Operators are starting to offer digital simulcast service,
but they are also adding their own twists

With a deep pool of new services and the prospect for better bandwidth management awaiting, it is not surprising cable operators are diving into simulcast deployments left and right.

But how they execute that dive is not entirely uniform—depending on their size and overall service goals, some are adding their own twists and tricks. Others are still deciding how to best enter the digital TV waters.

Adelphia Communications is the latest major MSO readying to take the plunge, with plans to bring about 10 of its 26 markets up by the end of the year, says Doug Ike, vice president of advanced video engineering. The actual markets have not been announced as yet.

Doug Ike

Equipment is being installed and tested in the first of those markets now, and it should be ready to bring on line in July or August. As for what channels will be simulcast, it depends on the market and how many local broadcasters and public access channels there are.

"The goal is to digitize as many markets as possible," Ike says. "However, it may not be possible to do 100 percent of the whole market in the first year."

One factor playing into that is the public, educational and government (PEG) access channels that would need to come along for the simulcast ride. In major metro areas, Adelphia is dealing with a flock of such channels—in the Cleveland metro area alone there are more than 200, Ike notes.

"We clearly want to get to the all-digital package, and all-digital means all of the PEGs. So it is our every intent to get there, but we may do it hub by hub," he says. "For example, we may take a segment of the city where we know we have to digitize those PEG channels—maybe the core or downtown or something—so we can get the message out that we are all digital in a decent segment of our market."

Adelphia also is looking at centralizing encoding wherever possible, and that may mean two large encoding centers in a larger metropolitan market. It has evaluated stand-alone and loop encoders, the latter of which consist of a bank of encoders controlled by a central management system. The management system dynamically allocates encoding horsepower to the high-action channels that need it—effectively stat-muxing at the ingest to create more efficient multiplexed signals.

At the same time, Adelphia is now trialing stat muxing equipment from BigBand Networks Inc., but it is also looking at other stat-mux vendors, Ike says.

Ad insertion also plays into Adelphia's simulcast plans. While an expensive project given the equipment and management systems needed, digital ad insertion "is our intent," Ike says.

"We are re-doing most of our ad insertion in these markets to be inserted in the digital realm. So we are moving to DPI in these markets and replacing the analog gear," he adds.

Eventually, Adelphia would like to bring simulcast to all of its markets, but that plan is in limbo given the MSO's pending acquisition by Comcast Corp. and Time Warner and their plan to divvy up the Adelphia systems between them. Simulcast in some markets, therefore, will depend more on Time Warner or Comcast's own plans, Ike notes.

Smaller players take the digital dip

Smaller cable operators are also diving into simulcast—and their size doesn't necessarily mean they are less ambitious. Take the always-creative Alaskan cabler GCI, which has essentially leapfrogged over simulcast directly to all-digital in parts of its sprawling northern territory.

It's a case of timing, according to Gary Haynes, GCI's vice president of cable operations. Two years ago, the cable operator had an old Zenith analog system in Anchorage that it had to replace anyway, so rather than continue with analog, it decided to make the all-digital leap. GCI made a significant investment and deployed more than 100,000 Motorola DCT-1200s and DCT-2000s, and has since expanded that to include the HD/DVR-capable DCT-6208. That box swap was completed last August.

GCI started digitizing the analog broadcast channels in late January with the Fox affiliate in Anchorage and has since brought all of the local broadcast affiliates into digital. It uplinks Anchorage local broadcast channels for statewide distribution, so it uses the digital encoders for that to also provide its local simulcast streams, Haynes says.

The all-digital impact is clear in the bandwidth. In Anchorage, the cable system is built to a modest 550 MHz, although a forthcoming VoIP launch will extend the plant to about 625 MHz. By using 256 QAM modulation and eliminating much of the analog channel load,

there is bandwidth leftover for expanded HD and future VOD services.

"It's actually positioned us pretty well," Haynes says. "Now that we've turned off the old analog platform...we have extra bandwidth to work [with]."

The MSO is now turning its attention to Fairbanks, which should this month move to all-digital service, except for the local broadcast stations. Juneau will follow, and the plan there is to start the digital conversion in the fourth quarter.

The digital march will be somewhat slower for the smaller systems outside of GCI's core cities, where the MSO is only digitizing pay-per-view and movie channels. By the end of the year, GCI will have some form of digital programming in all of its 18 systems—the question now is when the outlying systems progress toward simulcast or digital-only for the main cable channel lineup, says Bob Ormberg, GCI's vice president of cable marketing.

