOS certification program, three suppliers have already been accredited to build MENOS DSNG trucks: Sematron (U.K.), OmniGlobe (U.K./Canada) and NDSatcom (Germany).

Another key advantage is the lower terminal cost. As all communications are established via a central hub, MENOS terminals require much less power and smaller dishes (1.2-1.8m) than point-to-point media exchange systems. The transmission equipment in the terminal is IP-based, resulting in an overall terminal cost that is only a fraction of the cost of other types of satellite TV or radio uplinks. This in itself is a revolution in the world of high quality video content transmission.

A MENOS system offers higher flexibility, as the bandwidth is negotiated dynamically or reserved automatically depending on the requested speed of delivery and the nature of the exchanged material. The multimedia material can be stored anywhere in the network, including in a central archiving system where it can be previewed and accessed by any other remote station, via another satellite transmission.

Lower operational costs are obtained by using the most advanced satellite transmission technologies such as DVB-S2. By dynamically sharing the available bandwidth among various applications, MENOS reduces the costs linked to the space segment.

On the ground, operational costs are also kept to a minimum thanks to the ease of use of the terminals and the automation of the network management. The integrated billing and reporting system automatically collects and formats billing and accounting data according to specific business rules.

MENOS is much more than a system to exchange video and audio: it offers an additional source of revenue for the ASBU by allowing the development of many other IP-based services such as Voice over IP (VoIP), corporate VPNs and Internet broadband access services.

The Challenges
The ASBU has held the rights to broadcast the Olympic Games to the Arab region since the Olympics in 1976. With each Olympics, the challenges for the ASBU are increasing. The ASBU needs to ensure a maximum exposure and audience penetration for the Games in the Arab world, and must meet the ASBU members and viewers expectations.

During the 2008 Olympics, this included live TV broadcasts of the major Sports and two daily summaries with Arabic and English commentaries, generated mainly from the IBC (International Broadcasting Centre) in Beijing. The operational challenges for the ASBU were huge in Beijing: logistics, training, and facilities needed to be taken care of for about 165 people, operating a 600 square meter facility at the Beijing IBC.

The 2008 Olympics also saw the first use by the ASBU of Newtec’s MENOS. The introduction of this new automated and ‘all-IP’ platform required implementing new workflows, new coordination and planning methods, and setting up of a 24/7 support organization. Training and communication with all members was important for the new system — not to mention the time differences between Beijing and the Arab world. The technical challenges included the use of the new exchange system with IP and DVB-S2 at its core, archiving all Olympic content and delivering store & forward services and backup scenario’s to the ASBU members.

Some ASBU members also had no direct satellite coverage to China, so a dual-satellite-hop transmission link with the use of Intelsat and Arabsat satellites had to be set-up especially for those members.

While together, the ASBU, Arabsat, and Newtec intensively prepared the implementation of MENOS for the Olympic Games, the timing to realize the project was challenging. In only six months, the entire MENOS system had to be shipped, installed and put into operation. Newtec finalized the installation of the MENOS hub in Algiers in March of 2008. On May 8, 2008, the Olympic Torch Relay was covered and transmitted back to ASBU using Newtec equipment on Mount Everest.

The MENOS system saw customer acceptance in May. ASBU members training began in June 2008 with extensive training workshops, which took place in Oman, Algiers, and Sudan. More than 160 people from the different ASBU members were trained in terminal self-installation and operation. On June 24, 2008, the first live MENOS transmission was realized and in July 2008, testing, planning, and final preparation for the Beijing Olympics was signed off. August 6, 2008, was the beginning of the Games, for both ASBU and MENOS.

In Beijing, the ASBU transmitted Olympic content to viewers in the Arab region using the satellite capacity of Intelsat and Arabsat, and for the very first time, transmitted over IP and DVB-S2 via the brand new ASBU-MENOS system. Based at the Beijing International Broadcast Centre, ASBU exchanged an average of 55 hours of programming per day, over 11 satellite channels and two MENOS channels, which were continuously archived and redistributed over the MENOS system. The automatic archiving capability of MENOS proved to be particularly efficient to assist the ASBU members in their coverage of the Games.

MENOS at the 2008 Olympics represented a major step forward that boosts the ASBUs services to its members, and opens up many more possibilities.It was seen as a very successful Olympics for ASBU and its broadcasters:
  • 19 days of support and coverage of Beijing 2008, using 11 satellites
  • Offering 55 hours of programming a day
  • 115 sessions were booked and transmitted using MENOS
  • 223 hours of TV content was exchanged using the MENOS network
  • 223 hours of TV content was archived into the central storage server
  • 10 operational MENOS ground stations took part in Sudan, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Lebanon, Tunis and Algiers
After six months of ASBU working with MENOS, the system has proven to be very reliable, also including outstanding performance and quality of satellite VoIP. Thanks to the fully automated way of working, the manual amount of work for coordination and administration has reduced tremendously. ASBU members were quick to use the web based automated booking system and the automatic archiving, as well as the store and forward services. The local storage capacity on the MENOS terminals also proved particularly efficient in helping the members’ operations. The deployment of MENOS is set to have a substantial impact on ASBU’s operation, with a steadily growing revenue stream from services, and reduced operating expenditure, thanks to the implementation of one “all-IP” platform. Operational skills of the technical support team are increasingly transitioning toward the IP and ICT domains. The extended service provider role of the broadcast organization requires an adapted organization, as MENOS is set to transform the traditional broadcasting union business model.

Future Technology Evolutions
Looking to the future, MENOS will help ASBU incorporate future technology changes, as the star topology of MENOS and the ‘All-IP’ approach allows faster technology introductions, including the expected switch from MPEG2 to MPEG4, the evolution from SD to HD, moving to file based fast news gathering over IP and ever further satellite bandwidth optimizations. Future service expansion will include fast file transfer, distance education and more efficient and feature rich collaboration tools. Expanding the ASBU MENOS network to other customers is also on the horizon, as the role of ASBU is extending to be a service provider also offering MENOS services to non-ASBU members. In addition, ASBU sees benefits for local broadcasters exchanging content within the country of origin, reaping the benefits that MENOS has to offer.

According to Abdelrahim Suleiman, ASBU’s technical director, from the opening ceremony onwards, MENOS played a key role in archiving and redistributing two major feeds from the Beijing Olympics and was a crucial element in the successful coverage of the event for ASBU members. Newtec will be presenting this information during the upcoming BroadcastAsia 2009 conference — see below...