SCTE Cable-Tec Expo 2007 was hopping,
thanks to a virtual avalanche of new products, and sessions that covered the latest technologies
that engineers have only recently begun working with and learning about.

Topics ranged from switched digital video to high definition video (and how to deliver it), and over the top video to carrier Ethernet. The show floor was studded with all manner of systems aimed at novel ways to serve up video. Switched digital video may have been one of the strongest themes.

7 M homes served by video switches
Hard to believe, given how new it is, but get this: digital video switches now service 7 million U.S. homes. That’s according to Ron Wolfe, senior product marketing manager for BigBand Networks, who spoke at a standing-room-only Expo session with colleague Glenn Hardin, senior director of video systems for Time Warner Cable. Their focus: The practical realities of switched digital video (SDV).

When prepping a system for switching, several variables come into play, Wolfe said. Among them: Deciding how many and which programs to switch, across what service group size, over how many QAM modulators. And don’t forget to factor in anticipated growth (in number of programs on the switch), and addressable advertising.

And, contrary to popular belief, determining what programs to put on the switch isn’t just about how popular or unpopular they are. (From the Department of Ahem: “Lightly viewed” is the nice way to say “unpopular” these days.) Day parts also matter: Maybe a channel is widely viewed during the day, but not so much at night – or vice versa. During the times those channels are lightly viewed, they’re good candidates to fold into the switching fabric.

Start to finish, Wolfe said, a carefully planned SDV launch takes about 90 days. Step one is data collection, to baseline channel behavior. That means starting out with a zero-gain switched implementation. “If you have a service group with eight QAMs, and each is capable of carrying 10 streams, start the switch at 80 channels,” Wolfe explained. That way, the collection of useful viewership data can begin.

After getting a reasonable handle on program popularity, more “lightly viewed” channels can be added into the switch, he said.

Other design considerations include establishing how many QAMs and tuners can be supported per serving area group, and picking what blocking probability is allowable.

“It’s a very low likelihood, but still an absolute possibility, that you will have 21 people contending for 20 resources,” Wolfe said, which points to a need for business rules about what to do if someone is blocked. So far, “it’s not happening today, but it is a reality.”

So far so good on stream reclamation, too. That’s what happens when a set-top box parks on a program for a long time without consumer input. TWC asks the viewer presumed to be behind that box to push any button to continue watching. If there’s no viewer response, TWC ends that stream and uses the capacity to send a different stream to some other customer.

Hardin noted that switching adds “a giant layer” between plant and actual video content, and as such, content can become disassociated, and errors can occur.

Case-in-point: A typical Time Warner system grew from 70 analog streams to more than 80,000 cumulative streams, including analog and digital video, advertising zones, VOD, the Start Over service, and SDV. “How do you monitor 80,000 streams?,” Hardin asked, adding: “We need to be more rigorous in assuring the seamless delivery of content, and not just the stream itself.”

To that end, Hardin proposed a concept for closing the loop between the video plane and the control plane, so as to minimize errors. “It’s still in discussion, but the idea is to add another identifier in the MPEG-2 definition. It’s just something we really need to think about, as an industry.”

CEOs: Make room for more HD
As more programmers make more content available in high definition, MSOs are revising their bandwidth budgets to make more shelf space – to the tune of 100 channels by 2009-2010, in some cases.

Pat Esser

Pat Esser, CEO of Cox, said during Expo’s opening session that he’s already asked his engineers to ready their networks for 50 linear HD channels by year-end – and 100 the year after that.

“I’ve asked Chris (Bowick, Cox’s CTO) to get our networks ready for that,” Esser said. “His guys are probably back in their rooms right now, figuring out how to get there. Or they’re in the bathroom, getting sick.”

Reference points: In 2003, about nine channels of HD programming were available. Today, about 30 linear HD channels exist, said NCTA President and CEO Kyle McSlarrow, during his opening keynote address.

“Cable offers HD services to 100 million American households, and carries signals in 206 of the 210 U.S. TV markets,” McSlarrow said. By comparison, he said, DirecTV offers local HD in only 60 markets, and EchoStar’s Dish Network in just 30 markets.

On the (much) smaller screen, cable’s CEOs said they view mobile video as additive to existing, cable-delivered services – and not as a replacement.

Kyle McSlarrow

“I don’t think taking video with you on the phone is any competition to what we do,” said Bob Miron, chairman and CEO of Advance/Newhouse Communications.

On the competitive front, Esser said Cox is already squaring off against AT&T’s U-verse and Verizon’s FiOS in some markets. His mindset: both companies will eventually resolve any issues they face as they scale up to millions of customers. “A healthier view is to believe that they’ll work it out, Esser said, adding: “I’ll enjoy it while they struggle, but they’ll work it out.”

