Comcast, SES Americom centralize simulcast

Fri, 09/30/2005 - 8:00pm

The Comcast Media Center (CMC) and SES Americom have teamed on a centrally-located digital simulcast encoding platform for cable operators.

The offering essentially amounts to a "buy" versus "make" decision on the encoding level for cable operators that deploy digital simulcast, a technique that replicates analog channels in the digital tier. Although it costs more bandwidth on the front-end, digital simulcast will free up analog spectrum later on that can be allocated for services such as high-definition television (HDTV) and video-on-demand (VOD).

The system from the CMC and SES Americom will encode the national feeds of analog networks that are replicated in the digital tier in simulcast systems. Operators that use the platform are still required to encode local feeds for the simulcast separately. But given the number of national feeds that must be supported (likely 50 or more), centralizing the encoding structure for them is expected to reduce costs significantly for small and large operators alike.

Under the joint marketing agreement, the companies will develop a digital transport platform that utilizes SES Americom's AMC-4 satellite and the CMC's HITS (Headend In The Sky) digital overlay system.

Digital simulcast marks just the initial application for the joint agreement. The CMC and SES Americom also plan to support other digital services, including VoIP and video-on-demand.

The simulcast agreement also expands an existing relationship between the CMC and SES Americom. In March, the companies announced plans to jointly offer high-definition television (HDTV) service via SES Americom's HD-PRIME, a two-satellite (AMC-10 and AMC-11) "cable neighborhood." The latest deal combines the bandwidth of AMC-4, AMC-10, and AMC-11.

HD-PRIME is already 87 percent full, and one of the reasons why SES Americom and Comcast are working together to build out capacity on the AMC-4 satellite, according to Bryan McGuirk, president of North American media services for SES Americom.

The centralization of encoding for simulcast will give operators an economic path for the all-digital age. "We're seeing tens of millions of dollars of savings [per MSO]," McGuirk said.

"This saves a significant amount of capital" for cable operators, added Gary Traver, the CMC's senior vice president and chief operating officer. "We have built a centralized solution that plugs into [cable's] plans for all-digital."

Although several large operators are moving ahead with digital simulcast deployments, this first step toward the reclamation of analog spectrum is paramount in the shorter-term for smaller operators that operate bandwidth-constrained 350 MHz and 550 MHz systems, especially as capacity-eating services like HDTV become more and more popular.

"Small operators have to get to all-digital faster, and it's a larger problem because they haven't gone through plant upgrades," Traver said. "They don't have that much bandwidth available, and they have tighter financial constraints."

Plus, "they are being targeted by DBS, and, in some ways, they (the smaller operators) are the hungriest to get these new services," McGuirk said.

Still, reclaiming analog spectrum isn't the only option on the table. If the operator can afford it, drop-in amplifier upgrades and bandwidth expansion overlays (to 860 MHz and as high as 3 GHz) are also available from a stable of vendors, including CableServ Inc., C-COR Inc., Scientific-Atlanta and Xtend Networks.

SES Americom and the CMC are marketing the centralized simulcast capability to operators around the country, but other than Comcast Cable, which plans to outfit 75 percent of its systems for digital simulcast by year-end, they had yet to announce any other customers for the new platform by this issue's deadline. Insight Communications told CED previously that it was interested in the newly-proposed centralized encoding platform from SES Americom and the CMC.


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