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Transmitting the Olympics: Scopus Network Technologies
    (7/2004)

    by Douglas Dixon

Scopus North America
Basile
Rainville
Morecom
Consolidation
Scopus
NBC - Olympics
Next Generation
Engineers
References

Looking for a high-profile challenge for your company? How about having your equipment responsible for transmitting the video feed for NBC's 24-hour continuous coverage from the 2004 Olympic Games in August 2004? That's the assignment for Princeton-based Scopus Network Technologies, which is providing digital video transmission systems to carry two high-definition and up to 25 standard-definition channels for NBC, and for Spanish-language U.S. broadcast on Telemundo.

"It's a very high profile event," says Carlo Basile, president of Scopus Network Technologies (www.scopus.net). "It will be an exciting summer." And for other reasons as well: "We're big in the news-gathering environment, and this is an election year." says Basile. "We'll play a pretty good role with a couple broadcasters at both conventions."

   

Scopus helps to design these video networks, install the equipment, and provides on-site service for such high-profile events. "It's a very mission critical thing," says Mario Rainville, associate vice president of product marketing at Scopus. "So you have to do everything you can and more to make sure. It's like practicing for a sport: You ask 'Have I practiced enough?' But sometimes enough is never enough. You always use all the time that you have to make sure it's going to be perfect when it's on the air."

Scopus North America

Carlo Basile founded the North American headquarters of Scopus in July 2003, as the Israeli company expanded its worldwide presence, by also adding offices in the UK, Scandinavia, and Singapore. The Princeton office has since expanded to 13 people, and occupies approximately 3300 square feet.

Scopus has over 200 employees worldwide, with offices in New Jersey and San Diego in the U.S., Beijing, China, Mexico City, Mexico, San Paolo, Brazil, Mumbai, India, Moscow, Russia, Frankfurt, Germany, Scandinavia, the U.K., Singapore, and the corporate headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel. Most of the satellite offices are sales oriented, with Princeton and Beijing staffed for sales and marketing, and also technical support and system integration.

Scopus chose Princeton for the new office even though it already had a U.S. office in San Diego, since, with the headquarters in Israel, "the 10 hour time difference to the west coast is difficult," says Basile. "The company had its sights on someplace close to New York City," he says, since "a lot of our customer base is here on the east coast."

But, "doing business in Manhattan itself is expensive and has its own difficulties," he says. "I live not far from here, and this is a great building. And right here on the Route 1 corridor is a good place to find people. There's a talent pool that likes to work in this area, and the cost of doing business is reasonable. We haven't had to relocate people; we've been doing fine with the employee base in this area."

Subsequently, the Princeton office has become the Americas headquarters for Scopus, "basically Canada down to Chile," says Basile. "We started out with one person. Now we have 12 people here, and growing."

Both Basile and Rainville are actually trained as electrical engineers. They were previously with Morecom, Inc., an interactive TV (ITV) software company in Horsham Pennsylvania that Rainville co-founded in 1997 to develop interactive software for Internet-enabled cable set-top boxes. Basile joined Rainville at Morecom as COO in 1999.

While ahead of its time in consumer adoption of digital television, Morecom was a success and was sold to Liberate Technologies in March 2000 for $561 million. When Liberate closed the Horsham site in 2002, Basile left the company, while Rainville remained in product marketing, and later joined Basile at Scopus in July 2003.

Basile

"I'm an engineer by trade," says Basile. "I've been in the video business my whole career, all different aspects of it. I've been with CBS, a broadcaster, to a consumer electronics company, Philips, then working on software for set-tops with Morecom, and now professional equipment manufacturing."

Basile graduated from Polytechnic University in New York in 1979 with a master's degree in electrical engineering. He then joined the CBS research and development facility in Stanford Connecticut. "At that time CBS was a very different company than it is today," says Basile. "It owned Columbia Records, did R&D on television and audio recording for records, and had people working on musical instruments for Steinway Piano and Fender. I was working on video disc recording for Columbia Records."

In 1984, Basile joined the Philips research facility in Briarcliff Manor, New York, working on high definition television and then digital communications. "I spent a lot of years working in television and video compression," says Basile. "For a few years I worked very closely with the people at Sarnoff on high definition television and the digital television standard. I spent a lot of time in the field lab there."

Then from 1997 to 1999, Basile moved to Silicon Valley to work with Philips consumer electronics in Palo Alto, where he was responsible for worldwide development of digital television products. "Then I wound up back here," he says, as CTO at Princeton Video Image, Inc., joining another former Sarnoff person, Brown Williams, who founded the company. Basile also played a role in the development of the Digital Television Standard, for which he earned an Emmy award in 1997.

Basile joined Morecom at the end of 1999, through a Philips connection. "The CEO and co-founder of Morecom, who Mario was working with, was a former Philips guy who was actually my boss for a time."

Rainville

Mario Rainville received his electrical engineering degree in 1987 from Laval University in Quebec, where he was born. Rainville then joined Matrox Electronics Systems in Montreal to design high-performance image processing and graphics hardware.

"I spent five to six years in design," he says, "designing hardware accelerators, to find image features in real time doing pattern recognition." This equipment was used for various applications, including airport security.

