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Public Radio System Looks ‘Forward’

NPR Distribution embarks on upgrade to its satellite system infrastructure

The folks at the Public Radio Satellite System, who distribute programming from approximately 200 producers to 800 public stations, are embarking on a major satellite equipment refurbishment project.

NPR Distribution will spend approximately $17 million over four years to upgrade ground systems at more than 400 stations as well as head end equipment, part of a $73 million federally funded project nicknamed PRSS Forward.

Some background: NPR acts as manager of the PRSS interconnection system, which serves all public telecom entities needing distribution services. Stations and program providers support it through fees that pay for ongoing costs; excess transponder capacity is sold to non-public radio users; and major infrastructure costs are paid by federal appropriations through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

PRSS is a cooperative, governed by a committee of the NPR board that includes users who are non-board members.

About 430 stations own their local earth terminal equipment; a similar number receive programming through local connections with those downlinks. The transponder capacity and national systems and equipment are owned by a charitable trust.

We’ve reported in the recent past on ContentDepot, which PRSS has called its most significant upgrade ever. That project uses digital technology to streamline how users acquire and send programming. ContentDepot replaced a system of real-time audio feeds with IP streams and file transfers, and brought more flexibility in creating distribution networks. But PRSS continues to use satellite as its primary delivery platform; four transponders are now beaming content to users around the United States. The fourth was added just in the past year.

The PRSS Forward project is intended as an upgrade to this infrastructure. It will bring replacement of station streaming decoders and storage receivers by mid-2011, and upgrades by 2013 to stations whose ground equipment needs it. It will also involve updates to the Network Operations Center at NPR headquarters in Washington, while developing a new NOC for NPR’s planned new headquarters a few blocks away, to be switched on in 2013. A backup NOC at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Minn., also will be updated.

This is part of three-year funding cycle that started in 2008; total federal funding for transponders, ground hardware and upgrades is about $70 million. NPR Distribution has 27 people in operations and engineering, many of whom will work on the project. Also to be involved are its software developers, working on user interfaces, as well as contract engineers who will visit stations.

Most effective

I asked Pete Loewenstein, the vice president of NPR Distribution, and Dick Kohles, its director of operations and engineering, whether public radio even needs satellite in this era of high-capacity connections and widespread Internet.

“Satellite is still a critical and vital component in this national interconnection infrastructure,” Loewenstein said, “and for the foreseeable future it will be. But it’s not the only tech we use.” Users access content through a Web-based portal, and PRSS offers distribution alternatives for stations that don’t need live streams or that have marginal requirements.

Pete Loewenstein, Dick Kohles and their team are overseeing a major upgrade of the PRSS distribution system. “It’s really a hybrid system that includes a combination of technology. But satellite is still the most effective, reliable way to deliver live content with the same level of quality and access.”

Kohles cited the point-to-point nature and unreliability of the Internet, as well as the cost of bandwidth. “As long as NPR is interested in quality and precise timing, it’s a huge challenge. [And] bandwidth is not free; we’re constantly looking at ways to utilize our transponders more efficiently.” Satellite, he says, gives managers the most capability.

The refurbishment project is part of a cycle of approximately 10 years’ duration. Much of public radio’s existing satellite hardware was distributed in 2000 to 2005; users now need more flexible, capable tools.

With new receivers, stations will be able to access twice as many audio channels. A typical station with two receivers will have eight outputs that it can monitor simultaneously. Kohles said the new boxes will provide more audio distribution capability and processing power, supporting possible future service upgrades.

“There is interest in a technique that’s known as ‘split copy’ in the industry,” he continued. “The distributor can distribute information to individual markets; the granularity can be as fine as a single station or as broad as the entire network. You can introduce materials from the hard drive into a live stream, and time and schedule that precisely.”

