Cable operators are evaluating various migration paths to deliver video over IP,
but when will they make the first move?

While the cable industry and video over IP aren’t exactly running across a field of flowers en route to a heartfelt embrace, they are starting to exchange furtive glances with each other.

When asked about when the cable industry will transition to video over IP, cable operators will be the first to tell you that they’ve been sending video over Internet Protocol transport from one system to another for some time. Comcast executive vice president and CTO Tony Werner said at The Cable Show in May that his company got ahead of the curve by putting IP transport into its backbone, content delivery network and video-on-demand network.

Cable operators are evaluating various migration paths to deliver video over IP...

But for several years now, there’s been talk of cable operators using IP for delivery of video all the way down to subscribers’ homes, and with the proliferation of IP-enabled devices within the home, the push is on to create home networks that can recognize and provision these devices.

Speaking at a CTO panel at The Cable Show, Time Warner Cable executive vice president and CTO Mike LaJoie said IP “changes the game a lot when you start thinking about allocating spectrum,” and he said the goal of IP video is to deliver services anytime, anywhere to “the broadest panoply of devices.”

Comcast executive vice president and CTO Tony WernerThe fact that vendors on the show floor in Los Angeles were showing IP-related hardware and CTOs were talking openly about IP video must mean that the cable industry is starting to plan for video over IP. When will this transition actually occur? No one knows for sure, and there are various forks in the IP video roadway.

Terry Cordova, Suddenlink’s senior vice president and CTO, said there wouldn’t be a “flash-cut” over to IP video, which was an assessment LaJoie agreed with.

“I think it’s not a hard cut,” LaJoie said. “I think that you’ll see MPEG-2 transport boxes in our networks for 10 more years. I think that’s the case because they all work, and you have a certain number of customers who will be just perfectly happy with those devices, and they don’t want to get connected to IP. It’s not interesting to them.”

Werner said that customers are buying more intelligent IP-enabled devices (he singled out the success of the iPad) to watch videos on.

“We need to have an easy way to get our content to them, and that’s one big piece to solve,” he said. “The second piece is that there is getting to be a lot of interesting content on the Internet that consumers want to be able to consume on the big screen in an easy format. That’s probably the second equation that we’re all working on solving.”

Time Warner Cable executive vice president and CTO Mike LaJoieThere are several ways to get to IP video, including: video over DOCSIS, where video is fed through a cable modem termination system; a hybrid approach that sends traditional MPEG-2 to a gateway in the home, which encapsulates the content into an IP header before sending it across a home network; and CMTS bypass.

All three approaches have their pros and cons, and cable operators could even mix and match a few of them, such as starting with the gateway device that supports both RF and IP before evolving to video over DOCSIS.

Suddenlink’s Cordova said that his company is in the hybrid approach camp, mainly due to the amount of legacy boxes that are currently deployed in the field. The legacy boxes could be paired with tuner-less IP gateways for whole-home DVR distribution.

Tom Cloonan, Arris’ chief strategy officer, said that in addition to not being constricted by the number of tuners in a set-top box, the hybrid approach also allows cable operators to use the existing equipment in their headends, the edge QAMs that are already deployed, and the SDV management systems and back office services that are already in place.

From the subscriber side, Arris vice president of IP video product management Jeff Brooks said the hybrid approach, or IP encapsulation approach, allows cable operators to provision new widgets and services, such as Caller ID on TV and caller logs, and new user interfaces with little change to their networks. The hybrid approach would also allow cable operators to use just one CableCard in the home networking super gateway that sends information to the less-expensive set-top boxes in other areas of the home.

But there’s also minuses to the hybrid approach. Cloonan said cable operators won’t see the statistical multiplexing gains of bonding DOCSIS channels, and it also requires new customer premises equipment.

Arris Hybrid Approach...

The lack of quality of service also means that third-party Internet video providers, such as Hulu, might be able to flood the edge QAMs.

“It may or may not be a problem for MSOs,” Cloonan said. “It depends on whether they do partner up with content providers on the Internet, but using that approach sort of makes it more challenging to bring those partners into the mix.”

