Satellite bill coming due as DTV request languishes
Originally published in Current, June 24, 2002
By Dan Odenwald
At a time when public TV is asking Congress to pony up nearly $550 million in digital conversion funding, it's about to ask for $150 million more.
Lobbyists for the field will soon request that amount to build its third interconnection system since the satellite era began in the late 1970s.
Public TV reps hope that Congress will foot the entire bill, as it did for the system's second interconnection system in 1989-91, which also cost about $150 million. Congress first doled out interconnection funding in 1977-78 when it made PBS the first television network to replace leased AT&T long lines with orbiting relay craft.
System leaders don't relish the idea of going after both pots of money at once especially from a Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee that has been reluctant to fund pubcasting's digital TV transition.
"The long, uphill push on digital funding is a pretty clear sign that we'll have a major challenge on our hands to get the interconnection funded," says APTS President John Lawson.
The new system, which would begin operations in 2006, will rely mostly on satellite delivery of programming from PBS to member stations but also will use lower-capacity landlines to carry data about programs and some programs themselves.
PBS engineers are aiming to spend no more than they spent last time, by reducing demand for satellite capacity through Internet-styled delivery of programming.
Each interconnection has lasted about 15 years. The first satellites used by PBS ran out of fuel needed to keep them in orbit, and the lease for the second flock of "birds" is soon to expire. PBS must notify its satellite vendor by 2004 whether it plans to renew. To secure the money before then, interconnection planners are developing their campaign for federal funding today.
In April the PBS Technology and Distribution Committee, a subcommittee of the PBS Board, approved the interconnection proposal, which lays out the tentative structure of the system and the funding strategy behind it.
"We are very concerned with trying to make sure that the federal government doesn't take its eye off of the digital transition," says Ed Caleca, v.p. of technology and operations at PBS. "We have to be very careful not to confuse them with this new interconnection request."
Interconnection is not a luxury, he adds; it's the backbone on which current analog and future digital programming will be delivered.
To limit the fiscal pain, APTS and CPB will likely request that Congress divvy up the interconnection funding over two or three years, as it did in 1989-91.
Caleca says lobbyists will encourage Congress to view the new interconnection costs as an investment in the public TV infrastructure it has already built.
Lawson would prefer to secure DTV funding first, then go after interconnection dollars. He's currently emphasizing the homeland security benefits DTV can bring to the country (see Current, June 24, 2002).
Though Congress paid for the first two satellite projects, Lawson says, getting lawmakers to focus on both the DTV transition and the third interconnection at the same time will be difficult.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees funding to pubcasters, has yet to provide significant financial support for the unfunded federal mandate to convert to DTV.
He predicts an easier campaign in the Senate, noting public broadcasting's strong bipartisan support in that chamber. Some of the key senators who secured interconnection funding in the late '80s not only remain in Congress but have gained power, including Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).
Public TV reps don't know where they would turn if Congress refuses to help. By statute CPB is required to cover some of the costs, but both Caleca and Lawson believe without federal dollars certain PTV services would be cut back.
To forestall that scenario, industry lobbyists are alerting key staffers on the appropriations committees that a new interconnection request is coming, Lawson says. "We've got big asks on the table for DTV conversion, and we don't want to blindside Congress with this," he says.
APTS and CPB will likely ask for the first installment of interconnection funding early next year.
The proposed interconnection system essentially represents a triumph of satellite delivery of TV programming over landline delivery, according to Jim Kutzner, the PBS engineering exec overseeing the project. Terrestrial delivery via fiber-optic lines would cost twice as much as a satellite connection.
This surprised many members of the Technology and Distribution Committee, who thought landlines, now oversupplied in the market, would be cheaper, Kutzner says. Renting satellites in outer space, after all, is an expensive proposition.
But satellite transmissions, like broadcasting, send programs from one location to every station on the continent for one flat fee. Terrestrial delivery, like the Internet, is a one-to-one model. Costs creep up as each new station is linked to the network. Providing backup paths to those landlines is even more expensive.
So the new system will rely mainly on satellites to distribute programs, but it will also use "thin pipe" landline connections as well. Each station will have the equivalent of a T-1 connection to receive messages, schedules, alerts and programming information. Stations can also use the connection to talk to PBS and request programs.
The proposed interconnection will have a structure that lets PBS send out the programs stations need but will be flexible enough for stations to request the shows they want.
Nearly 75 percent of the stations already have connections of T-1 or higher capacity, according to a PBS survey taken in February, and almost every station can be reached via fiber optics. The interconnection project proposes to pay for wiring the remaining stations, but it's undetermined whether those already hooked up will be reimbursed, Kutzner says.
