Innovation in the Caribbean with the debut of Ready TV
Philip Stevens takes a close look at the launch of a radically new broadcast service in Jamaica
ReadyTV (the name stands for Rebellious, Energetic, Adaptive, Determined and Yummy!) was set up in Kingston, Jamaica to provide an alternative television service to the expensive cable options that prevail on the island.
According to Christopher Dehring (pictured above), CEO and president of Digital Interactive Services Limited (DISL), the owners of ReadyTV, the company is providing the country’s first digital broadcast service with the commissioning of its first tower and is aiming to erect at least 18 more towers across the island.
“With this technology, we will join other Caribbean islands, including Haiti and Trinidad, and other countries in Latin America, Europe and the United States that already have digital broadcast services."
He goes on, “There are 880,000 households in Jamaica, 800,000 of which have a TV set. However, only 300,000 have cable TV, because either they cannot afford the monthly subscription rates of traditional cable TV companies, or cable TV is simply not available to them, particularly in rural areas. We are offering a wireless option using DVB-T2 that they can access and that they can afford.”
Dehring revealed that ReadyTV will eventually offer more than 200 entertainment, informational and educational channels. The commercial launch at the end of March, saw between 80 and 90 channels on offer.
So how does ReadyTV work? David Casanova (pictured at bottom), who serves as both ReadyTV’s CTIO and co-CEO enthusiastically explains.
“Those who wish to access ReadyTV simply purchase a set top box, take it home and plug it in to the existing television. To register on the ReadyTV network, the customer sends a toll-free text message to an automated server via either of the existing telcos, and receives back a welcome message. By simply registering, a customer has immediate access to ten TV and ten radio channels, which are in practical terms, the country’s “free-to-air’ digital TV and radio services. Text messages can then be sent to activate other channel packages that are available including local and international channels.
“The beauty of the audio is that it is 100 per cent interactive. For the first time, a customer will be able be able to interact with their TV screen without using data services. They are able to send a text, to a server that is integrated into our multiplexer. They can send a message and everyone listening to that radio station in a digital format will be able to actually see that message. This is not via the internet, which also has very low effective penetration in Jamaica, but by using basic Telco SMS platforms which are less expensive and more ubiquitous.”
To activate the other available pay-TV channels, customer simply buy pre-paid scratch cards or electronic vouchers from stores island-wide. That aspect of ReadyTV’s business is being handled by Facey Telecom which also distributes cards and vouchers for the major Telcos pre-paid mobile businesses.
“This is the first pre-paid Pay-TV service in Jamaica,” states Cassanova. “We had to develop a system that was based on the pre-pay culture of the island which dominates the mobile market. With pre-paid, we don’t force the content or the monthly spend - the subscribers make their choice based on what they want and what they can afford at any particular time. Initially, some content providers were suspicious of the concept, but after we showed the results of the tests we carried out prior to launch, most of them decided to worked with us.”
The tests, which involved just four channels, took place from the middle of 2016.
The concept of ReadyTV was first discussed by Cassanova and several vendors at NAB 2015 – and one of those suppliers who came to the fore was Italy-based, ONEtastic.
“With ONEtastic we saw there was a great opportunity to get what we wanted – a service that was 100 per cent based on IP,” says Cassanova. “The thinking of its CEO, Luca Saleri, who knew exactly what I was looking to achieve, was very advanced. Other vendors were saying that IP was not ready, but I said it is ready - if you understand it.”
Saleri takes up the story: “Our company designs, manufactures and distributes innovative equipment for analogue and digital broadcasting in the different world standards. The first challenge we had to face was the fact that there was only a 6MHz bandwidth available in Jamaica. That made it difficult to accommodate the number of channels that ReadyTV wished to transmit.”
Together with Dehring and Cassanova, Saleri started discussing the maximum number of programmes that could be broadcast. Ready TV had acquired the licence to broadcast channels in UHF, but they had to be adjacent. And that meant devising a complicated system that avoided co-channel interference.
