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Broadcasting over the internet - uncool and ungreen?

What happens if you stop traditional terrestrial broadcasting and start distributing everything over the internet?

The following article was originally published on the EBU Events Blog among a number of other blog posts from EBU staff attending the event. The complete collection of posts is available here.

At the EBU's stand at IBC 2012, one of the presentations was more than a little disquieting.

Simon Tuff, chairman of the EBU's Green Broadcasting group (pictured, mid-presentation, on the EBU booth), provides some chilling evidence that our industry is anything but "cool" and it is in grave danger of becoming even less ecologically sustainable if we abandon traditional terrestrial broadcasting ("sticks on hills") in favour of distributing all our content over the internet.

The BBC estimates that using the internet for the distribution of content to large audiences is three times more power hungry than serving the same audience with the same content using terrestrial broadcast transmitters. There was corroborating evidence for this from the Netherlands, mentioned by my colleague Bram Tullemans in his presentation on Media over Broadband, too.

That's not to say that these terrestrial transmitters can simply be ignored in the continuing quest for a more sustainable broadcast ecosystem. Far from it. Taking advantage of the fact that its flagship Radio 4 talk channel is now not only distributed across the UK from its high power, long-wave amplitude modulated Droitwich transmitter, but also over DAB, DVB-T, DVB-S and, yes, the Internet, the BBC has recently experimented with halving the transmitted power from Droitwich (-3dB sounds less dramatic). There have been virtually no complaints about degraded reception by the public and the BBC estimates that the annual savings in electricity costs will comfortably exceed £100,000, not to mention the tonnes of CO2 that will not be released into the environment.

The key concept is that of sustainability in broadcasting. Earth's resources of fossil fuels and rare elements are finite - we've passed the point where the amount of oil recovered exceeds the world's consumption. China is understandably becoming very protective of its reserves of, for example, neodymium, an essential rare-earth metal used in flat panel technologies and elsewhere. We must start recovering this and many other scarce substances (copper!) from redundant equipment rather than discarding them in landfill. Actually, in the case of copper it is more a need to dig up ("mine") the telephony cables that have been supplanted by fibre technology. It must also not be forgotton that formerly state of the art video servers might now be repurposed as perfectly adequate e-mail or document servers - anything but landfill!

Sustainability can be helped along by much more modest adjustments to broadcasting daily life; issuing actors and crew with their own re-usable drinking mugs and water bottles for the duration of a shoot or drama series has been shown to significantly reduce costs - and is greener - than using disposable plastics for the purpose.

Constant monitoring of sustainability parameters, and a reaction to them, is a must. The BBC has developed, in conjunction with BAFTA, a carbon calculation software tool that they've named "Albert" - something to do with a famous energy equation, I expect - that helps with this sustainability monitoring. The energy cost of items such as travel, the operating costs of production equipment, sustaining a backoffice, outsourcing production effort and so on is converted by Albert into energy and CO2 figures that can help point to more efficient processes and use of resources. Its very interesting to observe the impact of different genres of television production on energy use - outside broadcasts and productions have a much higher travel element, whilst soaps and series have a high backoffice element (lots of script writers and editorial meetings). There is plenty of scope for improvement though, as it is estimated that one hour of typical television production translates into 8 tonnes of CO2 released into the environment. This is equivalent to the annual CO2 emission generated by two households of four people - real food for thought.

So, how do we green our seemingly inevitable adoption of IP technologies for broadcasting?

One answer might be to use each technology for what it does best. Well engineered and maintained transmitters using state-of-the-art modulation techniques are the most sustainable way of delivering high quality content to our audiences. Internet Protocol technologies are ideally suited to conveying associated programme information (actors' biographies, sporting statistics, track and CD titles and artwork etc.) to individuals for their greater enjoyment, understanding and immersion in the broadcast programmes. RadioDNS is an excellent example of this thinking applied to sound broadcasting, but it needn't stop there. TVs are getting smarter, tablets are proliferating and are ready to do service as personal second screens, after all.

The EBU is very conscious that that its Members must embrace sustainable broadcasting practices for their longer term welfare. All EBU projects should - and could - have this awareness built into them as a baseline requirement.

Roger works at the EBU Technical Department, in Audio Technologies.
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Credits: Photo EBU