AV-over-IP: It’s Here. Time To Get On Board!

At InfoComm next week in Las Vegas, I look forward to seeing many familiar faces – both individuals and manufacturers – that have frequented the show since I first attended over 20 years ago. And I also expect to find quite a few newcomers, based on the press releases and product announcements I’ve been receiving daily.

Many of those newcomers will be hawking the latest technology – AV-over-IP. More specifically, transporting video, audio, and metadata that are encoded into some sort of compressed or lightly-compressed format, wrapped with IP headers, and transported over IP networks.

This isn’t exactly a new trend: The broadcast, telecom, and cable/satellite worlds have already begun or completed the migration to IT infrastructures. The increasing use of optical fiber and lower-cost, fast network switches are making it all possible. Think 10 gigabit Ethernet with single-mode fiber interconnections, and you can see where the state-of-the-art is today.

You’ve already experienced this AV-over-IP phenomenon if you watch streaming HD and 4K video. Home Internet connection speeds have accelerated by several orders of magnitude ever since the first “slow as a snail” dial-up connections got us into AOL two decades ago. Now, it’s not unusual to have sustained 10, 15, 25, and even 50 megabit per second (Mb/s) to the home – fast enough to stream Ultra HD content with multichannel sound.

And so it goes with commercial video and audio transport. Broadcast television stations had to migrate to HD-SDI starting nearly 20 years ago when the first HDTV broadcasts commenced. (Wow, has it really been that long?) Now, they’re moving to IP and copper/fiber backbones to achieve greater bandwidth and to take advantage of things like cloud storage and archiving.

So why hasn’t the AV industry gotten with the program? Because we still have a tendency to cling to old, familiar, and often outdated or cumbersome technology, rationalizing that “it’s still good enough, and it works.” (You know who you are…still using VGA and composite video switching and distribution products…)

I’ve observed that there is often considerable and continual aversion in our industry to anything having to do with IT networks and optical fiber. And it just doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it originates from a fear of losing control to IT specialists and administrators. Or, it could just be a reluctance to learn something new.

The result is that we’ve created a monster when it comes to digital signal management. Things were complicated enough when the AV industry was dragged away from analog to digital and hung its hats on the HDMI consumer video interface for switching and distribution. Now, that industry has created behemoth switch matrices to handle the current and next flavors of HDMI (a format that never was suitable for commercial AV applications).

We’ve even figured out a way to digitize the HDMI TMDS signal and extend it using category wire, up to a whopping 300 feet. And somehow, we think that’s impressive? Single-mode fiber can carry an HD video signal over 10 miles. Now, THAT’S impressive – and it’s not exactly new science.

So, now we’re installing ever-larger racks of complex HDMI switching and distribution gear that is expensive and also bandwidth-capped – not nearly fast enough for the next generation of UHD+ displays with full RGB (4:4:4) color, high dynamic range, and high frame rates. How does that make any sense?

What’s worse, the marketing folks have gotten out in front, muddying the waters with all kinds of nonsensical claims about “4K compatibility,” “4K readiness,” and even “4K certified.” What does that even mean? Just because your switch or DA product can support a very basic level of Ultra HD video with slow frame rates and reduced color resolution, it’s considered “ready” or “certified?” Give me a break.

Digitizing HDMI and extending it 300 feet isn’t future-proof. Neither is limiting Ultra HD bandwidth to 30 Hz 8-bit RGB color, or 60 Hz 8-bit 4:2:0 color. Not even close. Not when you can already buy a 27-inch 5K (yes, 5K!) monitor with 5120×2880 resolution and the ability to show 60 Hz 10-bit color. And when 8K monitors are coming to market.

So why we keep playing tricks with specifications, and working with Band-Aid solutions? We shouldn’t. We don’t need to. And the answer is already at hand.

It’s time to move away from the concept of big, bulky, expensive, and basically obsolete switching and distribution hardware that’s based on a proprietary consumer display interface standard. It’s time to move to a software-based switching and distribution concept that uses an IT structure, standard codecs like JPEG2000, M-JPEG, H.264, and H.265, and everyday off-the-shelf switches to move signals around.

Now, we can design a fast, reliable AV network that allows us to manage available bandwidth and add connections as needed. Our video can be lightly compressed with low latency, or more highly compressed for efficiency. The only display interfaces we’ll need will be at the end points where the display is connected.

Even better, our network also provides access to monitoring and controlling every piece of equipment we’ve connected. We can design and configure device controls and interfaces using cloud-based driver databases. We can access content from remote servers (the cloud, again) and send it anywhere we want. And we can log in from anywhere in the world to keep tabs on how it’s all functioning.

And if we’re smart and not afraid to learn something new, we’ll wire all of it up with optical fiber, instead of bulky cables or transmitters and receivers to convert the signals to a packet format and back. (Guess what? AV-over-IP is already digital! You can toss out those distance-limited HDMI extenders, folks!)

For those who apparently haven’t gotten the memo, 40 Gb/s network switches have been available for a few years, with 100 Gb/s models now coming to market. So much for speed limit issues…

To the naysayers who claim AV-over-IP won’t work as well as display interface switching: That’s a bunch of hooey. How are Comcast, Time Warner, NBC, Disney, Universal, Netflix, Amazon, CBS, and other content originators and distributors moving their content around? You guessed it.

AV-over-IP is what you should be looking for as you walk the aisles of the Las Vegas Convention Center, not new, bigger, and bulkier HDMI/DVI matrices. AV-over-IP is the future of our industry, whether we embrace it or are dragged into it, kicking and screaming.

Are you on board, or what?