SVG Sit-Down: Level 3’s Derek Anderson on At-Home Production, the Changing Media Landscape

More live sports content is being produced and distributed to fans today than ever. New live-streaming solutions allow lower-tier college and regional sports events to be delivered cost-effectively, and the rise of “at-home” production is enabling a content creator to locate large chunks of production at its broadcast center rather than onsite, saving on everything from travel costs to equipment investment.  

However, none of these workflows are possible without reliable and efficient connectivity, which is where Level 3 Communications comes in. SVG sat down with Level 3 Principal Solutions Architect Derek Anderson to discuss how the company is enabling these next-gen production workflows, the potential impact of 4K/UHD on its network, the promise of eSports, and rising interest in contribution/distribution of sports events via the public Internet.

Are you seeing growth in at-home workflows for live sports productions, and what role can Level 3 play in providing the connectivity necessary for such operations?
We are absolutely now at the tipping point of [at-home production] exploding. Many of our major and some even smaller customers are moving toward some flavor of at-home production. It ties into what I believe is the most significant technology and service evolution in the broadcast business: the move to a native-IP and Ethernet-centric model. This means converged services and support of your classic video transmission alongside the data piece.

Derek Anderson, Principal Solutions Architect, Level 3 Communications

Derek Anderson, Principal Solutions Architect, Level 3 Communications

What is clear is, there is no uniformity when it comes to at-home production. Different customers have different definitions, and, even within an individual broadcaster, they’ll have different workflows defined for different properties, such as international vs. domestic or tier-one vs. tier-two events. We’ve seen examples ranging as low as [home-running] four camera feeds, basic camera tally, and comms all the way up to 20 camera feeds and full graphics workflows. So our approach from a services and technology standpoint will be to provide a base architecture that is scalable, flexible, and dynamic, which allows customers to use what they need when they need it. Our strategy is very much pinned on the fact that it’s not one size fits all. If we can provide the underlying network infrastructure to provide that dynamic and flexible service set, then we’re able to meet the widely varying needs of all our at-home-production customers.

Are more clients exploring Internet-based transmission solutions for lower-tier sports, as opposed to traditional fiber and satellite contribution/distribution services?
Yes, that is absolutely is something we are seeing. We launched our Vyvx Internet Access product set last year targeting that market. In terms of total overall numbers within the sports domain, it’s still small, but it’s definitely growing, and I would say most, if not all of our major broadcast customers are talking to us about that. Certain properties and events are looking at lowering costs, so using Internet-based services with the right technology absolutely makes sense.

We would expect that trend to continue, and it goes back to something I’ve talked about for a while, which is a widening gulf between the lower-end productions and the higher-end. The big events are getting bigger, and the smaller events are getting smaller. There is a growing demand for acquiring more content from [lower-profile] events, and, if you’ve got lower-cost solutions to acquire that content, then it becomes feasible to produce and distribute that event. Add with all of the OTT platforms and the audience fragmentation, and you can see why we think that Internet[-based delivery] is going to continue to grow.

Are you seeing increased demand for transmission of 4K/UHD content? Do you expect to see increased demand over the next 12 months?
Yes, I do. I think 4K definitely feels more real than 3D, and it’s much more than just a fad. Having said that, we definitely haven’t yet hit the tipping point [that we saw in] other big transitions in the past. In the SD-to-HD transition, there was a point where, clearly, the pendulum swung to HD and everyone was adopting and investing in it heavily. Today, for 4K, the conversations we are having are still more on the planning stages as opposed to investing and full-blown infrastructure and implementations.

From the Level 3 perspective, we are ready for 4K today because, at the end of the day, 4K just means more content and more bits. We are also always advancing on the compression side so that we’ve got a technology infrastructure to support that.

I think everyone knows that 4K/UHD content delivered via OTT is a more near-term reality, since the broadband infrastructure is in place and the CDN infrastructure in place allows you to leapfrog some of the challenges that you might have in the traditional DTH or MSO delivery space.

How has the eSports live-streaming market grown in recent years, and do you see it as a genuine growth vertical for Level 3?
For many years, Level 3 has identified gaming as a key strategic segment for us because, as the industry has moved more and more to online-based gaming delivery, it needs a high-performing global network with extensive underlying infrastructure to support these massive platforms.

On the e-gaming and tournament side of things, the audience numbers are mind-blowing, so the technology needs to be able to support that. We have certainly seen some demand around that, but, to be honest, these events don’t always take place within the sweet spot of the venue infrastructure that we’ve invested in for North America at major sports venues. But, in general, the gaming sector is very important for us and a market we see continuing to grow in the future.

How are you seeing the Brazil and South America market in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics this summer?
Certainly on the back of big sporting events, there is going to be a huge demand for infrastructure network services. The other large events held [in Brazil] in recent years and the lead-up to this summer’s events have definitely been a catalyst for investment. However, that really is within the context and the backdrop of a lot of growth across the continent — not just Brazil but Argentina, Colombia, and elsewhere. The trend over the last few years has been more-significant broadband infrastructures rolled out. In addition, television platforms are continuing to grow, thanks to more HD adoption and consumer demand.

Do you expect serious bandwidth bottlenecks with increased live-streaming of high-profile sports events, such as the Olympics, Super Bowl, and proposed NFL Thursday Night Football streaming package?
At the end of the day, if there is consumer demand that is being driven through Netflix or streaming a live NFL game every week and there is a supply shortfall, then there’s an investment opportunity. Sometimes, that takes time in terms of getting to a point of equilibrium. But, if there is a business opportunity around over-the-top rights for something as large as the NFL, then the infrastructure needed to deliver that either is or will be in place.

I can recall, 10 years ago, in the early days of OTT delivery, people were reporting the Internet was on the brink of collapse and were speculating there wasn’t nearly enough bandwidth because the Internet wasn’t designed for over-the-top delivery or any kind of video application at any kind of scale. Fast-forward to today, and that clearly isn’t true, because the Internet as a platform for video delivery has proven itself and businesses like Netflix didn’t exist 10 years ago.

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