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Suddenlink and SeaChange pull off cable first

Thu, 04/30/2009 - 8:00pm

Across a vast territory extending from Eastern Louisiana to the Western reaches of Texas, Suddenlink Communications is making cable history with a huge assist from SeaChange International.

In an industry first, Suddenlink, the nation’s eighth-largest MSO with 1.3 million subscribers, has launched video-on-demand (VOD) service in nearly two dozen markets by using open-standards software from one equipment vendor in a centralized location to control the remote video servers of a different equipment vendor. Specifically, Suddenlink is relying on SeaChange’s Axiom On Demand VOD management software at the MSO’s media operations center in Bryan-College Station, Texas, to direct nine of Motorola’s Broadbus B-1 video servers scattered across a rugged, sprawling region of several-thousand square miles.

The one-of-a-kind SeaChange platform gathers on-demand content at a central facility, propagates the content to the nine Motorola video servers and then streams the programming to Suddenlink’s digital cable subscribers.

Thanks to this innovative arrangement, Suddenlink is now rolling out VOD service to tens of thousands of digital cable subscribers in 23 different cities and towns, such as Lake Charles, La.; College Station, Tyler and Georgetown, Texas, to the east, as well as Abilene, Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland and San Angelo, Texas, to the west.

Customers can initially choose among up to 3,500 hours, or more than 5,000 titles, of on-demand content (including 100 movies in HD), sports, music, children’s and other programming from TVN Entertainment Corp., with about two-thirds of it available for no extra charge. The MSO expects to add another 1,000 hours of VOD content in the near future.

Suddenlink Net Diagram

ENHANCING THE VOD EXPERIENCE
At the same time, Suddenlink is using its new VOD delivery system to substantially boost its lineup of HDTV programming for digital cable viewers. The MSO has already introduced new HD channels, as well as dozens of fresh HD VOD offerings to viewers in its markets.

“Folks will be looking for more HD content,” says Dave Gilles, regional vice president of operations for Suddenlink’s West Texas region. “We now have 34 linear HD channels in most of West Texas. But we feel VOD is a better way to deliver niche HD programming.”

Furthermore, Suddenlink is using its new open-standards architecture to bring a more advanced interactive programming guide, Macrovision’s iGuide, to its digital subscribers. The new programming guide is taking the place of the MSO’s old Aptiv guide. Suddenlink is loading the iGuide on set-top boxes going out to new digital customers, while deploying it electronically to digital boxes that already sit in customer homes.

Plans call for Suddenlink to introduce several more sophisticated VOD services in 2009, including local on-demand sports, government and other programming, and advertising. The MSO also intends to introduce such emerging, DVR-like services as Start Over and Look Back, which enable viewers to pause, fast-forward and rewind TV show episodes that have either begun airing or have already aired. 

“Now we have the platform,” says Gregg Grigaitis, vice president of advanced technology for Suddenlink. “We’ve built an architecture that positions us to continue adding advanced services quickly and at the most economic price point possible.”

BACKBONE TO SERVE
That platform has been in the making for quite a while. Suddenlink began developing its VOD delivery system in the region slightly more than two years ago, shortly before Grigaitis joined the company following previous stints at leading VOD back office software and server vendors. While the MSO already offered VOD in the large Charleston, W.Va., system it acquired from Charter Communications, it did not have any on-demand offerings in its Texoma, Mid South and West operating regions because of the limited size of each cable system and the large distances between them. It simply didn’t make economic sense to roll out VOD in separate small markets with just 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 subscribers apiece. 

“We had to centralize operations and spread costs across all the regions,” Grigaitis says. “We couldn’t entertain 23 separate VOD systems and market deployments.”

“We had a national backbone already,” Grigaitis says. “That was not true for most MSOs when VOD started 10 years ago. We had an infrastructure in place that allowed us to think out of the box while others couldn’t when they rolled out VOD.”

Aiming to take greater advantage of both their national fiber backbone and regional fiber networks, Suddenlink explored how they could tap into the networks to provide VOD services more effectively without the large, market-based VOD systems of other major MSOs. They quickly realized that, with the right management software in place, they could use the backbone to deliver on-demand programming throughout the operating regions without setting up video servers and back office systems in each market, thus saving on hardware, software, manpower and monitoring expenses.

“It would’ve been cost prohibitive,” says Sanjiv Moré, senior director of advanced advertising and VOD sales for SeaChange. “It would’ve been too expensive to make sense if you needed a SeaChange back office or a separate video server for each market.”

