In a time of uncertainty among many parts of the broadcast industry, Broadcasting Center Europe (BCE), part of the RTL Group, a Luxembourg-based media conglomerate that operates TV and radio channels as well as production companies located throughout Europe and Asia, has built one of the most impressive broadcast centres to come along in a decade. It makes no excuses for the forward-looking content handling concepts it has put into place at its new headquarters and looks forward to serving a myriad of innovative production and distribution applications for many years to come.
By Michael Grotticelli
The new 36,000 square meter IP-based facility supports 24/7 broadcasting for a number of channels, including RTL Télé Lëtzebuerg, Chamber TV (Luxembourg), RTL TVI, Club RTL, Plug TV (Belgium), RTL4, RTL5, RTL7, RTL8, RTL Z (Netherlands), RTL9 and AB Groupe movie channels and SFR Sports channels (France).
Within its architecturally impressive 14-floor design, the Broadcast Center was three years in the making and features an end-to-end IP infrastructure and well-conceived data IT networking capabilities that manage mostly HD (and some SD) content and channels. The company said it plans to launch a 4K sports channel, with interstitial content up scaled.
Dubbed “RTL City,” the new broadcast center—housed within a larger office complex—sits next door to the original (and now decommissioned) RTL building in the eastern city of Luxembourg. All of the radio and television production facilities and playout center operations employ the latest IP-enabled equipment from technology suppliers like Arista Networks, Custom Consoles, Grass Valley, Harmonic, Isilon (Dell EMC), Juniper, Lawo, and SAM (Snell Advanced Media).
Advanced Research and Systems Integration
All of the equipment and systems were installed and tested by BCE, a 208-person veteran systems integration company.
When plotting out goals for the new building, BCE engineers said they wanted the new infrastructure to be both future-proof and able to adapt to new workflow challenges as needed. When it first began to consider replacing its traditional SDI systems in 2014, the available IP technology wasn’t suitable for real-world deployments or mission-critical broadcast use, and most solutions were proprietary. The process resumed in 2015 with six months of intensive technical testing. For BCE it was critical that the IP solution had the same quality of service and reliability achieved in the SDI world. That meant the same level of scalability, stability, propagation delays and synchronization.
Working with engineers at The Institut für Rundfunktechnik GmbH (IRT) research centre, BCE design staff began looking at the SMPTE 2022-6 IP spec as a way to connect all of the disparate systems and have them communicate as a fully networked system. This would streamline the production of content and get it to the right TV, radio, and web platform for its own purposes, as well as support the numerous playout and other services it provides for major U.S. content distributors like CBS, NBC Universal, Warner Brothers Television and others. The new centre, which also originates many European and Asian channels, plans to upgrade much of its software-centric systems to the proposed SMPTE 2110 IP spec when it becomes an official standard (later this year or early in 2018).
Laurent Seve, Marketing Manager for BCE, said that when their team began researching different ways of implementing IP technology, they recognised that what was needed was a facility that was significantly different, and more capable, than what had been done in the past.
“We understood from the beginning that this was not going to be a standard broadcast facility, but one that was flexible enough to handle all types of content creation and distribution projects,” Seve said. “We did our research and recognised the need for new types of workflow methods so that we could get the most out of the systems we deployed.”
Technology provider Snell Advanced Media (SAM) was brought in to help test a series of IP workflows and today continues to operate a test laboratory within RTL City to support the company’s growing IP-enabled requirements. Fiber-optic cabling, which is lighter (than coax) and bandwidth-friendly, supports the various systems and connects all floors of the Broadcast Center. There’s also a lot of Cat6 cable installed throughout the building for things like data networks, online access and a variety of control (KVM) functions.
“The IP-technology allowed the move to a fiber-based cabling infrastructure,” said Alain Prim, Engineering & Systems Integration Manager at BCE. “All the areas of the building are connected through a reduced amount of cables which are able to transport a far higher number of services. The multiple changes in media services are now easier to manage without the need of modifications in the basic cable or hardware structure.”
Indeed, BCE is now responsible for the playout of over 35 regional and international channels, from its Luxembourg NOC (Network Operations Centre). This NOC also manages the company’s mobile distribution antennas, which are located about 15km away. Online and available 24/7, the NOC operations team serves as the centre’s first line of defence against IP-related issues that might occur anywhere in the building.