In 1992, says Rainville, "I got into telecom," with a start-up in Montreal, ABL (Advanced Broadband Links), "doing transport for voice and data over fiber optic links. I was in charge of technical product development."

Then in 1995, Rainville was recruited by General Instrument Corporation (now Motorola) to develop broadband equipment in San Diego. "The cable companies were looking to offer telephone services," he says, "and were looking for guys with telco backgrounds, and I had video too."

However, Rainville did not want to move to the west coast, but conveniently GI's headquarters was in the Philadelphia area, so he joined as director of interactive set-top terminals. "I was in charge of digital set-top development," he says, "a new generation for digital cable."

Morecom

Morecom "started out in early 1997," says Rainville. "The idea was to build an interactive television platform based on Internet standards," so the platform could provide Web-like interactivity combined with streaming video and video on demand (VOD).

On key differentiator for Morecom was using a broadband connection. "The stuff that was going on at that time were things like WebTV that used a telephony connection," says Basile. "We let you use a broadband connection."

The other difference was to not require a new, high-performance set-top platform. "This idea had not been done before," says Rainville. "The WebTV was a very powerful box. The idea at Morecom was to run software on the existing deployed base of set-top boxes. We put together a platform that runs on the low-end boxes that allows us to do a lot of cool things, without having to deploy it; it was just a software download."

Unfortunately, the whole idea of interactive television services just has not caught on with consumers. "What you see today, what got into the field was VOD," says Rainville. "The E-commerce part of it did not take off yet."

Even so, Morecom had a good run from 1997 to 2000. "It took us six months to raise money," says Rainville, "and then at the end of 1997 we were ready to get the team in place and develop the technology. We did quite a bit of good things in Europe, in Germany, and things were running pretty well."

Then the competition arrived, including OpenTV, Liberate, ACTV, and others. "All those companies got into the field in 1999 and 2000," says Rainville. "It was really time for consolidation."

Consolidation

And the consolidation of interactive television software companies arrived in March 2000. Liberate Technologies acquired Morecom for $561 million, and "the same night we announced the deal," says Rainville, "OpenTV announced they acquired Spyglass. We had 60 employees in Horsham," he says. "Liberate was in San Carlos, California. It was a pretty high profile acquisition by the standards of the time."

"In a start-up you end up doing a lot of things," says Rainville, "you do whatever it takes. You go to a trade show and roll up your sleeves. The resources are limited. Even after three years, you are always stretched, and do more than you can."

"That's a great environment to be in," says Basile, "It's a really fun environment. There's no such thing as 'It's not my job' -- whatever it is, it's your job."

"It was very dynamic," says Rainville. "That's one of the reasons the acquisition took place, because the team was very strong."

However, "Liberate went though a lot of restructuring," says Basile, "and now they are Chapter 11." Liberate consolidated to the California office, and "we unfortunately had to close the doors in Horsham in 2002."

Rainville stayed with Liberate after the acquisition until late 2002. "I worked out of my home office," he says. "but most of the time I was traveling." Meanwhile, Basile left with the office closing. "I turned out the lights," he says.

"The companies are still in competition today in terms of a middleware platform for cable set-top boxes," says Rainville. "Liberate was very well positioned because it was backed by Oracle. So the big battle was between Oracle and Microsoft, because Microsoft bought WebTV."

"The interactive TV space changed a lot." he says. "It really stated being focused on VOD (video on demand) and PVR (personal video recorders), video-based services. Buying a pizza on TV is not there, at least on the consumer side."

"It's not clear from a business standpoint how a subscriber will want to do all those interactive things," says Rainville. "Television has to be simple, has to remain simple."

Scopus

Joining Scopus moved Basile and Rainville further away from consumer set-top boxes to transmission and video compression equipment. Instead of needing to sell products to cable companies, which then have to deploy boxes into homes, Scopus sells professional equipment directly to the broadcasters, that they use directly within their studios and networks. "The video you see is transported using our equipment," says Rainville.

Scopus is focused on the delivery of digital TV and data over broadband networks. This turns out to be a non-trivial problem in today's world because of the profusion of formats and standards for storing video and transmitting through data networks. You shoot some video at a remote site in any one of a number of "standard" video formats, analog or digital, and then you want to transmit it over some arbitrary links of high-speed networks, and then deliver it in some other arbitrary mix of formats. And you want this end-to-end process to be rock-solid reliable.

This is Scopus' bread and butter: products that encode, aggregate, convert, transmit, route, monitor, receive, decode, and distribute digital video. Scopus calls this the "Intelligent Video Network" architecture, components for end-to-end networked distribution of compressed digital video. This equipment is used by customers including global satellite broadcasters and cable television and telco operators such as BBC, CBS Newspath, Hughes, FOX News, Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom, Korea Telecom, SKY Italia, and others.

   
        Intelligent Video Network diagram

For broadcasters, Scopus products are used for applications including direct to home distribution over satellite, cable TV, and DSL. Scopus equipment is also used for video distribution for digital satellite / Electronic News Gathering (ENG) and distance learning and business users, over satellite and terrestrial telecommunications links, as well as wireless cable, and microwave links.

