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Coming to a Home Near You: Multi-Room DVR Services

Thu, 09/30/2010 - 8:55pm
Mike Robuck, Senior Editor

MoCA is the common ingredient for a spate of deployments

Whole-home DVR services haven’t quite reached the level of table stakes, but video providers know they need to offer multi-room DVR if they want to stay in the game with subscribers.

On that note, it has been a busy year for cable operators for whole-home DVR rollouts. Cable has been slow to follow in the footsteps of other service providers – such as AT&T and Verizon, both of whom bowed their services in 2008 – but this year the tide has started to turn for cable operators.

Comcast is offering its AnyRoom wholehome DVR service in more than 20 markets after the initial rollout in July. Similar services are also being offered, or are about to be offered, by Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable, Sunflower Broadband, DirecTV, Suddenlink and RCN, with the latter two partnering with TiVo.

The common ingredient for the host of multi-room DVR deployments is MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) technology that allows the existing coaxial cable in a home to connect a master DVR to smaller receivers in other rooms.

DirectTV... Wole-Home DVR Service

While some sort of combination of physical access technologies may exist in the future – including Wi-Fi, HomePlug and HomePNA, and maybe G.hn – MoCA is the proverbially low-hanging fruit now that the cost – and, for satellite, frequency issues – have been worked out.

“In the United States, we’re going to be dominant for video applications,” said Rob Gelphman, chairman of MoCA’s Marketing Work Group. “We’re going to get all of cable, all of satellite, and about half of telco with Verizon and the smaller

ones. The ducks are lining up. “The business case for coax is very easy because it’s in like 90 percent of the houses in the U.S. Multi-room DVR is a service that you can charge extra for, and it’s a gateway to other document- or information-sharing kind of applications.”

This summer, MoCA 2.0 was ratified, which, among other upgrades, will provide between 400 Mbps and 1 Gigabit throughputs, depending on the configuration, which doubles up on MoCA 1.1’s net throughput of 175 Mbps while being fully backwards compatible with the previous two versions.

While Gelphman described MoCA 2.0 as a roadmap for the future, MoCA 1.0 and 1.1 are, along with Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) devices and Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) networking protocols, enabling the current wave of home networking through multi-room DVR deployments.

“We’re using MoCA 1.0 and quickly migrating to MoCA 1.1 so that all of the interconnecting between set-top boxes is done via MoCA,” said Chris Albano, Comcast’s senior director of customer premises equipment and home networking. “The primary difference between MoCA 1.0 and MoCA 1.1 is the number of nodes, or set-top boxes, and other MoCA-enabled devices that can be supported in a home. With MoCA 1.0, you’re limited to eight; when you get to 1.1, it becomes 16 nodes or individual MoCAtype devices that can go into that home.”

Multi-room DVR is the video component of an overall home networking umbrella that will, or in some cases already does, include data, wireless and mobility services under one roof. The push is coming from consumers who are bringing IP-enabled or mobile devices into their homes with the expectation that they’ll work from the get-go or, at the very least, with a low level of frustration during setup.

“More and more people are going to go out and buy new products, and they’re going to want to come home and plug them into their networks and not need a lot of hand holding,” Albano said. “They’re probably not going to want to call for help – they want it to be automatic, and we’re here to support that.

“We’re very aware of the enabling technologies that are going to be needed to help our customers move forward, whether it’s a sophisticated gateway with MoCA, Wi-Fi, DOCSIS 3.0 and phone integrated into it – we have our eyes on it. We’re making sure that whatever our customers want, we’re there to help them embrace it.”

In the meantime, telco, cable and satellite providers are building their foundations for the home networks of the future, which now include multiroom DVR services in addition to wireless routers for data. Here’s a brief look at some of their approaches.

TWC: ALL THE BELLS AND WHISTLES
This summer, Time Warner Cable started offering its SignatureHome service in Charlotte, N.C. Time Warner Cable wasn’t willing to provide any additional details on the service, but it’s safe to say that at $180 per month, the nation’s second-largest cable operator has deployed a home networking platform for affluent customers that want all of the bells and whistles.

On the whole-home DVR front, SignatureHome DVRs can record up to four HD programs simultaneously, and they can store 150 hours of HD content and allow subscribers to program their DVRs away from home via computers or smartphones. They also allow users to stop a show in one room and resume viewing in another.

While Time Warner Cable hasn’t said if it’s using MoCA for SignatureHome, it joined MoCA two years ago.

Time Warner Cable has also mixed in its 50 Mbps DOCSIS 3.0 data tier, Look Back and Start Over capabilities, and a wireless network that allows customers to connect up to 13 devices, including TVs, DVRs, computers, printers, stereos, gaming consoles and mobile phones, to the wireless network it installs.