Cloonan also said the hybrid approach creates a wall of sorts between the DOCSIS network that serves the high-speed data and phone services and the edge QAM network that serves MPEG-2 video transport, which, without a dynamic edge resource manager, would make it difficult to share bandwidth dynamically between the networks.

“Adapting to unexpected changes between high-speed data and VoIP and video traffic becomes more challenging when using the hybrid gateway approach,” according to Cloonan. “You either have to predict the future correctly or adjust things when the mix changes.

“Moving to the all-DOCSIS solution with the CMTS carrying high-speed data, VoIP and video would eliminate the need for another element, the edge resource manger, and naturally mix the traffic types with ease.”

Comcast’s Werner said that while all three approaches are still viable, the CMTS approach represents a “more elegant and efficient architecture” once the cost of CMTS ports goes down.

“I firmly believe that the cost to deliver an hour of video over IP over our network will get down to the same cost as it is to do it over MPEG-2 transport,” Werner said.

Arris’ Cloonan believes that most MSOs will eventually end up using the video over DOCSIS solution once port costs go down over the next few years.

Cisco’s Jim Strothmann, director of product strategy and management, said that video over DOCSIS will give cable operators the ability to offer more HD channels, rich video mosaics, more spectrum and spectrum management capabilities, and a switched architecture for simulcast services and the additional HD channels.

Some of the cons for the CMTS bypass solution mirror those of the hybrid approach, according to Cloonan. CMTS bypass also doesn’t have QoS that helps when partnering with third-party Internet providers, and it may not offer the statistical multiplexing gains of channel bonding.

Another potential issue for CMTS bypass is that cable operators need to simulcast MPEG video on both DOCSIS and MPEG transport, which means more bandwidth usage during the transition. Other concerns include a lack of standards and cable modem and CMTS customization.

Werner said Comcast is also looking into “fragmented MPEG-4” over IP.

“There are a lot of different ways of doing things,” Werner said. “Coming forward, one that we’re very supportive of is fragmented MPEG, where all of a sudden you’re starting to look at these really small files, two-second files, in multiple profiles. We’ve got several channels that we’ve started to put into that format for proof of concept.”

Rogers Cable’s Senior Vice President of Access Networks Dermot OCarrolDermot O’Carroll, Rogers Cable’s senior vice president of access networks, said his company needs to deliver video to both mobile devices and devices in the home, and it’s doing that through distribution of video over IP.

“We recently deployed a CDN for our online video, and we obviously would like to have the same CDN for all video delivery, which would imply an IP-based CDN for an evolution of that.”

On The Cable Show floor, vendors were showing various IP video-related products, which must mean that cable operators are pushing for them.

Arris showed its Whole Home Solution, which includes a new media gateway that supports either QAM-based or IP-based video delivery. The gateway has six MPEG-2 tuners and a DOCSIS 3.0 modem, which includes eight channels down and four channels up for DOCSIS 3.0 channel bonding, 500 GB of DVR storage, triple play support and the ability to stream up to six devices in a home.

Arris’ Whole Home Solution, which is its hybrid approach to IP, is slated for trials in the second quarter of this year before its expected deployment near the end of this year or early next year.

Also at The Cable Show, Cisco was showing its Cisco Blue IPTV guide on both traditional cable set-top boxes and IP set-top boxes. Dave Clark, Cisco’s director of product strategy and management, said cable operators could use the Blue guide as they transition from RF to IP set-top boxes.

Clark said video over IP is ideal for greenfield deployments by cable operators, but that beyond that the transition to IP video gets a little vague.

“I would say that clearly there is a desire from cable operators to look at how to migrate to IP video delivery,” Clark said. “I think it’s going to vary from customer to customer, and even from site to site within those customers. In general, the homework is taking place right now, so over the next 24 months or so there will be people doing a trial, a lab trial or just kicking the tires, so to speak.

“It really boils down to how can they make the business models work and not disrupt their customers at the same time.”