The Comcast Media Center (CMC) and C-COR Inc. are collaborating on a turn-key platform that aims to put video-on-demand (VOD) within the financial reach of small —and mid-sized cable operators.
The pre-integrated platform, called "VOD In a Box," is targeted to cable operators that serve markets with 25,000 digital customers or fewer. Historically, systems in this size range been hindered by the operational and financial constraints of deploying soup-to-nuts VOD systems.
VOD In a Box seeks to remove the complexity of such systems while also reducing operational costs. The platform, for example, eliminates the need for an on-site asset management system or the on-site personnel typically required to manage that content. Operators, the companies said, can use VOD In a Box to take in content from multiple sources without having to coordinate and manage it at each headend.
The system itself features C-COR's nABLE backoffice system and the company's n5 Compact (n5C) server, which can support up to 1,500 hours of standard-definition content (in MPEG-2 format), and is tailored for smaller operators. C-COR introduced the n5C in Oct. 2006.
As part of the package, the CMC will aggregate and manage an on-demand programming mix of 1,000 hours of premium, pay and "free" content. In addition to acquiring and managing VOD content, the CMC will also validate metadata and pitch the content to the C-COR servers, and provide 24/7 quality assurance monitoring.
"It's about as close to a plug-and-play environment that you've seen in the cable industry," said Mike Pohl, president, global strategies, for C-COR.
The roles people play: The 'VOD In a Box' architecture.
VOD In a Box affiliates will also be able to track programming that has been propagated from the CMC via a secure Internet portal.
The CMC and C-COR have not yet released the specific programming mix for VOD in a Box. Although the programming will be offered in a pre-packaged manner, operators will be able to choose whether or not adult programming will be part of the on-demand content bundle.
But future customizations beyond that will have to be weighed against how such changes affect the economics of the integrated system.
"We are trying to drive a very strong cost-value relationship here," said CMC Chief Operating Officer Gary Traver.
VOD In a Box will also feature a barker specific to the service, though there may be room for some semi-customization work following the product's initial release.
At the start, the system will be integrated to work with Motorola -based digital cable systems, the TV Guide interactive program guide, and several major cable billing system providers. It will later be expanded to support the Scientific Atlanta platform and other billing systems and guide applications as required by customers.
"We are going after what we think is a widely deployed market," Traver said.
VOD In a Box will also feature a barker specific to the service from the CMC and C-COR, though there may be room for some semi-customization work following the initial release of the product.
Pohl said several customers are on tap to trial VOD In a Box, with beta sites going up in the next 30 to 60 days. Commercial deployments, he added, should start coming online by the end of Q2.
Among the first to give VOD In a Box a test drive is Wave Broadband.
Wave Broadband, said COO Steve Friedman, is piloting the platform in Ventura, Calif., where it serves about 8,500 video subs and about 3,000 digital video customers. Wave already offers VOD (with C-COR) in three larger cable systems.
"We now feel that we have an option [in Ventura]," Friedman said, noting that the costs of VOD In a Box served as a "big factor" in the decision to test it.
VOD, he said, will provide a key fit in Ventura, where customers are quickly adopting advanced services such as HDTV and DVRs.
VOD In a Box is not the only initiative that places a special focus on smaller cable markets.
Concurrent Computer Corp. has targeted those opportunities with "MediaHawk SMS," a VOD server and software system configured for markets with 4,800 digital subscribers and up. The starting configuration for SMS —an acronym for Small Market Solution— is 480 standard-def MPEG-2 streams.
Although SMS has been in the market for a few years, only a small number of operators have deployed it: the City of Dalton (Ga.), CoMPAS Cable, and a telco in the southeastern U.S. not yet disclosed.
VOD programming is not part of the SMS package, though Concurrent's customers in this category have been able to hook up on their own with providers such as In Demand, TVN Entertainment and ViewNow.
"They haven't had difficulty getting content from those three aggregators," said Concurrent Senior Product Manager Brandi Kler.
