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Pillai, Smith spearhead Charter's all-digital push in Long Beach

Wed, 06/30/2004 - 8:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor

Pragash Pillai, director of digital engineering, Charter Communications; and Lennie Smith, director of engineering, Charter's Western Division

Lennie Smith Pragash Pillai
Lennie Smith
Pragash Pillai
Although the industry has been abuzz about migrating to an all-digital environment since the first half of 2003, Charter Communications ran up the leadership colors in January when it became the first MSO to publicly disclose the launch of an all-digital service.

Although many company insiders give Charter Chairman Paul Allen much of the credit for getting the all-digital project in Long Beach moving on a fast track, CED is recognizing two individuals–Pragash Pillai and Lennie Smith–for their day-to-day work in architecting the system and putting all of the pieces together on the ground.

Pillai, the MSO's director of digital engineering, architected Charter's all-digital system in Long Beach, a system based on Scientific-Atlanta's PowerKEY conditional access platform.

Considered a rising star in the cable engineering community, Pillai was the 2003 "Young Engineer Award" winner, recognized for the key role he played in Charter's rollout of video-on-demand and high-definition television.

Going into the project, of special concern was the compression ratio used to power the all-digital network. Following some analysis, which needed to account for digital program insertion, Pillai and Charter settled on 14-to-1.

Although Pillai served as the corporate architect of the project, Long Beach's road to digital also required plenty of buy-in at the local level. Leading the way there was Lennie Smith, director of engineering for Charter's Western Division.

Key to the success of the project was Smith's background and understanding of the baseband side and RF side of the cable plant. Smith got his start in cable in the mid-1980s with Falcon Communications following several years as a broadcast engineer.

In addition to having strong headend technicians on site, the number of advertising zones in Long Beach also helped Charter determine it as the location of its first all-digital launch. Multiple advertising zones would have raised the expense of the project significantly.

"We picked Long Beach because it had a single advertising zone...and the size of the plant was adequate in order to manage the project," Smith explains. On the advertising front, Charter partnered with Adlink early on to iron out timing related to all-digital and the other technical issues. "Now it's working very well," Smith says.

Also in Long Beach's corner was the fact Charter had already achieved greater than 65 percent digital penetration.

The next step for Smith was the headend preparation and installation, which was completed in partnership with Harmonic Inc. "It was like building a headend within a headend," Smith recalls, noting that the project soaked up 13 racks, many of which had to be adjacent.

Though it was not overly difficult for a headend vet like Smith to piece together everything for the all-digital rollout, it wasn't without its share of technical issues. Chief among them was how Charter handled audio levels. "Maintaining audio continuity and video continuity and maintaining audio and video levels were very, very critical," Smith says.

Because of the engineering work put into the effort, the digital transition has largely been transparent to Charter customers in Long Beach.

"The nice thing about [using existing digital set-tops] is that you can map whatever channels you want," Pillai says, noting that Charter is able to add networks in all-digital once the MSO receives approval to do so from the programmer. If the customer with a digital box is watching channel five, they're still getting channel five, but in digital format.

"Hopefully the only thing they realize is that the quality is a lot better than what they were getting previously," Pillai says, adding that Charter is presently simulcasting 96 channels for the project in Long Beach.

Charter has received very few comments about the transition and "no negative comments" about the picture quality, Smith adds.

But there's much more work to do and many more questions to be answered, Pillai acknowledges. For one, operators such as Charter are already noodling how to handle homes with multiple outlets. Even at $35 per set-top, outfitting a home with eight cable outlets is a losing financial proposition. One possibility is an emerging device called the video network interface unit (VNIU), an out-of-the-way box (affixed to the side of the house or in the basement) that handles the digital-to-analog conversion for every cable outlet in a given home.

"Going all digital is not something that you can do overnight. I think it's a process that will take some time," Pillai says.

But kudos to Smith and Pillai for their roles in helping Charter get that process underway.

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