The initial result was a proposal that involved a comprehensive system that incorporated eight transmitters, plus one spare – each of which would be centred around ONEtastic’s 1.2KW design.
“We started with a two-rack system that was able to broadcast up to 4+1 in a single rack,” explains Saleri. “So, with two racks fitted with nine transmitters we were able to set up an 8+1 system with automatic switch over and redundancy. Not only that, we designed the system with our high efficiency solution in mind. This high efficiency consideration is an important part of our portfolio and something we have been developing for the past three to four years.”
Saleri also involved another Italian company, COM-TECH, as a partner.
“The request was very challenging, requiring to combine eight UHF channels all adjacent to each other,” explains Davide Valenti, CEO, and sales and marketing manager of COM-TECH Italia SpA.
The Channel Combiner supplied is a customised constant impedance (CIB) solution, with the aim of reducing the footprint to the minimum possible. It makes use of medium power DM-Series CIB modules and high power DF-Series CIB modules, assembled with a proprietary modular frame system. This allows an easy and convenient possibility of future extensions and module switch for maintenance.
“All filters used are fully tuneable across the whole UHF band, are temperature stabilised, have the highest voltage safety margins for maximum reliability, very low insertion loss for optimum efficiency, and a rugged construction for maximum mechanical stability, durability, and immunity to transportation shocks,” says Valenti.
The adjacency combination requires special skills and performances, which have been obtained through innovative and proprietary design techniques, such as DualCross (Double Cross Coupling) Design Technique and Multistep Ultra-Flat Response Hybrid Couplers.
COM-TECH worked with the antenna provider in order to provide a system that could manage all the planned channels when the time came.
That collaboration meant that the whole system was installed by ONEtastic and SIRA (the antenna manufacturer) on ReadyTV’s tower in Coopers Hill in Kingston. That site is around 30km from the Ready TV Head End and the signals are delivered over microwave links installed by ReadyTV. With all the installations completed, testing began – and resulted in immediate success and an overwhelming response. In fact, there was an instant demand for additional channels to be added to the test programme.
“So, just 15 days later we were ready for this additional capacity, but because of the enthusiastic response to the service, instead of delivering another four channels to be added to the existing set-up, it was decided to go for an 8+2 system,” explains Saleri. “Another complete unit was delivered and our engineers returned to Jamaica to complete the installation.”
Saleri reports that although the project had been designed to accept a further 4+1 unit, the installation was now reconfigured for 4+2 unit. This also required a modification to the automatic switching system.
“We had to design a very complicated system so that in the event that a second transmitter failed, the automatic system would take charge and will re-tune all the transmitters. If anything fails, the automatic system will relink to the spare transmitter and switch the output to the same output of the failed part.”
We are the only operator in Jamaica that is 100 per cent IP and 100 per cent HD
Cassanova says that ReadyTV views ONEtastic not as a supplier, but as a partner.
“They provide a great product, but also an after-sales support that is second to none. All the transmitters are equipped with web user interface and which have a password, so that if one alarm goes off, that information is immediately checked by our engineers and, if necessary, the details are sent to ONEtastic in Italy. Within minutes, someone is going to be on that transmitter either onsite or remotely looking at the situation.”
That level of support and response is only possible, says Cassanova, because of the decision to go for end-to-end IP – a decision which means that far more of the island can be covered than possible for the traditional cable operators.
“We are the only operator in Jamaica that is 100 per cent IP and 100 per cent HD. By 2018, when the digital switchover takes place, our wireless digital service and our company will be the network of choice.”
He emphasises that this next generation IP technology provides the opportunity to also look at what is available locally and seamlessly integrate that content into our system.
“We have recently appointed a content producer from the United States with the aim of giving Jamaicans the opportunity to see the best local content, even while we deliver the best from Canada, the USA and the rest of the world.”
