Bridge Technologies’ Simen K. Frostad tells Digital Broadcast that in an industry under siege by intricate technology, simplicity is the key to monitoring and removing errors
The World Cup was very challenging, because even the minutest details would become visible,” says Simen K. Frostad, chairman, Bridge Technologies. “If there’s a small error in Johannesburg, then to Dubai it has to go through five or six links or hops between providers. This can be aggravated extensively, and if you don’t monitor it nobody would know that it’s an error – except for the customers!” It’s fair to say the beautiful game became a bit of a mess in the Middle East this summer. If Bridge had been on the case, things may have been very different.
Oslo-born but omnipresent Bridge Technologies is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of monitoring and measurement systems for the broadcast and telecoms industries. Founded six years ago when it created one of the first portable IP probes, the company has pushed forward at an astounding rate. “We now have well over 700 installations worldwide, we expanded extremely fast,” says Frostad. “Last year we were elected on the Deloitte Fast 500 List in Europe in 63rd place, with huge growth. It got mentioned a week ago that we’ve been elected again: we’re one of the fastest growing technology companies in Europe.”
This frenetic growth is largely thanks to an exhaustive range of products, which cater for content transportation across all the major contribution and distribution platforms. “We have all sorts of interfaces,” says Frostad. “If you’re using satellite for contribution and distribution we have satellite interfaces. If you use IP links, which more and more people do nowadays, we have that. We have RF interfaces for digital cable, we have interfaces for terrestrial, and a broad selection of IP based systems.
“We have the Micro VB system which is for customer homes, to the huge 10Gig probes which are for operators to look at everything from video on demand (VOD) to thousands of streams,” adds Frostad, who lauds the invent of IP-based broadcast as an incredible tool for the industry, while warning that it can very easily go wrong. “I love IP: firstly it’s generating a lot of the business, but it’s also a fantastically flexible technology, and people need to realise that it’s different,” Frostad says.
“The influx of IP into a lot of broadcast technologies creates an uncertainty which can only be cured by actively monitoring, and having analytics capabilities on IP,” Frostad adds. “One cannot exchange an old-fashioned AFI cable between two devices with an RJ45 Ethernet connection, and believe that everything is still the same – it’s a different kind of interface with different challenges. There’s always a price to be paid for flexibility.”
Years ago the monitoring of digital broadcasting was a relatively easy affair, with few variables factored into the equation. Now, with IP, HD and 3D all pushing the broadcasting vanguard, it’s a different game. “Broadcasters have always been doing monitoring, but it was a tad simpler with the technology because the SDH and ATM interfacing was enough to monitor,” says Frostad. “If the interface was up then everything was ok, if it was down then it was not so good.
“Today there’s a huge grey area where you have small packet loss, which will influence the customer perception and the experienced quality – but you won’t detect it if you don’t monitor,” Frostad adds. “These issues are, of course, incurable if you don’t know they’re there, so you have to see it, find it, and then cure it. And with a lot of today’s content being very high value, like the World Cup, broadcasters need service level agreement issues to be standardised so they can say whether it went well or not, and what service level they have on that particular transport. That’s what we are providing.”
While IP may be changing the face of transportation, HD and 3D, while being at the forefront of broadcasting technology, changes Bridge’s game little. “We haven’t seen 3D much yet,” says Frostad. “We’ve seen HD because it’s driving the demand for bandwidth impressively, since it needs two to three times the bandwidth to do an efficient job. When it comes to 3D we’ve seen a couple of examples where customers increase their bandwidth, but we think that in the coming years 3D is another bandwidth-generating monster – there’s not much more we feel is significant to 3D because it is content creation, display and technology – the only difference in transportation is bandwidth.”
Another huge aspect of Bridge’s work is in monitoring conditional access (CA) systems, traditionally a tricky and secretive aspect of broadcasting. “We are one of the few firms in this space that can do very deep analytics and monitoring of how conditional access systems actually work,” says Frostad. “Most signals are being taken from satellites, and then converted into IP signals. That means you first descramble then rescramble the signal for the digital distribution network.
“We can monitor both the descrambling and rescrambling process, and continuously scan for any kind of error in the conditional access system,” Frostad adds. “It has been a huge success for us, because our point was always that all the bits in the chain are equally important. If one really small semi-insignificant bit tears then the whole chain goes. So we need to be able to monitor across all technologies.”
With broadcasting technology moving at such a frantic pace, and with IP-based systems flooding the market, where is Bridge seeing the lion’s share of its business coming from? “There is pretty much equal growth in traditional broadcast markets,” claims Frostad. “Some of the biggest IP markets are in cable because they are interchanging their core distribution system from modulated fibre STH to more and more IP, and we see that the other 50 per cent growth is in telecommunications, where telecoms providers want to deliver rich media systems based on their existing technology. Both those two markets are huge for us. Satellite is huge, still, and satellite is not going away any time fast.”
With Bridge’s comprehensive range of products catering for just about every digital media transport medium, it appears the once modest manufacturer is in an imperious position from which to attack broadcasting errors worldwide. But while platforms and technology is moving forward at a frightening pace, Frostad warns that simplicity, not complexity, is the key to avoiding a catastrophe. “You have equipment for analogue TV because that’s not dead, new equipment for digital TV, and IP. It creates a lot of confusion, and you need many experts.
“What we launched with the VB-262 digital cable board, and the VB-12, which has that board built-in, is that within the same physical device we can do analogue, digital and IP with all the different interfaces and metrics,” adds Frostad. “That enables the customer to get rid of a lot of equipment and centralise information-gathering with the same interface details as before. That dramatically lowers the cost of running operations and training, and in the field you just need one box instead of three.
“If the industry does not simplify its technical matters it will go haywire,” Frostad says. “Things are very complex these days, and I think all the vendors need to take that into consideration. It’s not simplifying to the extent of losing detail, but simplifying operations and logistics so that you can have an easier work base.” With Bridge’s help that complexity could once more become a beautiful game.