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How Soon Is Now?

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Deciding whether or not to invest in IP-based equipment for the move to UHD is neither a technological nor a financial decision, argues Paul Robson. It all comes down to people.

The broadcast industry is moving to a new Ultra High Definition (UHD) world with IP at its core. Of that there is no doubt. But we're only at the beginning of that journey. As such, I often get asked the question, "When is the right time to invest my company's hard earned cash in these burgeoning technologies?" The answer, like the estimated length of a piece of string, depends on various factors. And before I answer it, let's put the question into some context.

It will come as no real surprise to you to learn that here at Medialease we've noticed a significant uptake in UHD requirements in recent times.

As an asset finance company of some repute we've been helping facilities and broadcasters upgrade their HD infrastructure to UHD and beyond.

Within the post-production realm, UHD is not yet ubiquitous but anyone doing drama or natural history is opting for new monitors, test and measurement devices and increased storage and faster networks that can handle the extra data.

If you look at outside broadcast trucks or TV studios, just about everyone building a new one is considering UHD.

You don't have to take my word for it. According to Devoncroft Partners' research for the IABM, UHD is ranked second in terms of commercial importance to end-users when they consider the next two to three years.

Let's be frank. If you need to build an OB truck right now, there's no value in not jumping to UHD. We're certainly not at the point where you have to discard those HD trucks if you don't need to. But if your product or truck lifecycle is coming to its end, UHD is the only real option.

Where it gets really complicated with OB trucks is how you manage those UHD signals. IP or not IP – that is the question. Or, more specifically: IP, Quad HD or a hybrid of SDI and IP?

It's clear that the big consideration for broadcasters and producers is that they want a one-truck solution – i.e. they want a single truck that creates an HD and UHD output at the same time. That is potentially a lot to squeeze into a small space. Traditional SDI routers have a massive footprint and adding more and more bays of equipment is not ideal.

This immediately suggests that IP is the way forward. An IP core can reduce the weight of a truck, require less cabling and allows the core routing and switching architecture to move to Consumer Off The Shelf (COTS) platforms. Plus, no one wants to buy a 2000x2000 router that might only be viable for another 12 months.

But there is still some reluctance to implement IP-centric workflows simultaneously with UHD.

Troubleshooting is one issue. It is still very difficult to quickly find and analyse problems in the IP realm. Similarly, IP-based equipment is neither proven nor well known. And then there's the thorny issue of interoperability. In a fast turnaround live environment, these are major issues.

One of my clients has just gone down the IP road with their new truck investment, using a single technology vendor's kit in order to ensure interoperability. There are still an awful lot of baseband-to-IP converters involved but the truck is successfully working on live outside broadcasts right now. It was certainly a risk (which is why other firms have opted for a cautious "wait and see" hybrid approach) but it looks to have paid off.

Another client, a large broadcaster who transmits live from around the world, considered carefully the engineering risk and rewards in 2016 and opted to migrate their broadcast systems infrastructure to UHD using Quad HD as they are not willing to "risk anything with IP operability in the field yet."

It's horses for courses, as they say.

As far as I am concerned, however, this is neither a technological nor a financial dilemma. Technology will improve and prices will fall. History shows us that. The big issue, to my mind at least, is people. The move to IP requires staff with the right combination of engineering and IT skills. A state-of-the-art IP-based UHD OB truck is neither use nor ornament unless it has someone to operate it.

My advice? If you need to upgrade right now, go UHD with IP. It should be more efficient and it will protect your investment. But if you can wait for a few more months, do. By the time you need to invest, the IP creases will have been ironed out, HDR and immersive audio standards will have settled down and the workforce will be up-to-speed with IP.

Paul Robson is the Managing Director of the asset finance company Medialease.

This article is also available to read at BFV online here, page 42.


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