— Jeff Baumgartner, xOD Capsule Editor, and CED Editor-in-Chief
Concurrent looking to open up
Concurrent Computer Corp. intends to open up its video-on-demand (VOD) backoffice system with interfaces that will enable other server providers, including some of Concurrent's competitors in the video server sector, to hook in.
"Using our vast knowledge in this area and working with our customers, we will continue to offer more and more advanced backoffice technology that has standard open interfaces so it can operate with multiple server complexes, including those of competitors," said company President & CEO Gary Trimm, during an earnings call last Friday (Jan. 26, 2007) with reporters and analysts.
"We're seriously considering it, and looking at what the challenges are to getting that done," said Concurrent Director of Marketing and Product Management Tim Dodge, in a follow-up interview.
Dodge said Concurrent is investigating that possibility with "several partners."
Presently, Concurrent's MediaHawk On Demand Platform tightly couples the company's backoffice with its video pump, storage and ingest capability. It has, however, integrated with the Tandberg Television OpenStream backoffice platform.
During last week's call, Trimm added that Concurrent is also working on an upgraded backoffice "that can accommodate the much higher transaction rates now being experienced in large systems," Trimm said. "As content explodes and expands to include shorter segments, such as karaoke, news clips or music videos, for example, the demand for rapid session setup and control grows exponentially."
Concurrent is the latest to make this move, considered an imperative one in today's competitive and consolidating VOD environment. Over the last five years, the trend has shifted from a one-vendor on-demand solution to a more open one that decouples the backoffice with the rest of the system.
C-COR Inc. architected its nABLE backoffice to be open from the beginning, starting off with integrations with server vendors such as Midstream Technologies (now defunct) and Kasenna Inc. VOD backoffice specialist N2 Broadband (now part of Tandberg Television) does not make video pumps and servers, but has integrated its OpenStream with multiple vendors that do. The opening of SeaChange International's backoffice interfaces, meanwhile, is said to be a key component of its recently secured master purchase license and services deal with Comcast Corp., which is once again pursuing its next-generation on-demand initiative.
Concurrent, Trimm said, is "committed to being an end-to-end supplier when requested, as well as being able to participate in any area of system architecture desired by the customer."
Concurrent's Q2 numbers, meanwhile, presented a mixed bag, showing gains sequentially, but generally dipping on a year-over-year basis.
The company ended its fiscal Q2 with on-demand revenues of $10.9 billion, up 36 percent from $8 million in the previous quarter.
The majority of Concurrent's on-demand revenue in the quarter came from MediaHawk 4000 shipments to North American cable MSOs, including, Cogeco, Videotron, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Comcast. International shipments, meanwhile, were limited to small systems in Finland, Russia and Japan.
Company-wide revenues were $17.1 million, up from $14.8 million in fiscal Q1, but down by $1.7 million versus year-ago numbers. Concurrent also posted a Q2 net loss of $3.5 million, narrowed from a net loss of $4.9 million in Q1, but widened by $1.9 million from the year-ago period.
The company's consolidated gross margins in the quarter were 43 percent, versus 47 percent in Q1, driven in part by pricing pressure on the MediaHawk 4000 VOD product line in anticipation of the release of Concurrent's new RAM-centric MediaHawk 4500. Last week, Concurrent also confirmed that Time Warner Cable's Oceanic division was the first cable system to deploy the new platform. Last year, the company said the platform was also in the hands of Bright House Networks for evaluation.
Trimm continued to be optimistic about Everstream, a division that provides operators with VOD reporting and analysis tools. About 20 million digital subs were hooked into Everstream's platform at the end of Q2.
Although Everstream's contribution in Q2 were below expectation (the closing of a "major" MSO contract has slipped to the March timeframe), the division has "captured a substantial majority share in the data analytics space with great possibilities for growth," particularly as broadband service providers look to capitalize on targeted ads and audience measurement.
