Three Tips for Distributed Video

David Meyer | Apr 23, 2019

There’s been no shortage of talk over the last year or more about “the death of the matrix switch” in the face of AV-over-IP. I’d like to challenge this with other, somewhat more pragmatic considerations. It’s quickly getting to the point where we first need to consider whether HDMI-based distribution is actually required. If yes, then it’s a choice between matrix or AV-over-IP, both of which are totally viable. We’ll come back to these later.

Streaming content is taking over. Big time. IP-delivered video-on-demand (VOD) can  be streamed over a standard home network directly to a smart TV or via an accompanying media player or mobile device. Cisco’s latest Visual Networking Index (2017-2022) report suggests that video will account for 82% of global IP traffic by 2021(1). We’re actually approaching 80% already, so it’s totally believable. The same report also suggests that global VOD traffic will be the equivalent of 10 billion DVDs per month by 2022.

Of this monstrous load of video streaming, the two giants are Netflix and YouTube, which together account for more than one-quarter of global internet traffic (by megabytes): Netflix 15%, YouTube 11.4%(2). By the way, YouTube is bigger on mobile, accounting for a whopping 35% of global mobile traffic, leaving 65% for everything else! (In case you’re wondering, Facebook/Instagram accounts for around 20%, but I digress.)

Netflix has more original content than any cable/satellite channel in existence. According to Variety.com, in Q3 2018, Netflix released 676 hours’ worth of new original content, up 50% from 452 hours the previous quarter (to June 30) and 289 hours in Q3 2017(3). Furthermore, an increasing number of programs are in 4K with HDR.

As for YouTube, well, I hope you’re sitting down. As of February 2017 (the latest I could find), 400 hours’ worth of new content is uploaded to YouTube EVERY MINUTE. That equates to 65 years’ worth EVERY 24 HOURS. So who’s watching? 1.8 billion logged-in users globally — around 10% of whom are from the U.S. — collectively watching 1 billion hours per day. Fun fact: there’s a meager 245 active users in India, so therein lies an opportunity! (4)

Generally speaking, the younger the audience, the higher the streamed content viewing, and the lower the proportion of viewing time spent on fixed TVs. They prefer mobiles and tablets. (Anyone with kids will attest to this.) Stats differ amongst various reporting outlets, but they all indicate a shrinking of legacy cable, satellite, and over-the-air TV viewing time, moving instead to on-demand streaming content. That’s why traditional broadcasters and subscription TV providers have also been moving to on-demand IP delivery.

Of course, IP delivery means apps. These could be accessed directly in a smart TV via an HDMI-connected media player, of which we’re spoiled for choice with the likes of Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, NowTV, Fire TV, etc. Having apps either directly in or directly connected to each display in a home negates the need for a dedicated video distribution system. At least for that content type. 

This brings us to the question of what type of video content homeowners might want to distribute around the home. It’s a no for locally stored media files with a product or service like Kaleidescape or Plex, which operate over a 1GbE network. There’s no point distributing gaming content due to the operating range of controllers, plus latency in distribution systems makes it a non-starter anyway. How about DVD and Blu-ray? They’re a little inconvenient for distributing around a home but are still certainly candidates.

The leading source for distributing around a home is still cable/satellite and time-shifted TV, with one or more boxes in a central location. But wait, didn’t we just say that these services are in decline? Well, yes, but the older the age group, the slower the transition to IP video. That’s still a big demographic and plenty of business opportunity as distribution systems represent profit that an integrator can’t get from IP delivery alone!

So, back to where we started, a client wants to distribute predominantly cable/satellite and time-shifted TV to the various displays around their home, to complement an in-home movie server and IP-delivered content to each display. For this, you need a robust home network (which we won’t get into here — there’s a great range of CEDIA courses for that), and video distribution via a matrix switch or AV-over-IP.

Tip No. 1 — The primary displays warrant the highest quality, so keep them separate from the distributed video system. For example, for a large 4K (or 8K) HDR panel display or projector in a main living zone or dedicated cinema room, it’s good practice to direct-connect them with high performance HDMI. That is, sources such as UHD Blu-ray, 4K cable box, Kaleidescape player, etc., are connected to the AV processor, then directly to the display via HDMI. Ideally, all HDMI should be minimum 18Gbps, with longer lengths in either active copper or active optical cable (AOC). Or even better, full fiber with ends that can later be swapped out for upgrade to uncompressed 48Gbps HDMI 2.1 for the best possible performance path.

Tip No. 2 — Use a 1x2 HDMI splitter behind any source that you need to connect to both the primary display/s and distribution system. By keeping the primary displays independent, it not only allows them uncompromised performance, but it reduces the demands on the distribution system to a more practical level. After all, secondary displays may entail smaller TVs, many of which are 1080p or even lower, legacy resolutions. Match the distribution system capabilities to the best of the displays that are being used. Regular HDBaseT (the 10Gbps kind) will support 1080p and 4K up to 30fps, even with HDR (at 4:2:0). And compression is so good these days that any use in HDBaseT or AV-over-IP will generally look great (latency notwithstanding), so don’t necessarily discount options based on this.

The scalability of matrix or AV-over-IP comes down to centralized versus decentralized. The disadvantage of the matrix switch is its fixed dimension — 4x4, 8x8, 16x16, etc. It means that a system with only a couple of sources and, say, 10 displays may be regarded as an inefficient and expensive proposition, though that can mean great margins.

AV-over-IP has a big advantage in being decentralized, with the endpoints at sources and displays being largely scalable. Only got two sources and ten displays? Easy — just use two transmitters and ten receivers. If the client wants to add a couple more TVs, get a couple more receivers and add them right in. 10GbE AV-over-IP systems support the highest quality, but again if the primary displays are kept separate, the options are opened right up, and a reasonably priced 1GbE AV-over-IP solution might serve a project’s design goals perfectly.

Tip No. 3 — Sorry if this one’s obvious, but — do your homework. AV-over-IP systems may cost more than a basic matrix solution, but the flexibility might be something that your clients would be keen to invest in. As the system size increases, it may flip to see AV-over-IP become a more economical solution as larger matrices are exponentially more expensive. Check with your vendors about this cost vector, and if you’ve not yet used an AV-over-IP system, it could be well worth checking out.