Competition for edge-QAM devices is growing, as operators continue to scale up video-on-demand streams. The reason is pretty straightforward. “When you go to VOD, if your system has 100,000 subs, and you want to support 10 percent peak (utilization), then you need to modulate an additional 10,000 streams,” says Seth Kenvin, vice president of corporate development at BigBand Networks. In other words, this pie is growing. BigBand recently announced a deployment with Bright House Networks in Detroit for its own edge device, the broadband multimedia-service edge (BME) 50. Bright House already had deployed BigBand’s better-known broadband media router (BMR), a general multiplexing platform. Traction for the BME50 indicates growth for this category—as well as for BigBand.
“They’ve grown beyond one box,” Jeff Chen, vice president of advanced technology at Bright House, says. Regardless of whether any other such “boxes” will appear in the BigBand portfolio, Kenvin agrees: “We’re a network infrastructure company.” Harmonic, Cox and the future Harmonic still dominates the (albeit expanding) edge-QAM pie. It recently announced that Cox Communications is using its narrowcast services gateway (NSG) in four markets: Hampton Roads, Va.; New Orleans; Los Angeles; and Omaha, Neb. Cox also is using Harmonic’s NMX digital service manager, which provides a real-time window on VOD network usage and performance. Cox has won attention lately for the hybrid VOD architecture that it is using to transform and expand its Scientific-Atlanta-based network in San Diego. (For instance, see page 10 if the April 2004 Communications Technology.) Harmonic’s recent work has been in Cox’s Motorola networks, Nimrod Ben-Natan, director of narrowcast services for Harmonic, says.
Ben-Natan adds that by deploying VOD relatively late on its Motorola systems, Cox benefited from lessons-learned and was able to deploy a more “future-proofed” architecture, which stands to gain further when it eventually adopts the Cox algorithms that are driving the San Diego deployment. What that future holds for edge-QAM devices is a matter for speculation. In one scenario, currently “siloed” QAM signals from the cable modem termination system (CMTS), video servers and broadcast multiplexers might converge via gigabit Ethernet (GigE), with the help of bandwidth management tools, on a “common, shared QAM resource,” Ben-Natan says.
Harmonic is well-positioned to exploit any such network evolution. But it has company. BigBand, which launched its BME50 at last year’s CableTec Expo, is only one of several vendors hitching its edge-device wagon to the on-demand growth engine. In a financial note that mentioned competition to Harmonic’s NSG, for instance, Friedman Billings Ramsey analyst Alan Bezoza flagged Scientific-Atlanta and Cisco as becoming “a bit more aggressive on Motorola-based markets.” Basic demands On the operator side, the demands from Bright House seem basic. “First, it has to work,” Chen says. Next comes reliability and density. While noting that ASICs (application specific integrated circuits) have made it easier to deal with multiple channels, Chen says that these increasingly integrated edge-QAM devices have seen more of a natural evolution than any “huge, major breakthrough.” As for VOD, integration needs to occur not only within but also between network devices. In the case of Bright House’s Detroit system, the BME50 is terminating distributed GigE links and switching and processing video delivered from centralized storage provided by nCUBE VOD servers. —Jonathan Tombes Cablevision Quietly Sells Voice
Cost Structure Could Shift; Price Wars, Regulation Threaten Cablevision’s VoIP service appears to be a hit. The service, which launched in late November, had about 28,700 subscribers at the end of 2003, according to numbers released by the company. About 2,500 customers per week are being added, which means that there probably were between 70,000 and 80,000 phone customers at the end of April. Cablevision is leveraging its high-speed data infrastructure, which includes Cisco Systems cable modem termination systems (CMTSs) and Motorola cable modems. In March 2003, Cablevision also agreed to deploy a telephony portfolio from Siemens, which includes soft switch, trunking gateway, media server and interactive subscriber self-care technology. Cablevision only offers Optimum Voice to its high-speed data subscribers, and analysts say it is not yet aggressively marketing the product, which is priced at $34.95 per month. Clearly, once it begins pushing, it has a big pool of potential customers. At the end of 2003, Cablevision had 1.057 million data customers, according to Leichtman Research Group.
