MVPDs: Down-To-Earth Distribution For Rural Areas

Multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) in smaller, rural areas have more options than ever before to stay competitive – including creative approaches to their media delivery and distribution models.

Back in April we gave an overview in this blog around the repurposing of C-band spectrum for 5G services and how it’s impacting the delivery models of providers across the United States. Providers have big questions to answer, such as “do we transition to the new satellite and essentially take a business-as-usual approach, or can we do things differently to improve services and costs?”

These MVPDs relied on satellite services initially because it was the only effective, reliable way to receive programming transmissions to serve their region. It’s still a viable option; satellites are here to stay — they’re a vital and growing part of our communications infrastructure. Many of these providers, however, now have a ground-based option that was previously unavailable. It could be the right time to stop ‘doing dishes’ and transition to a ground game.

TERRESTRIAL VS. SATELLITE DELIVERY – WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?  

A high-level discussion about satellite delivery is a horrible pun; but as Nick Nielsen, Fellow, from Comcast Technology Solutions explains it:

“At a really simplified level, when you’re talking about terrestrial vs. satellite, essentially it’s this: somewhere there’s video. We need to get it to the cable plant so it can be sent to subscribers.

  • Cable plants distribute digital cable TV via a QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) signal; basically, you take video content in the form of MPEG transport streams, split up into 188-byte packets that go through this QAM modulator – like a modem – converting them into an analog format that then gets broadcast out on a wire.
  • From there, everyone at home who has digital cable has a de-modulator in their set-top box that tunes to the frequency or channel you want to watch. The MPEG packets are re-assembled and sent to a decoder, and turned into the image and sound you see on-screen.

The big change is the back-end piece – you’ve got to get that signal to the plant. With satellite delivery, it’s the satellite that beams the information to a dish at the cable plant. Terrestrial delivery replaces the satellite part of the process with broadband IP networking (typically fiber). Imagine you’re a media company with programming, or an entire channel worth of video, and you need to get it to several local cable plants. All these transmissions need to be aggregated and assembled into the channels and high-quality experiences that ultimately get delivered to consumers. We’re not even getting into deeper-dive compression conversations – there’s a lot more that goes into it but that’s the basic story.”

THE NEXT EVOLUTION OF THE CABLE PLANT

Cable plants receive content from all over the place to make this happen, and it can be expensive. It used to take a farm of satellite dishes in a field to acquire all these signals. That’s a lot of physical equipment to maintain. Nielsen continues: “Our HITS (Headend In The Sky, now known as Managed Satellite Distribution) business was set up in the 90’s as a means of pre-compressing and pre-bundling signals in a set of satellite transponders that could be transmitted and received with one dish instead of dozens. There are still limitations to the amount of programming that can be bundled and sent via satellite – the spectrum we lease has a fixed bandwidth so there comes a point where, if a provider wants to offer a new channel, they may need to decide which existing channel needs to be swapped out. Think of the connection between satellite and plant as a pipe with finite amount of data that can fit into it. Transponder bandwidth is fixed, which makes adding services or channels a more significant business decision.

A terrestrial-based solution just takes the satellite out of the equation. If I, as an MVPD, can connect point A to point B via the internet, private fiber networks, etc. – adding more channels becomes more of a straightforward bandwidth question. We’ve got over 250 channels available through our managed satellite distribution solutions, but providers only need bandwidth for the channels they use. Terrestrial delivery gives providers scalability and flexibility they may not have enjoyed before.”

It’s also important to note that satellite service isn’t inherently two-way; it’s a way to receive signal. It’s hard to add dynamic services in a broadcast-only environment. Things like video on-demand, ad insertion, interactive experiences; anything that’s on a per-person level needs the two-way medium that the internet provides. Moving to a terrestrial model opens up the ability to eventually serve full-service IP video to consumers, which may seem a bit confusing if you don’t understand the difference (I didn’t, until Nick explained it to me).

FROM TERRESTRIAL TO FULL IP DELIVERY

“Sometimes the terms can be a bit overloaded,” explains Nielsen. “We’ve explained how terrestrial delivery supplants the satellite feed in the current operating model. But, once you’ve done that, it opens up more opportunities. The cable headend is receiving signal via IP, but it’s still meant for QAM distribution pretty much the way it’s being done today. When you’re talking about moving over to IP video, now what you’re talking about is IP video that’s being delivered directly to mobile devices, streaming sticks, whatever. It’s not a QAM-modulated signal, it’s true internet protocol, and much more individualized.”

To help you visualize: Broadcast sends everything out all at once: if you’re an MVPD with 200 channels available, users tune into what they want, but every available channel is still being sent. IP video is a much more efficient use of the connective resources; only delivering what’s being requested by users. When you watch a program on your phone, for example, your streaming service isn’t sending you their entire catalog – just the content you are viewing. Bandwidth gets precious when you start thinking about all the other connected services a home might want to utilize; the IP video model accomplishes this, freeing up bandwidth resources that can be used for faster speeds and more services.

The C-band transition isn’t a wholesale change to that model in and of itself. It’s simply about satellite bandwidth that’s going away, forcing providers to point to a different satellite and bandwidth to continue as they have. We can and are helping them to do that, but now there’s on-the-ground infrastructure in place that offers an alternative that didn’t previously exist. MVPDs are in a unique situation where average screen time per user is going up, but subscribers to any service have more choices than ever before. Fortunately, MVPDs have more choices, too.

Listen to Jill May’s presentation on Managed Distribution during the CTS Connects Summit here.