Showtime on fibre optics

Showtime on fibre optics

Television news reporting in the 21st century is highly competitive. Here is how one global news provider successfully contracted a leading telco to cut service latency and downtime.

Growing availability of IP-based fibre-optic circuits has presented broadcasting giants such as CNBC, Bloomberg and CNN with more opportunities to beef up service resilience. In an industry where sending timely information to viewers is critical, CNBC recognised its need to further minimise service latency and downtime. Faced with highly demanding network requirements, the company turned to Macquarie Telecom for a scalable and robust solution.

CNBC's relationship with Macquarie Telecom started in 2003 involving delivery of voice traffic between branch studios worldwide. "Unlike other businesses, we cannot settle for compressed audio traffic, although many telcos offer such services at relatively lower rates," says CNBC's senior vice president for operations, Peter Juno.

He explains that as a broadcaster conducting interviews globally, CNBC requires high quality voice communications, which would not be available with audio compression. "While we want to save on costs, we can't compromise on service quality," Juno says. As Macquarie Telecom met CNBC's needs, collaboration between both organisations continued.

Gaining from the bust

The TV network benefited from the dot-com bust during the turn of this century. "Many operators rolled out fibre optic circuits worldwide during the dot-com bubble," Juno says. "When the bubble burst, there was suddenly much unused circuit capacity worldwide and those operators were trying to recover their ROI [return on investment]."

Seizing this opportunity, CNBC put out a request for a proposal for the supply of video services over fibre optics. The broadcaster's New York and London studios would then deliver live and recorded videos to the company's Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore, for re-distribution throughout the region.

However, Juno notes that fibre optics is "neither viable nor economical" for CNBC where broadcasting programmes to multiple customers is concerned. "For example, delivering programmes out of Singapore to 40 million households in the Asia-Pacific through fibre optics is very costly."

In such cases, CNBC provides broadcasting services using satellites, which Juno says is more economical.

Planet-wide services

CNBC uses fibre-optic circuits to deliver services from one branch studio to another worldwide.

"Fibre optics saves us more cost than using satellites for such point-to-point data delivery," Juno says. "The latency from delivering video through fibre optics is less than through satellites, and avoids the terrestrial interference you get with satellites."

In Asia, terrestrial interference to satellite signals mainly come from heavy rains and 'rogue radars' such as passing ships. "Rogue radar is a key issue especially in major shipping hubs like Singapore," Juno notes.

The broadcaster has studios in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney, which deliver data, voice-over IP (VoIP) and video traffic to the company's Singapore studio. "We decided that fibre optics was the solution in this case and Macquarie Telecom won the contract for it," says Juno.

The TV network approached Macquarie Telecom requesting access to multi protocol label switching (MPLS) technology, he says. "MPLS allows us to switch to new applications and change bandwidth allocation quickly, raising our operational efficiency."

"We are confident that Macquarie's technical team can meet our requirements and budget in the Asia-Pacific," Juno says. "Macquarie Telecom also requires its regional partners to provide service standards acceptable to customers like us."

Juno adds that moving video on fibre optics places significant demands on the telco, which needs infrastructure capable of meeting high service-level agreement (SLA) requirements. "Unlike regular services like e-mail where the user is usually unable to discern minute delays in data delivery, our live video services cannot afford lost data packets."

Cost and service

The broadcaster faces the challenge of balancing cost objectives with service-level requirements whenever it selects a telco. "Connectivity with our New York and London studios is not supplied by Macquarie, but a third party telco at a higher requested service level," Juno says.

He explains that for example, the circuit from New York delivers "vast quantities" of CNBC US programmes to the Singapore studio for a 12-hour re-broadcast period daily throughout the Asia-Pacific. "Consequently, we are paying a much higher rate to the third party telco compared with Macquarie Telecom, for this connection."

In Asia however, CNBC has accepted in Juno's words, a "slightly lower SLA" with Macquarie, because the company mainly does live interviews in the region. "Any disruption does not take us off-air, and we can adjust interview slots."

One-stop shop

Before Macquarie Telecom, CNBC's Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney studios relied on local telcos. "The first thing we did when migrating to the Macquarie service was to let go of these local telcos to achieve cost savings," Juno says.

He explains that Macquarie has become a "one-stop shop" for CNBC by providing data and voice services across the same network as live video traffic.

Additionally, it is more costly for CNBC to do one-on-one negotiations over rates with local telcos. Having multiple clients in each country, Macquarie Telecom can negotiate with local telcos on bundled bandwidth and hence lower rates for its own customers, including CNBC.

Varying expectations

Juno declines to disclose details of the SLA with Macquarie concerning downtime acceptance levels. However, he outlined CNBC's expectations.

"While we ask telcos for 99.99 per cent uptime for all services, we understand and accept slightly lower uptime levels for voice services because they are not considered mission-critical," he says. "However, we demand at least 99.99 per cent uptime for video services."

As a client, having to contact call centres whenever something goes wrong is a pain to Juno, who does not feel comfortable explaining problems to "unknown people" and waiting for them to pass on the message to problem fixers.

"Macquarie provides a more personal approach, as my engineering team and I can contact a dedicated account manager, greatly easing communication flow," he says.

Full resilience

Fibre-optic circuits provided by Macquarie have full resilience, or are not vulnerable to a single point of failure, according to Juno. "If the circuit is cut, there will be automatic switching to a standby system."

He adds that the service will notify CNBC when a point of failure occurs on the circuit. However, the automatic switching ensures no noticeable on-air disruptions to viewers.

During the 2006 earthquake off Taiwan's coast, CNBC lost connection with its Hong Kong and London studios. "Fortunately, all our services were restored within half an hour," says Juno.

Juno does not expect the company to experience any disruptions should an earthquake of similar magnitude occur again in the region.

"We are now connected to our Tokyo studio through the Taiwan circuit path and through the mainland China path," he says. "If one path is cut, traffic would be automatically re-routed to the other."

While Macquarie's overall leased bandwidth to CNBC is fixed during the contract period, bandwidth allocation for voice, data and video services may vary depending on changes in the broadcasting giant's needs.

Such flexibility allows CNBC to scale up allocated bandwidth for services where users' demand has increased. For example, less bandwidth may be allocated to voice services but more to video delivery should the need arise. "Our costs will also vary with changes in allocation," Juno says.

Close communication

Additionally, CNBC is unlikely to inform Macquarie of changes to bandwidth allocations at short notice because anticipated adjustments are planned, Juno says.

With close communication between both companies, the response time is "very quick" should changes occur.

He adds that CNBC and Macquarie have systems monitoring and analysing the circuits round-the-clock, to ensure they can handle peak-period traffic.

"We never run at 100 per cent of video bandwidth to avoid data packet losses during peak broadcasting periods," Juno says. "If total usage is expected to exceed overall bandwidth in future, we may re-negotiate the contract with Macquarie."

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