Seeking to combine its preferred solutions from multiple hardware and software vendors, Suddenlink promptly decided to team SeaChange’s proven back office management software with Broadbus’ memory-based VOD servers. As long-time users of SeaChange’s digital advertising insertion systems, Suddenlink felt comfortable with expanding into on-demand services with the vendor. The company also felt confident about SeaChange’s ability to open up its Axiom management software to third-party vendors like Motorola and move the VOD content seamlessly around the network.

“To pull off our centralized content reception with backbone distribution to our VOD pump sites, our vendors had to implement innovative IP multicast distribution,” Grigaitis says. “We wanted nothing vendor-specific. Everything had to be standard protocol-based.”

AN INTEGRATED EFFORT
After Suddenlink made its vendor selections in late 2006, SeaChange and Motorola engineers spent the next eight to 12 months integrating their respective products. The two companies had already started the integration effort in Charleston earlier, working with the Next Generation On-Demand (NGOD) specifications developed by Comcast for VOD systems so that their devices could speak the same language. At Suddenlink’s request, the two vendors then shifted their focus to Texas and Louisiana.

In fact, SeaChange’s professional services team operated as the primary integrator on the project and served as the first point of contact for all related support issues. The team comprises industry experts who provide global field service and training, program and project management, custom engineering, operational support, integration and consulting services worldwide.

SeaChange and Motorola engineers also spent plenty of time working with their Suddenlink counterparts to make sure their open-standards, end-to-end VOD system could work on the MSO’s new network. Over the past year, they particularly focused on bringing the MSO’s plant up to speed, resolving any operational snags with the digital set-top boxes and integrating the new iGuide into the entire system. They ended up crafting a VOD infrastructure that today supports 15,000 simultaneous streams across 23 markets, with essentially the unlimited ability to elegantly and cost-effectively scale in place as new markets are added and streaming demand grows.

“It was a challenge because it was new for both companies and we were operating on a customer’s network,” says Rob Fitzgerald, senior director of system integration services with SeaChange’s professional services group. “To be honest, we expected the project to be quite challenging, but we’ve been extremely happy. … We had the time to work out any kinks that invariably pop up on a project of this magnitude.”

Once they knew that all of the different network components would work together well, engineers from all three companies then tested the new VOD service on pilot subscribers for another six months. They relied on hundreds of Suddenlink employees in several markets to try out the service, offering them a month of free on-demand movies or other programming purchases as an incentive.

“We wanted our employees to understand how VOD works,” says Jeff Gould, vice president of engineering for Suddenlink’s Mid South region. “They were pleasantly surprised at the breadth of content, as well as the ease of use of the system.”

With the tests successfully behind it, Suddenlink started rolling out VOD service in the West Texas region in mid-September. As of the end of 2008, the MSO had introduced the service to the remainder of the 23 markets.

“The rollout has gone well,” Grigaitis says. “Out of the box, we were operating at an over 96 percent stream success rate.”

Several months before commercially launching the new VOD system, Suddenlink also began the process of switching over its new digital customers in the regions to the new iGuide. At launch, the MSO allowed its DVR customers to set a convenient date for them to switch over from the Aptiv programming guide to iGuide, a trickier task to pull off because those subscribers lose all of their previously recorded programming when the new guide takes effect. To make the process more palatable, Suddenlink gives DVR customers a generous window of several weeks to switch before eventually converting all remaining DVRs.

EARLY RETURNS
While it’s still early in the process, Suddenlink is already seeing positive business results from the VOD rollout. The MSO’s combined monthly buys for VOD and PPV jumped 60 percent between September and October. At the same time, the growth in its digital penetration rate doubled in October.

“We’ve seen digital penetration to basic go up about 1 percent a month,” about twice the historical rate, Gilles says. “We feel that this product will continue to drive that trend. VOD does a good job of putting a lot of incremental value in the customer’s house.”  

Pleased with the response so far, Suddenlink is already looking to expand VOD service to other unserved regions. Now that it has the system in place, the MSO knows it can scale to the next round of markets as it grows its VOD business over time. With Charleston and now a massive portion of the South Central U.S. accounted for, Suddenlink is well prepared to focus on new parts of the country.

“I think it’s the beginning of more to come,” Moré says. “We’ve already talked to Suddenlink about doing more business with them. They’ll be adding more markets.”

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