About that February, 2009 analog cutoff date: Watch for an increasing amount of consumer confusion about broadcasters going digital, Cox’s Esser sai

“By 2009, we’ll have a new president, but we’ll probably have the same broadcasters,” he quipped.

Because of that, the onus is on the industry to be the good guy, Esser said. “We have to help people to understand that with cable, there is no change in their lives – that we take care of you.”

CTOs: Over the top? Where’s the $?
The onslaught of services clamoring to ride “over the top” of cable’s broadband pipes may require additional investment – providing there’s an economic return.

“I’m still trying to figure out how you make money doing that stuff on the Internet,” said Mike LaJoie, CTO of Time Warner Cable, at Expo’s annual CTO panel. “Certainly the technology is there to do it, if the demand occurs.”

Plus, LaJoie reiterated, the Internet wasn’t designed to carry traffic as bulky as video. “If one were to take one quarter of today’s multichannel, broadcast video and move it over the public Internet, you’d bring it to its knees.”

Terry Cordova, CTO of Suddenlink, said that while network neutrality remains top of mind, operators may ultimately need to consider consumption limits.

Among the other topics-of-note at this year’s CTO panel:

Switching for infinity: Speaking of limits, still none on bandwidth capacity, LaJoie harrumphed. “Once you switch, all of a sudden, spectrum isn’t an issue – I truly believe that with the networks we have, we can have as many programming inputs as we want.”

Shared QAMs – in 2012? Cable’s technological community probably shouldn’t view shared QAMs (across digital video, VOD, switched, and, say, DOCSIS traffic) as a near-term thing, he added. “I’m thinking that’s a three to five year thing – half a decade,” LaJoie said.

Another pesky federal deadline: One thing tech people should keep a careful eye on, the CTOs said, is the bandwidth impact of the federally mandated broadcasting cutover from analog to digital, scheduled to occur in Feb. ’09.

Wireless and mobility: Time Warner quietly attracted “several thousand” wireless customers, in “multiple cities,” to Sprint phones branded with Time Warner’s logo. The phones include a Time Warner guide, and a selection of TV programming. Meanwhile, the operators who joined to buy a national footprint’s worth of wireless spectrum last year still aren’t saying what they’ll do with it.

Acronym alert – SOA: This year’s CTO panel provided only one new acronym – software oriented architecture, or SOA. It’s a big topic with Comcast’s John Schanz, who first used the phrase by calling OpenCable “an SOA play to the home.” Context: “In an interesting kind of way, what used to be a closed, proprietary system, is now headed toward what you might call a services oriented architecture, from the back office to the headend.”

Edge QAMs, Edge QAMs everywhere
As usual, cable vendors were showing off their best and brightest new products at Expo. Thanks to an RFP by Comcast, it seemed as though a person could hardly walk the show floor without stepping on a new edge QAM (eQAM). While some companies were dipping their toes in the eQAM waters for the first time at Expo, Harmonic’s first NSG family of eQAMs has been out since 2000 and is currently deployed in 2.5 million VOD streams.

Harmonic and C-Cor demonstrated a turnkey solution for switched digital video that used Harmonic’s NSG 9000 universal edge QAM, which was introduced at last year’s Expo, and ProStream 1000 processing platform and its Mentor re-encoding technology, coupled with C-Cor’s nABLE Session and Resource Manager.

C-Cor introduced its own converged headend platform (CHP) eQAM, which the company claims is the industry’s first 1 GHz eQAM device. It supports 120 QAM channels, and it enables a more than 40 percent improvement per year in power consumption compared with other eQAM devices; it utilizes a tad more than 3 watts per QAM.

Another eQAM was from Vecima Networks. The company’s HyperQAM supports up to 128 QAM channels, or up to 4,096 streams. The box sits at the edge of the network; expands the capacity for VOD, switched digital video (SDV) and other programming (it can fit 12-14 programs in a QAM instead of 10); is compatible with GigE and 10GigE; is upgradeable to DOCSIS 3.0 and M-CMTS; and can do channel bonding.

The final eQAM belonged to Cisco, which revealed the radio frequency (RF) Gateway 1, the first release from the company’s RF Gateway (RFGW) Series of Universal eQAM (U-eQAM) products. It delivers up to 48 D-RFI-compliant QAM channels in a compact 1RU chassis with redundancy options to expand system availability. The design supports eight QAM channels per field-replaceable RF module, with four QAM channels per RF output port.

More on the floor
EGT took the wraps off of its HEMi Bulk Decryptor, or HULK. The Bulk Decryptor is based on EGT’s HEMi video processing platform, and it can decrypt up to 16 SD services or 4 HD services, or mix and match the two on each device, before remodulating them into QAM channels. Chris Gordon, EGT’s senior director, product management, said the decryptor, which will be available by the end of the year, would work well in hotel/motel hospitality environments. It also allows cable operators to create their own custom-channel line ups by re-mapping program IDs without the need for CableCards or set-top boxes.