Thus, what commercial radio can do with regionalized spots, public radio can do with underwriting. “With a storage receiver and live content receiver in one box, you can introduce stored content into the live stream much more easily,” Loewenstein said. “You could have Home Depot provide underwriting that relates to snow shovels in Minnesota at the same time they’re talking about beach umbrellas in Florida. You could have the same mixture of modules stored and inserted based on a local station’s own choices.”

Benefits of the project will accrue not only to stations but to those who distribute content. “In addition to a more reliable, robust system, there’s increased capacity and functionality. As requirements evolve, we have a much more flexible infrastructure.”

Kohles said: “It offers us a chance to be really creative with what kind of services we can offer, how we can distribute data and how complex this data distribution can be — more data throughput, higher microprocessor power.”

Station survey

The receivers will be manufactured by International Datacasting Corp., the Canadian company that made NPR’s previous generation of hardware. IDC will provide Model SFX4104 EXP Pro Audio Satellite Receivers as well as head-end components for the NOC, including Datacast XD Host, NetManager2 System and Production Manager transmission hardware.

The distribution system will continue to use MPEG I Layer II compression; among its benefits of that coding format are proven performance and compatibility with HD Radio stations. The receivers’ design, however, allows a change later, since they accommodate a variety of formats.

The implementation of all this has begun, with NPR surveying stations about the condition of their downlinks. “Are our records correct? What manufactured items do they have — antennas, for example?” Kohles said, listing questions they asked stations. “Is their antenna in excellent or poor condition? Feed horns, the interfacility links, how is the performance of their antenna?”

The survey will help the managers assess the scope of work needed, decide which sites need visits from NPR and its contractors and understand the costs necessary to complete the project.

NPR at its head end must refurbish the Network Operations Center, adding equipment to address the new receivers and to improve network command and control. Even as it upgrades that hardware system, it also must plan a new NOC to be installed at the new NPR headquarters.

“From my point of view, it’s kind of serendipity that the move to a new HQ is in the same time window,” Loewenstein told me. “We move into the new facility with an upgraded, modernized system. It wasn’t planned this way but it’s been a great convergence.”

Public radio backbone

A project timeline shows that the upgrade to station receivers and existing Network Operations Center should be done by mid-next year. Improvements to ground equipment are due by 2013, along with a new NOC at the planned new NPR headquarters. Knowing that the relationship between a station and the network provider can be touchy, I asked Kohles what kind of gripes he hears most often from the folks in the field.

“It’s the practical things about owning a receiver — it’s the type of connectors; or whether the AES output is following a specification; the problems that they have integrating into a system,” he said.

“We read Pubtech” — the public radio technical listserv — “and we know who those contributing engineers are and what they’re thinking. We’re listening. We’re not ordering the big order [of receivers] for some time yet. We are working with a small population.” NPR staff is working with IDC on the feature set now, so this is a good time for users to speak up.

“It’s important we remind our station engineers that we’re not doing this in a vacuum,” he said. “We have plenty to talk to them about, plenty to listen to.” During the upcoming Public Radio Engineering Conference at the NAB Show, NPR Distribution managers will be talking further with users and letting them dig into the new receiver design.

“Our system in many ways is unique, with 430 stations, each of which is independent and has its own style, needs and interfacing to the satellite system,” Loewenstein said. “It’s not driven by a common platform, where everybody is laid out the same way.

“The challenge we have — and what makes this fun, if you’re inclined this way — is to find the best solutions that work across that range of systems out there. It’s amazing, when you think about how complicated this system is — the variation in how they’re set up, the type of needs they have, their content and their level of expertise.” But as Kohles put it: “Public radio engineers are extremely competent. They are some of the best out there.”

The PRSS folks are proud of their infrastructure and the role it has played in public radio’s remarkable growth. They note that the system recently turned 30. “This was a system that went into service in 1979,” Loewenstein said. “This has been three decades of support to the public radio community. It’s hard to imagine that the public radio system could have evolved without a robust national interconnection system.” The PRSS Forward project, he said, sets the stage for another eight to 10 years of service.

I wonder what distribution decisions they’ll be facing then.