The core of the production activities features a new 1,000 sq. m. Data Centre with one-megawatt capacity and approximately 366 floor-to-ceiling equipment racks that store and distribute the content (and metadata) internally and outside the building. [70% is being used at the moment, so there’s plenty of room to grow.] In-row water-cooled airflows keep the systems at optimal temperatures.
There are also three diesel generators for backup power, with UPS technology everywhere for system resilience. In fact, every piece of equipment is connected to two independent electrical power supply paths—with intelligent sensing and monitoring that will automatically connect the device to a third backup supply if two live and active electrical supplies are not detected.
Flexible Production and Remote Control
Due to its IP backbone, several production studios (complete with Grass Valley LDX 86 IP-enabled studio cameras) can share control rooms if necessary, with one control room controlling two productions at once. There are also several audio mixing rooms (with Studer consoles), and an advanced lighting grid in the main production stage.
There are also 30 post-production suites to support a number of radio and TV channels as well as other outside client needs. These are based around SAM (Quantel) edit stations with networked Isilon storage.
All the radio studios have voice-activated broadcast cameras in them so that when a particular on-air talent is talking, the appropriate camera goes live. The system has proved to be very flexible for full spec broadcasting on a main channel as well as generating a web stream.
“We have always anticipated the merge between IT and Broadcast technologies and decided to stop talking about new solutions and change the complete workflow of our activities to IP,” said Andreas Fleuter, Special Project Manager at BCE.
IP Backbone Makes the Difference
While the internal network can be expanded as needed, the initial deployment is based around the VSF TR-04 protocol for distributing video over IP, using SMPTE ST 2022-6/7 and AES67 redundant IP streams. Engineers have devised an on-air upgrade path from ST 2022-6 and VSF TR-04 to TR-03/ST 2110 with AES67 support throughout—when the time is right. This includes multi-level routing support of the VSF TR-04 protocol for audio breakaways.
The building’s architecture supports both 10 and 40GbE connectivity. SAM provided an end-to-end IP routing system to meet this, complete with full SMPTE ST 2022-7 redundant hitless operation and seamless recovery from interruption to one IP link. SAM also supplied a massive routing matrix that can handle x960 2022-6 video flows, and x1103 AES67 (each x8 AES3) audio flows using more than 1104 ports.
Other SAM IP technology in use includes its Kahuna IP production switchers, IQ-Edge IP processing systems, IP routing control systems and IP multiviewers. These are fully networked to a Lawo VSM (Virtual Studio Manager) control layer that manages all of the IP signals and tells the routers where (and when) to send them. There’s also a SAM monitoring system that collects data from the IP sub-system, along with a direct interface to a Skyline Communications DataMiner network management and monitoring layer.
All of the workflows have been designed to include distributing content to the Internet and mobile devices as easily as they do to the living room TV set.
On-the-fly transcoding and final playout is handled by Harmonic SpectrumX and Electra X2 IP playout servers and encoders, working in tandem with redundant COTS IP switches supplied by Arista (7508R) and Juniper (QFX10008).
The Benefits Are Clear
After years of planning and months of testing, RTL City had its official opening in September and is now fully operational and performing client requests. With the new IP infrastructure in place, any room or machine in the building can be accessed and used by any other with just a few router settings. In addition, operators at RTL City can now launch a new channel in a month, as opposed to the 8-9 months it took previously. Launching new programming, like ‘visual radio’ channels that include a single technical operator and voice-activated PTX cameras and microphones, is also a new reality occurring more and more every day.
“[An all-IP infrastructure] allows seamless communication between all departments and opens a world of new technologies for linear and non-linear broadcast, but also fosters future changes such as the 4K transition,” said Jean Lampach, Chief Technology and Development Officer at BCE.
The new RTL City is a wonder to behold and stands as a model of the future of broadcast operations, providing the capability to do more with a minimal amount of resources. Many in the broadcast industry are calling it “a real game changer” and, looking at the various infrastructures within the building that can operate separately or be combined into one multi-layered system, one can see why.
Watch out for our new technical series of articles, “BCE – IP Going Deep”, where The Broadcast Bridge Contributor Tony Orme will report on the challenges BCE faced after gaining unprecedented access to the engineering team who made this mammoth facility work. Building successful IP broadcast facilities is much more than making the technology work and the obstacles BCE faced will amaze you!