While Scopus is well-known and successful overseas, "we had a small presence in the U.S.," says Rainville. "The market for our product in North America is quite large. By the end of this year at least half the cable subscribers in the U.S. will be able to get VOD if they want it."

"It's a perception issue, he says, "people don't know the company, we need to build the brand. We're not a start-up. The company has been around for a long time." Scopus began as a spin-off of Tadiran, "which was basically the GE of Israel, a widely diversified company." As a result, "Scopus benefits from over 20 years of video compression work." Scopus is privately held, and raised $15.5 million of second round financing in August 2003.

NBC - Olympics

Scopus built its reputation for major events like the Olympics with the 2002 World Cup. "It's not very well known in North America, says Basile, "but in the rest of the world soccer is king. There were billions of eyeballs watching it. That was 200 channels of compressed video, all of which was handled by our equipment. We demonstrated that we could handle such an event."

For the Olympics, NBC's main transmission path is between the International Broadcast Center in Athens and its New York and New Jersey sites in the U.S. This will use Scopus MPEG DVB Encoders to transmit six channels via satellite and fiber optic links to Scopus Integrated Receiver Decoders. These Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) boxes compress the various video inputs into the MPEG compressed digital video format (also used on DVDs and for digital satellite and cable TV), transmit it over the various network links, and then decompress and convert it back into the formats. Scopus is also equipping two digital satellite news gathering vans with video encoders for as many as four transmissions per mobile van.

But Scopus' involvement with its customers is much deeper than just selling products. "We are very close to customers", says Rainville. "It's not enough to have the right thing on the shelf, but when they call with a problem or they want to add features you have to be responsive and listen to what they need. Our team works really well with R&D to add different types of interfaces to our products."

"You can imagine this kind of customer," says Basile. "The business that they're in is not a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, kind of business. It's 24/7, 365; when you're working with them you have to be prepared to support them."

"We have a wide range of video products installed," says Rainville, "some are at fixed locations in nice air-conditioned systems, but there are also encoders that fit in news trucks that are carried, moved, and can be dropped on the floor. It's important that when they call we are there." Similarly, when there's a possible problem in a broadcast, "you need to troubleshoot in real time to monitor what the problem is," he says. "You need a specialist on site to look at the configuration and status of the encoder to troubleshoot before the problem gets worse. Mission-critical stuff like this happens quite a bit."

For the Olympics, Scopus is deploying teams from around the world. "The people here in Princeton are handling the receive side of it," says Basile, "for redistribution using the NBC network in North America. Other Scopus people are more convenient to Athens."

The Princeton office is half professional services, and half sales and marketing. "We identify customer needs, what they want," says Rainville. "We gain an understanding of their needs in the next six months. This is a moving target, so you have to shoot and lead the target. We can develop it so it's ready for the market. You cannot just react; you need to predict a little bit where it is going to be."

Next Generation

The future also includes a transition to new, more efficient digital video formats. "MPEG-2 encoding is stretched to the limit in terms of what you can do to stretch the bandwidth," says Rainville, "so now you are looking at alternate methods." Scopus has announced a new universal platform to support next-generation technologies including MPEG-4 and Windows Media Video 9.

However, "commercialization is in its infancy," says Basile. "Infrastructure for digital video connectivity worldwide started to be built about 10 years ago, and now is widely deployed. Billions have been spent building that infrastructure, so the companies that have built it are not eager to abandon it."

One driver of newer technology is high definition television, "since HD is a bandwidth hog and needs all the help it can get," says Basile. Similarly, "satellite operators are always at the top in terms of data conservation, always pushing the limit" to squeeze more channels into the available circuits.

Another open field is video delivered over DSL. "DirectTV has tens of millions of set-tops boxes out there," says Rainville. "You can't tell everybody to buy a new one." But video for DSL is a new field, with more difficult challenges. "Because of bandwidth constraints, DSL needs to see better performance in video encoding to be more widely deployed. The limit today is two video steams per copper wire pair, but most homes have more than two televisions."

"The direction that the industry will take is not entirely clear," says Basile. There are unresolved licensing issues with MPEG-4, and the adoption of two competing standards could significantly reduce the economy of scale in moving to a new digital video infrastructure. There will come a time when the economic case is made, and the customer will choose. We see customers migrating in the next few years."

Engineers

Scopus has completed the transition for Basile and Rainville from the original training in engineering and development to roles focused on business and marketing.

"At a start-up, you become more marketing and business development," says Rainville. "You start to sell on day one because you sell investors. It's a transition to a more marketing role from the technical side." Even at Morecom, "It was a mix for the first year until we got the team in place, then it was more focused on technical marketing. I actually wrote quite a bit of code for the graphics engine."

"Twenty years ago it would be different," says Basile, "engineers were much more pigeon holed."

"Now, in today's world it's good to have the [technical] background," says Rainville. "You develop the products, and then it's much easier to have discussions with technical guys at the customer. It's an advantage to understand that; it's obvious you need to have the business mindset."

"People with those skills can be very successful," says Basile, "in many ways."

References

Scopus Network Technologies
    www.scopus.net