The bottom line is that without trying too hard, the company—which would not contribute to this story beyond reiterating previously released numbers—has achieved a voice penetration of between 5 and 10 percent of its high-speed data customers. “My impression is that so far they have made some good headway,” says Cannon Carr, an analyst for CIBC Securities. Vamsi Sistla, the director of broadband research for Allied Business Intelligence, says Cablevision’s major expense is installation truck rolls, which he pegs at about $65 each. He says shrinking or eliminating that cost and price reductions from infrastructure and consumer premises equipment vendors could accelerate the ROI date, which he pegs at three or four quarters. The two clouds on Cablevision’s horizon, Sistla says, are price cuts by the incumbent phone companies and the potential of VoIP regulation. Clearly, the service is being marketed as a low-cost alternative to Verizon. “It allows people to reassess their spending,” says Kate Griffin a senior analyst for the Yankee Group. “Instead of paying $40 for broadband and $50 for telephone, they can get it all for a lower combined price point.” —Carl Weinschenk All-Digital
When, Where, How? Matthew Goldman is director of technology at Tandberg Television. We asked him to stare into the digital future, and here’s what he sees. When will we see widespread implementation of all-digital nets? “We are starting to see heavy interest in what is known as bandwidth recapture. Cable companies are increasing their digital bandwidth in a wider spectrum on their existing plant by pushing the HFC concept closer to the subs themselves. “But there still is this large chunk of bandwidth being used for analog TV that the service providers would like to recapture and use for more advanced services. The problem is that you want to do that in a way that is not going to disenfranchise your customer. The way I see that rolling out is there is going to be selected small regions based on demographics and market studies to find out what is of interest to people. MSOs are trying to figure out where these services would be more accepted. “Somewhere around 2007 seems like a good timeframe. For the technical stuff, MSOs, CableLabs and the equipment vendors are all working together, but there is more involved than technical issues. There are customer issues as well and making sure that they are doing the upgrades in an appropriate manner.” What do cable engineers need to do to ensure they’re ready for home shopping, TV banking and gambling? “You have to create a network that becomes your baseline platform for supporting these services even if you are not rolling them out immediately. Do the set-top boxes and related devices have the capability to handle voice, video and data? When it comes to TV banking, home shopping, gambling, a lot of that has to do with capabilities of the middleware and the back-office systems. “Make sure you have the…capacity to handle these applications which is why of course they are working to free up the analog bandwidth and going to all-digital.” —Monta Hernon Bake a Better VoIP Cookie
Why You Need Chocolate Chips and Sprinkles Want a big bite of all those new VoIP revenues? Experts who’ve already deployed offered up the following at the National Show’s “Breakfast of VoIP Champs” in New Orleans last month: For more on the National Show, don’t miss next month’s wrap-up in Communications Technology. —Laura Hamilton Broadband by Blimp
Oh the Humanity? Stratospheric broadband—sometimes called “broadband by blimp,” despite the fact that there’s not always a blimp involved—has more than a few naysayers chuckling about its viability. However, the military has used aerostat communications technology for years, and found it practical and reliable. That’s why the Capanina Project, funded by the European Union, is developing broadband capability from aerial platforms to deliver alternatives to cable and satellite, with the potential to reach rural, urban and traveling users. The technology is dubbed “high altitude platforms” (HAPs). What it can do Capanina’s blimp system could deliver everything from VOD, videoconferencing, interactive games, business-to-business e-commerce and more, according to Capanina: “[It] will deliver low-cost broadband communications services to small office and home users at data rates up to 120 Mbps—a staggering 2,000 faster than today’s dial-up modems and more than 200 times faster than a typical ‘wired’ broadband facility.” Services were slated to begin in January via a system called LIBRA, according to SkyLINC, a partner in Capanina. But that didn’t happen. Company execs aren’t talking, but according to the Web site, “The first users of this system will be online during the second quarter of 2004.” Does it work? In October 2002, SkyLINC announced successful trials proving the range, stability and resilience of LIBRA, delivering widespread, high-speed connectivity (up to 155 Mbps connections). The system delivered “high availability service at operational heights of up to one mile. The aerostat is engineered to maintain uptime and can fly in extreme weather conditions. Movement of the aerostat is counteracted by an active control system to maintain the communications link.” Led Zeppelins? The biggest questions about broadband airships involve their reliability and practicality. Images of the Hindenburg do not inspire confidence. However, airship technology has come a long way. “Clearly, the very old images of hydrogen filled airships going up in smoke have long since disappeared with the use of helium,” Capanina reports. “Multiwalled and multicelled airships provide significant protection from damage.” Another reliability factor comes from the fact that the airship would remain on-station in a semi-permanent manner and wouldn’t continuously move around. As for powering, it’s solar (similar to the way orbiting satellites get juice). Solar-powered “gliders” with electric motors driving propellers also have been demonstrated. —Laura Hamilton Pull Into Port
Avid Techies Want Their 1394 As expected, most cable operators are reporting that they haven’t had many subs requesting HD set-tops with 1394 ports. Cable companies had to begin making the ports available to any sub who requested one as of April 1 under the plug-and-play agreement. While it lacks exact numbers, Comcast estimated that it has received fewer than one dozen requests for the HD digital interface across all its systems as of early April. (Talk about a niche audience!). Adelphia didn’t know of any requests for the 1394 boxes, and Cox had eight documented requests (i.e., the actual number could be higher) in the first week. The numbers may be small, but those who want the 1394 port are pretty stoked (and highly technical). Internet message boards flushed out one Cablevision sub who recently had a box with the port installed. The user described himself as “happy so far” and said he was planning to hook his PC up through the port. One of the most fervent message boards on the Web is avsforum.com, where a thread is labeled, “April 1st HD Cable Firewire STB Deadline Has Arrived! Do You Have One?” At this site, Cox, Charter, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and Comcast subs discuss their adventures in 1394. While some claim to have had problems getting the box from their MSO or getting the port to work, several already have them installed and were playing with them or were scheduled for an install. If you work for an MSO and aren’t already checking this thread, you ought to add it to your list of required reading. 1394 users may make up a small contingent of customers, but they’re a very vocal bunch. —Amy Maclean, CableFAX Daily

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