But that future is not just about entertainment. According to Cassanova, there is a determined push to provide a full scale educational programme through ReadyTV.
We had to develop a system that was based on the pre-pay culture of the island which dominates the mobile market
New opportunities for education
“In partnership with the Ministry of Education, we will be offering a service to every household in Jamaica that will provide opportunities to learn mathematics and other core subjects. The government has a plan that by 2030, every single student should have the ability to achieve a first degree. In effect, we are putting up a whole university – not using the internet which is still not widely available or affordable, but utilising the DVB-T2 system that ONEtastic and other vendors have partnered with us on.”
Another of those partners is Elecard. Based in Tomsk, Russia, the company provides software products for encoding, decoding, processing, receiving and transmission of video and audio data in different formats.
Cassanova explains that ReadyTV didn’t want to stop at AVC encoders, but also wanted to investigate HEVC.
“This is where the future lies. So, we went to Elecard because it could offer us a unique service where everything is IP based. Their CodecWorks codec gives us elasticity. When we pull a feed in from a particular transponder that has, perhaps, 10 or 15 services, but we only need six, we are able to input those as MPTS groom the services and output to Mux as SPTS. The developers at Elecard designed a system that is now a very important part of our integration. In fact, it gives us the best IP encoding system on the market.”
For more than five years Elecard has been working hard on one of the most efficient software-based real-time video and audio transcoders. After several years of intensive performance and usability estimation, Elecard provided the tailor-made Encoding Software - Elecard Codec Works to ReadyTV, along with Quick Sync Technology - in particular on Intel Xeon Processor E3-1275 v5 (8M Cache, 3.60 GHz) Supermicro hardware utilising Intel HD Graphics P 530 capabilities.
“Elecard Codec Works is well known as a multitasking server providing its owners with a number of features,” explains Emil Issabekov from the Elecard Technical Support Team. “These include input stream encoding into several output streams with various resolutions/bitrates - multiscreen, which can be utilised for adaptive streaming such as Apple HTTP Live Streaming, MPEG-DASH, Microsoft Smooth Streaming, Adobe Dynamic Streaming) and other OTT, IPTV, DVB-T/C/S/H, Video Conference and Video surveillance solutions.”
Other features include the ability to use IP, SD/HD-SDI, ASI, HDMIand Analog input interfaces, online broadcasting to Facebook Live and YouTube, the ability to increase the number of channels, or shift to HDTV broadcasting without upgrading delivery channels and the highest video quality, up to 4K in HEVC, AVC, Mpeg-2 video formats.
Issabekov continues: “We are also able to provide support of Quick Sync Video hardware acceleration on second to sixth generation Intel Core processors, a web interface for management and monitoring of the transcoding process, a mechanism for quick back up in N+M Mode, output stream uninterrupted operation - so no more black screens, but if there is an input signal loss, a bumper or station break is displayed, and finally input source reservation for professional TV channel needs.”
“After gaining a clear understanding of the project by our engineers and plural tests made jointly with ReadyTV, we believe that Elecard Codec Works is the best solution that meets the needs of the operator.”
Cassanova explains that using the Elecard system enabled ReadyTV to make another breakthrough.
“When you employ normal head ends you need three things to bring in the signal – a receiver, decoder and encoder. It is not like that for us. We mainly use receivers from Cisco and Motorola, we don’t decode, we decrypt. ReadyTV automation playout software Easy On Air was provided by Devtek Bili?im Elektronik from Istanbul, which allows us to playout all ReadyTV local content including our educational channels. So instead of having 300 pieces of kit for 100 channels, inside of our head end, we just have 22 receivers and three 19 inch racks. And we still have space to accommodate another 100 channels.”
Dehring concludes: “It is a revolutionary digital television service that will give all Jamaicans the opportunity to experience what is considered a privilege to some and thought unattainable by most. We want to ensure that we really penetrate the masses of those who cannot afford regular cable and have truly been left behind in the digital divide”