Kansas cable operator Sunflower Broadband has also made the leap, rolling out its simulcast service in May to customers in Lawrence and the surrounding area, banking on the Motorola DCT-700 box. The service offers duplicate digital streams for Sunflower's 65 analog channels and triplecast analog, SD and HD feeds for ESPN, Fox, CBS, NBC and ABC.

Sunflower will offer an additional 12 channels in digital format on the expanded basic tier "and we are in negotiations with some others," says Patrick Knorr, Sunflower Broadband's general manager, adding that going forward the channels will launch digital-only.

Sunflower is encoding the digital streams at its central headend, and it is using statistical multiplexing to funnel up to seven SD channels onto a single QAM channel. But even at that, simulcast has a price—Sunflower's 750 MHz spectrum is now completely filled. As with others, the MSO hopes to slowly pare down the analog channel load as it encourages more customers to sign on to digital service.

"So what we are doing is [enticing] customers to get boxes or actually move some channels down off of digital tiers to expanded basic, but in a digital format," he says.

It also is looking to winnow down the triplecast load.

"Right now we are digitizing the analog signal and we are looking at ways that we can downconvert the HD signal," Knorr says.

In the planning stages

Others, including Insight Communications, are still planning how to best dive into digital simulcast. For the last six or nine months it has been testing a handful of encoders by connecting them to its Sonet fiber ring to see how the transport affects video quality, says Charlie Dietz, Insight's senior vice president and chief technology officer. But the greater issue now for Insight is its own priority list.

Charlie Dietz

"At this point, we are still wrestling with the when and the business plan," he says. "It's in this year's budget, but frankly, with our push for VoIP this year, I'm not sure we'll get to it."

Technically and financially, one major issue for Insight will be integrating simulcast and digital ad insertion, given the fact that 99 percent of its signals and ad insertion are now analog, Dietz says.

"We've got some new equipment; we've got some old equipment, so we've got a big upgrade there," he notes. "It's probably in the 40 to 45 percent range of the cost that we have assumed is upgrades to the VOD infrastructure."

On the other hand, if the MSO does opt for the digital upgrade, it can start inserting ads on the rest of the digital channels fairly easily, Dietz says.

"We've got a nice advantage in that so many of our districts are connected by our own fiber infrastructure now," he adds.

Insight's simulcast rollout would likely include 50 common cable channels and 20 or so local channels for each market. The common cable channels can be digitally encoded once and transported around the fiber ring, but it is also considering a central encoding service proposed by the Colorado-based Comcast Media Center.

"They're talking about doing something on a national basis," Dietz says. "We've still got all of those options open to us."

As with others, Insight will probably pare the channel load down through stat-muxing, and it has been testing such systems along with the digital encoders. Even with that, duplicating the analog signals in digital will be somewhat problematic.

"At the same time as we are doing this, we are transitioning customers today over to our digital platform, where they can get 10 or 12 HBOs, for instance," Dietz explains. "As soon as we are comfortable with that in each district [and] the migration percentage is high enough, then we'll start recovering those channels and have them ready for the digital simulcast."

Despite the problems, Dietz says it really isn't a matter of whether but when Insight will move to simulcast.

"It's just a matter of timing to pull the trigger," he says.

A digital simulcast cross-section.
MSO Rollout status Markets Number of channels Simulcast local channels Triplecasting Stat muxing Encoders
Comcast Underway Plans to expand to 80 to 85 percent of its markets by year's end. Average 80 channels per market. Yes In some markets Yes Harmonic, EGT, Scientific-Atlanta
Charter Underway Long Beach Madison, Wis. 96 in Long Beach; 85 in Madison. Yes No Yes Harmonic
GCI All-digital and some simulcast underway. All-digital in & Fairbanks. Convert Juneau starting in Q4. Approximately 150 channels. Yes Yes Yes Scientific-Atlanta, Motorola & Harmonic
Sunflower Broadband Launched in May. Lawrence, Eudora & Douglas County, Kan. 65 channels Yes Yes Yes Tandberg
Adelphia First market goes live in July/August. 10 markets online by year's end. 78–80 channels Where possible Not initially Trialing stat muxers now N/A
Insight In planning stages. N/A 50 channels plus on average 20 local channels/market. Still evaluating Testing equipment now N/A N/A
Time Warner Cable Raleigh-Durham set to roll out as early as July. Simulcast to at least half of TW's markets by year's end. About 78 channels/market. Yes Yes Evaluating S-A, Harmonic & others