The bundle also comes with Caller ID on TV and Caller ID on PC. Time Warner Cable’s “VoiceZone” lets subscribers manage their digital home phones from any computer, while another feature sends voicemail to e-mail if a subscriber is away from home.

On the customer service front, SignatureHome offers access to a specialized customer service team, which Time Warner Cable calls Personal Service Advisors, that answer questions live over the phone or via chat, as well as specially trained technicians who show up in a two-hour window based on a subscriber’s reservation.

Time Warner Cable’s SignatureHome is part of its “segmentation” strategy that uses extensive research to tailor bundles and services to select groups of customers.

COX: PLUS PACKAGE MAKES ITS DEBUT
At The Cable Show in May, Cox was showing off its Plus Package tier, which includes a multi-room DVR service, with its new Trio guide. Cox said in May that it planned on having Plus Package available throughout most of its footprint by year’s end. As of last month, Steve Necessary, Cox’s vice president of video product development, said Plus Package was in employees’ homes in at least six systems.

Steve Necessary“We still expect to have it deployed across, at the least, the majority of our base by the end of the year,” Necessary said. “We’re pretty bullish about those prospects.”

Like Time Warner Cable’s SignatureHome, Plus Package is a flagship product, although Cox hasn’t released any information on pricing.

The home DVR service features Cisco’s tru2way-enabled 8642 HD DVR and 1642 HD gateway receiver. With the multiroom DVR service, Cox subscribers can watch up to three different programs simultaneously on any TV in the home from a single DVR unit via MoCA 1.1.

“We’ve also been active participants in DLNA, and so with the advent of the MoCA technology, we became comfortable that it was a good and robust technical solution,” Necessary said of Cox’s whole-home DVR strategy. “Part of it was an evolution of the consumers’ demand for a better consumer experience by watching content on another TV without paying for a second DVR. But, of course, there was a competitive issue factored in there, as well.”

Currently, Cox has trained a subset of its technicians to handle the Plus Package installs, but Necessary said that eventually customers might be able to install additional equipment on their own.

“We are looking at ways to do self-installation for our Plus Package and so forth, because, candidly, some people just prefer to do that,” Necessary said. “There’s obviously a convenience factor for folks that feel comfortable handling that kind of technology. They would really just rather do it themselves, so we’re working at that, but clearly at the outset we’re doing all of this with professional installation to ensure that it is a good customer experience.”

Necessary said Cox was using Plus Package to gauge subscribers’ responses to home networking. For Cox, there’s the issue of some legacy boxes not being able to support all of the home networking features that Plus Package has.

“If the uptake of the Plus Package, when we really step on the gas pedal from a marketing standpoint, is very strong, we may keep our focus looking out the front windshield,” Necessary said. “Of course, from a capability standpoint, both hardware and software, it would be nice to keep focused on the future, but we’ll give consideration to going back into the installed base of boxes.”

DIRECTV: ONE PLAYLIST TO RULE THEM
DirecTV’s whole-home DVR service was launched across its footprint in June. In addition to being able to start a program in one room and resume watching it in another, DirecTV’s multiroom platform lets subscribers record and watch content in up to 15 rooms via a connection to one HD DVR.

DirecTV also provides viewers with access to a single, combined playlist of all of their recorded programs on any connected television in the home, and they can manage the DVR playlist from any of those TVs, as well.

Romulo PontualDirecTV CTO Romulo Pontual said MoCA 1.1 allowed the satellite provider to use the coaxial that cable operators previously installed in homes combined with a single wire multiswitch (SWM) for whole-home DVR.

“Since we’ve introduced SWM, all I have to do is bring the coaxial cable from the rooftop where the antenna is located to the point of entrance where the cable is and connect it there,” Pontual said. “Customers love it because they don’t have to get new wires, and we love it because it cuts down on the time to do an install.”

Once the SWM is connected, Pontual said a daisy chain of coaxial cable is used to connect the other boxes in a home. For older receivers and Internet connection to routers, DirecTV uses DirecTV Ethernet Coaxial Adapters (DECA).

While Pontual said that MoCA was his endgame as far as wired home networking connections go, he said DirecTV is looking at a Wi-Fi solution that is robust enough to transport HD streams, and devices, including TVs and boxes, based on the RVU Alliance.

The end goal is to have a single home media center that can handle requests from all of the devices in a home based on technologies that DirecTV already uses, including MoCA, DLNA and SWM.

“I’m talking about a home media center that can record several satellite streams simultaneously, that can stream multiple streams, connect to the Internet for some streaming and bring in some VOD,” he said. “When this device is queried, say by an RVU client, it prepares the proper format and sends it to that device.

“Right now I’m working on a wireless solution that allows us to have one home gateway, but I also have to go through the process of putting in the proper diagnostics to help us troubleshoot problems or warn the customers. It’s the same thing we had to do with MoCA.”

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