Auspice announced a new multi-year site license agreement with Comcast for its OpsLogic Solutions suite, and introduced OpsLogic Service Manager for mid-tier MSOs. Service Manager is an end-to-end service assurance software platform that provides visibility from the customer premise to the core of the network. The solution correlates real-time network and device specific events into specific metrics to help cable operators monitor and manage their networks while providing alarms.

“We help a cable operator find the problem before it gets to a customer service representative,” said Auspice CEO Steven Birer.

VOD in demand
While RGB Networks announced its Dynamic Bandwidth Manager prior to the show, Expo was the first time it was on display to the public. In most VOD deployments, cable operators can deliver 10 SD VOD programs per 6 MHz 256-QAM channel with each program allowed a fixed amount of bandwidth. This DBM uses RGB’s transrating capabilities to constantly adjust the bit rates of programs, which allows a cable operator to carry 15 or more SD programs in the same amount of bandwidth.

Ramin Farassat

“I joined this company because of this product, and now we’re showing it here [in Orlando] for the first time,” said Ramin Farassat, RGB’s VP, product marketing. “HD on demand takes four times the amount of bandwidth, but with the DBM, operators can free up to 50 percent more VOD programming using the same amount of bandwidth, and you can’t tell the difference in the video quality.” Several North American cable operators are slated to begin trials of the DBM later this year.

In other VOD news, Concurrent launched its MediaCache 1000, the first in a proposed line of non-volatile flash solid state drive (SSD) storage products for the streaming of on-demand content. Concurrent also unleashed new software for its MediaHawk 4500 line of servers. The software supports the MediaCache 1000 and Regional File Server functionality. Stream density has improved to 1,920 streams at 3.75 Mbps.

Also on the VOD train, Terayon Communication Systems Inc. added a bigger, faster member to its family of CherryPicker Application Platform (CAP) digital video processors. The CAP-1000 is, Terayon believes, the first platform to offer a software application for the rate shaping of real-time, broadcast-quality MPEG-4 AVC SD and HD streams.

“You get eight times the performance of the DM 6400 in the same space,” said Buddy Snow, head of marketing for Terayon.

Video processor improvement continued with EGT, which unveiled the EGT VIPr-IPx Video Processor, a multichannel, multi-format IP video headend solution capable of encoding up to 36 channels of MPEG-2, up to 18 channels of MPEG-4, or a combination of the two formats within the same chassis.

Lastly, a trio of solutions was showcased at JDSU’s booth, including the company’s solution for measuring 2.5/2.7G SONET/SDH jitter – a jitter/wander module that complements JDSU’s T-BERD/MTS-8000 Transport modules. The company also enhanced its digital service activation meter (DSAM), which now performs digital quality index (DQI) measurements, enabling operators to identify network impairments affecting digital services such as HDTV.

And JDSU’s PathTrak hybrid fiber/coaxial (HFC) test and monitoring portfolio expanded to include the PathTrak Forward Path Monitoring Solution, which watches over remote cable hubs and headends to identify issues and remotely segment RF performance.

The people stuff
Cable-Tec Expo’s Annual Awards Luncheon began with the transfer of a “very used gavel,” as termed by the outgoing chairman of the board of the SCTE, Yvette Kanouff, CSO at SeaChange International.

Tom Gorman

Kanouff passed the baton to Tom Gorman, the vice president of operations engineering at Charter Communications, who was elected to the role at the SCTE board’s annual meeting at Cable-Tec Expo.

“My commitment is that I won’t let this Society down,” he said. Gorman was also inducted into the SCTE Hall of Fame.

Ronald Brunt, president of the SCTE’s West Virginia Mountaineer Chapter, was named Member of the Year for nearly single-handedly resurrecting the struggling chapter, taking it from 45 members to 97 in 2006. Brunt is currently a systems engineer with Deployment Technologies Inc.

Kanouff handed Sally Kinsman the Chairman’s Award. Kinsman, Aurora Networks’ national account director and a nearly 30-year SCTE vet, hobbled onstage to accept despite her broken leg.

Brenda Hunt of Cox Communications was named Chapter Member of the Year for 2006; the Mount Rainier, New England and Cactus chapters received first, second and third place, respectively, for Chapter of the Year; System of the Year went to Cox Communications Orange County; Carolyn Terry of Time Warner Cable was given the Women in Technology award; Steven R. Harris of Comcast University landed the Excellence in Cable Telecommunications Learning and Development award; and Mark Eyer of Sony Electronics snagged the Excellence in Standards award.