CableLabs adopts protocol for OCAP metrics
OCAP will rely on the IPDR Streaming Protocol (IPDR/SP) for encoding and transmitting metrics used by cable operators' collections systems, according to The Internet Protocol Detail Record Organization (IPDR) , which manages the development of the protocol.
IPDR/SP will be used as the set-top box mechanism for metrics gathering, a critical function of the OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform) 1.1 middleware specification from CableLabs. Once the adoption is complete, all OCAP 1.1 set-top boxes will have the IPDR Streaming Protocol.
IPDR.org President and COO Kelly Anderson said the integration of IPDR technologies into OCAP "offers cable operators the capability of providing detailed metrics from the home network with next- generation television, communication and entertainment." CableLabs has already adopted the IPDR Streaming Protocol for DOCSIS.
Cablevision flips switch on switched broadcast
Cablevision Systems Corp. is using video switching technology, a technical trait common in traditional VOD systems, to power a new "in-language" service comprised by dozens of international channels.
The switched video broadcast (SVB) deployment, which covers the MSO's entire New York metro-area footprint, will offer that niche programming offering via a switched —rather than broadcast— tier. That means streams of those programs will be delivered on the plant only when a customer actually selects it. Other customers, if they are in the same service group, can also tap in if the stream has already been activated by another customer.
In addition to supporting special tiers, operators are looking to SVB to conserve valuable bandwidth or to aid targeted advertising that can be delivered via multicast and unicast methods.
Comcast has also disclosed it is trialing SVB in two systems (yet unnamed), with plans for further rollouts. Time Warner Cable, meanwhile, is considered an early champion of the technology. Following an initial launch of SDV in Austin, Texas, in mid-2005, Time Warner has introduced the technology in eight of its 27 divisions, a spokesperson confirmed.
Biren Sood, BigBand's vice president of marketing and business development, declined to say what other operators are working with the vendor on SBV trials and deployments (the company is in a quiet period after filing for an IPO, but he noted that BigBand has had its SBV gear deployed in the field with other MSO partners for about two years.
In Cablevision's switched environment, BigBand is supplying the management server - its Broadband Multimedia-Service Router (BMR) - for the processing of live video streams to be switched, as well as its Broadband Multimedia-Service Edge (BME), which performs the switching and digital modulation.
The Cablevision implementation is based on BigBand's fourth-generation SVB system, and the deployment was completed in less than four months, according to Sood. He said most operators that have launched SVB with BigBand are using it for niche programming or in support of high-definition television services - either to free up bandwidth for HD offerings or for the switching of the HD channels themselves.
Cablevision's subscription-based iO International package features a mix of TV channels presented in Spanish, Russian, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese and other languages.
The MSO said the package builds on the momentum of Optimum Voice World Call, its flat-rate international IP telephony tier.
Switched broadcast is "an important tool in our efforts to deliver new choices for our diverse and growing customer base," said Patricia Gottesman, Cablevision's EVP of product management and marketing.
Jazztel's new VOD service enabled by Kasenna
Spanish communications company Jazztel has launched a video-on-demand (VOD) service on its IP-based network using Kasenna Inc.'s PortalTV product suite. Jazztel has installed more than 50 of Kasenna's MediaBase Video Servers to deliver H.264 streaming video. Jazztel is also using Kasenna's vFusion content distribution software to optimize storage between a centralized server and streaming edge servers. Jazztel plans to add NPVR capability (network personal video recorder) to its network.
Cable's on-demand movie revenue, currently at about $1 billion annually, could jump to $4.1 billion per year if the release window between home rentals and VOD shrinks, Multichannel News reports (subscription required), citing a recent report from Sanford Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett. Comcast and Time Warner Cable are presently operating some limited day-and-date trials.
Studios, according to Moffett, could get more of the revenue pie through cable. They take 66 cents of every dollar for distribution through cable VOD, but just 33 cents per dollar in the retail rental environment.
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