Stations could use the T-1 lines to share programming or unedited program elements with PBS and one another. A one-hour program would take about four hours to send, Kutzner says. Stations with additional bandwidth could send content faster. This peer-to-peer architecture is ideal for multistation production collaborations.
A major objective of the proposed system is to hold interconnection costs down. Part of those savings will be achieved through non-real time delivery of programming.
Today, PBS transmits its schedule of programs in real time for each of the five time zones across the country. The same episode of <I>Sesame Street<I> can use satellite capacity up to five times a day. Every year, the network transmits approximately 7,000 hours of original programming, but with repeats the network transmits roughly 120,000 hours over the satellites.
But if all stations are equipped with digital servers to automatically record every program sent through the new interconnection, as PBS proposes, there will be no need for time-zone repeats or real-time transmissions for most programs, which are prepared well in advance of airdate. Last September, 91 percent of programs were available at least 21 days before their broadcast time.
Programs will be sent ahead of time in the same style as most Internet traffic cut into digital "packets," shipped in pieces through the interconnection and reassembled in the receiving servers.
Instead of renting nine transponders on three satellites, as PBS does now, it will be able to use just a few, Kutzner says.
The system will not only save money by reducing the hours of repeats beamed by the satellites but also by compressing programs into smaller digital files that can be transmitted more quickly. Over 10 years, Kutzner posits, PBS could save $15 million for each returned transponder.
System engineers aren't sure how many transponders are needed to deliver both prepackaged and live programming. Even if original programming grows by 7 percent a year an aggressive figure, Kutzner notes the network could use half as many transponders as it does today, or fewer.
As Kutzner travels around the country updating pubTV professionals about interconnection (he's giving two talks at this week's PBS annual meeting in San Francisco), he's already putting his interconnection plan into practice. He's preparing to launch a pilot project, funded by CPB's Digital Distribution Fund, to show how stations will make use of non-real time delivery of programming. Five to 10 stations will be selected to participate.
PBS will reserve space on one of its transponders and establish a permanent connection to stations, providing them with receivers and servers, Kutzner says. Then the network will start beaming content to see how they use it.
Another major goal of the interconnection project is to reduce costs to the stations. It's likely the project will pay for the servers required at each of the system's roughly 180 licensees. Many already have similar servers.
Kutzner also anticipates that the servers will be able to both capture the programming coming down from the satellite and route it into the broadcast schedule, reducing staff time spent on trafficking videotapes.
Hardware as well as staffing costs are expected to tumble. Costs for digital storage are declining by 50 percent a year. By 2006, Kutzner believes, even a common PC will hold the equivalent of 200 hours of digital high- and standard-definition programming, or two days' worth of material.
Opportunities for new revenue are also expanding. Some stations envision a pay-per-view future for public TV using new server technology with cheap storage capacity. A viewer wanting to download an entire season of American Experience could simply tap into a station's server and, for a fee, get every episode copied to her digital TV set.
In the future, viewers will want functionality, says Jeff Clarke, president of KQED in San Francisco and chair of the Technology and Distribution Committee. The new system could allow viewers to "pull" content from public TV stations.
With an eye toward new applications, Kutzner and colleagues are designing the interconnection as an open platform so it can easily mesh with new technologies. PBS engineers are planning a system that can feed programs to individual stations as well as multistation facilities Advanced Digital Distribution Entities (ADDE) which will store and package programs for broadcast on groups of stations.
While ADDEs aren't specifically designed to move programming around, says Dennis Haarsager, g.m. of KWSU in Pullman, Wash., they can operate nicely within the proposed interconnection architecture.
Haarsager, vice chair of the PBS Technology and Distribution Committee, is developing a Northwest ADDE interconnecting the public TV stations in that region of the country.
Haarsager believes that a terrestrial interconnection could work if all stations were grouped into ADDEs, but too many stations operate as "lone wolves" for that to happen. "At this time, it's just too difficult and speculative to build a national connection system around the ADDE," he says.
Similarly, the new interconnection system isn't placing too many bets on Internet2, the high-speed communications backbone used by major research universities. Internet2 is capable of delivering high-definition programming in real time.
Kutzner says Internet2 could carry a heavy payload, but questions linger about the cost of bandwidth. Although Internet2 operators have worked with public TV stations on demonstrations of HD delivery, there's no consensus on how that relationship will unfold.
To Current's home page Earlier story: Regional hubs or ADDEs could share facilties and programming using landline interconnections. Outside link: CPB documents about the previous interconnection rebuild, 1996-97.
Web page posted June 26, 2002
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