PRSS plans rollout of next generation of satellite receivers

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After several years of discussion and input from member stations, the Public Radio Satellite System is preparing to unveil new receivers selected for the coming upgrade of public radio’s interconnection system. 

The receivers, chosen for the latest 10-year cycle of CPB interconnection funding, will introduce a completely new vendor, ATX Networks. Unlike the last round of PRSS interconnection upgrades that went into service in 2010, this change will render the current generation of receivers and their predecessors useless once the new hardware goes into service early next year.

Michael Beach, NPR VP of distribution, will present the new system to engineers at the Public Radio Engineering Conference, convening April 4–6 in Las Vegas.

The switch from International Datacasting’s SFX4104 receivers to ATX’s XDS technology will bring some big advantages for both stations and PRSS, said Ron Walker, PRSS senior director of technology and operations. After extensive consultation with member stations and producers who use the system, PRSS used its RFP process, which wrapped up last May, to require several new features. 

One key feature of ATX’s system is the capacity to deliver live audio streams to the receivers over the internet, said Jon Cyphers, PRSS broadcast systems engineer. Each of the new PRO4S receivers will come with two internet connections, allowing stations to automatically drop back to internet delivery for both live streams and file delivery if the primary signal from the Galaxy 16 satellite is lost. That’s a big change at the station level, where the loss of satellite signal now sends engineers scrambling to do a manual switch to backup feeds.

An improved internet connection will also provide smoother feeds of shows that arrive as files. The files will transfer more quickly, and the receiver can automatically retrieve a file from the internet if it’s missed over the satellite, Cyphers said. “Currently stations have to run into Content Depot and download the file manually.”

The new receivers will also improve two-way communications with the PRSS headend in Washington, D.C., using internet connections to provide automatic status updates to network engineers.

“Until now, we’ve relied on stations to contact us, and that obviously takes time to understand the scope of the problem,” Walker said. “We’ll have the ability to know more quickly if we have a systemwide problem.”

Around back, the receivers will include a wider variety of outputs than their predecessors, including newer flavors of digital audio. These include AES67 and Axia’s Livewire, which will also serve as the digital audio backbone at PRSS as system engineers rebuild the headend. The receivers will also have outputs for traditional analog audio and AES digital. 

As one of the largest satellite systems in the country, PRSS could have pushed vendors to create custom receivers, but it deliberately held back from doing that, Walker said. Its leaders wanted to ensure that parts would be readily available over the 10-year design life of the new system.

“We were very clear from the beginning that we did not want a custom receiver,” he said. “We wanted a standard receiver that they were offering to all customers. We didn’t want manufacturing delays or specialized parts, but we also had new requirements that no receiver on the market met.”

The design for the new PRO4S receivers, completed over the last few months, incorporates more than a dozen new features added specifically at PRSS’ request, Cyphers said, including upgraded audio cards and support. All of the new features will be available to other users of the ATX XDS system, such as large commercial radio networks such as ABC and Westwood One.

As part of the $4.3 million CPB grant for the project, each local station will receive two receivers and a cabling adapter. Stations will be able to buy more receivers if they require the ability to receive more programming at once.

“We’re going to ask stations to have those installed by January of next year, and then we’ll begin a dual-operations period in January or February where both systems are live,” Cyphers said. If the project stays on schedule, he says, the old IDC system will be decommissioned and the new ATX system will be fully active by this time next year.

Could this sixth-generation public radio interconnect be the last to use satellite delivery?

“For now, satellite is still the most effective way to get to all the stations we serve,” Walker said, “but this system lays the foundation for a system that’s hybrid in the near-term and maybe completely terrestrial in the longer term.” PRSS is very aware that some stations in rural areas, especially Alaska, lack reliable internet service and rely on the Galaxy 16 satellite.

While PRSS continues to have conversations with PBS about cooperating on future distribution systems, Walker says there are still differing needs between radio and television.

“We are a node on PBS’ v6 distribution system,” Walker said, “and we’re spending a lot of time collaborating with them.” While PBS has moved largely to file-based distribution of recorded programming, live feeds remain the backbone of PRSS’ operations.

In addition to showing off the new system and answering questions at this year’s PREC, PRSS is in the midst of an active outreach effort to get stations ready. “We are going to be sending a survey to each station to make sure we have all of their engineering, GM and delivery information updated and current,” said Erich Shea, communications and outreach manager for NPR Distribution. “By the time PREC rolls around, every station that’s paying attention will have an idea of what’s happening.”

An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Erich Shea as PREC’s marketing communications project director. He works for NPR Distribution as communications and outreach manager.

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