The ballots are cast, the votes counted and the results compiled. Five new products from four companies captured the top spots in Communications Technology’s 5th annual Readers’ Choice Awards. The winners in their respective categories are: S-A goes multiroom
There’s just no other way to say it, but digital video recorder (DVR) applications are sizzling hot. Scientific-Atlanta has more than 1.13 million single-room DVRs deployed today. It wowed not only the attendees at Cable-Tec Expo with its Explorer 8300 Multiroom DVR, but also our panel of engineering judges who selected the Readers’ Choice finalists. “Customers will love it,” wrote one judge. “This is the type of solution MSOs need to stay competitive with satellite. Kudos on releasing this product at just the right time,” wrote another. The standard-definition Explorer 8300 features an 80 gigabyte hard drive, while its high-definition sister sports 160 gigabytes of storage. Subscribers can access stored content from up to three additional client-set-tops in other rooms. It gets a bit mind boggling, but the Explorer 8300 can support six simultaneous streams—four different TV sets can be playing stored content while the DVR simultaneously records two more programs. Why the move to a multiroom solution? Two reasons. First, subscribers wanted it. “Users asked for more storage, and the next highest feature request was to have DVRs in all TVs in the home,” said Michael Harney, president/senior vice president subscriber networks. In fact, S-A’s research shows that 67 percent of Explorer 8000 single-room DVRs users were “very interested” in being able to access the DVR from multiple rooms. And of those, nearly two-thirds would pay $4.95 a month for that privilege. The second compelling reason is that a multiroom solution allows cable operators to better leverage their existing investment in non-DVR set-tops. Existing Explorer 2X00, 3X00 or 4X00 models can be moved to other rooms and used as clients to access content stored on the 8300. Cable operators get additional use and revenue from assets they already own. “Roughly half the time an Explorer 8000 goes into a home, the box already there comes back. There’s an opportunity to give consumers what they want—DVRs in other rooms—and to do it cost-effectively with an existing asset,” explained Harney. “There’s nothing cheaper than a set-top you’ve already paid for.” The Explorer 8300’s storage capacity and content protection mechanisms also make it suitable as a platform for other applications such as music and photo downloads. And the DVR can be a weapon in the battle against satellite. “Satellite does have a multiroom box,” Harney said. “But it is connecting the box that exists to a box in another room. You can watch it in two rooms, but not two rooms at the same time.” Acterna tests telephony
As cable operators ramp up their Internet protocol (IP) telephony deployments, it’s essential that they have robust test equipment. Acterna nabbed our Readers’ Choice Award in the telephony category for its DSAM-3500/3600 Digital Services Activation Meter. Versatility is a hallmark of the DSAM 3500/3600. It supports tests not only for IP telephony, but also cable modem, digital video and analog video services in a single, compact unit. “Finally we have a test device that leverages DOCSIS smarts, RF savvy and network integrity testing without a lot of button-pushing by the tech using it,” wrote one of our engineer judges. In addition to testing for noise and other interference on the physical plant that can degrade telephony performance, the device also sports a DOCSIS chipset, which enables techs to verify data transmission. “We can establish communications between the CMTS (cable modem termination system) and verify both upstream and downstream data transmission. We can range and register. If there’s a registering problem with the CMTS, we can detect that,” explained Bill Robertson, vice president of international sales with Acterna. The DSAM-3500/3600 also features a built-in IP telephone with its own microphone and speaker, as well as an input for an optional headset. “When the install is done, you can perform a VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) call [from the DSAM],” Robertson said.” Cable modem installs also are easier to prove, as the unit features a built-in Web browser. If a modem install is done correctly yet the PC is still not able to access the Internet, the installer can plug the DSAM in, call up the Web browser, and prove that the connection is working. “I don’t have to get my laptop or a new modem to prove connectivity,” Robertson said. This feature helps techs avoid time-consuming and costly PC troubleshooting sessions. Remote access and remote RF synchronization are two other key features of the DSAM 3500/3600. If a field technician is having difficulty interpreting the tests, he or she can access the network, and the chief headend technician can review the tests and even perform the tests on the DSAM in the field. Once tests are performed and measurements captured, techs can upload those results to the headend and download new test procedures via the unit’s RF synchronization feature. “Test procedures may be deployed routinely during the day by synchronizing from the field over the RF DOCSIS network or Ethernet LAN (local area network),” Robertson said. Such synchronization enables cable operators to build a baseline database for future troubleshooting. Acterna makes closeout testing easy
Acterna was a two-time winner this year, also taking the top spot in our operational support systems category with its TechComplete Closeout Testing Solution. TechComplete works hand-in-hand with the DSAM family by providing electronic methods for automating and verifying test procedures. TechComplete allows operators to define their own closeout tests and quality standards. These tests are then downloaded to the DSAM via its RF synchronization feature. At the completion of every install, the technician runs the automated tests—somewhat like using a wizard—which immediately determine whether the install was successful. “Our main goal is to reduce repeat rates for cable operators,” explained Craig Morrall, director of marketing for cable workflow solutions. “That’s accomplished by ensuring that the job is done correctly the first time and verified by quantitative data. Ensuring that each job adheres to predefined quality standards leads to a reduction in repeat calls and higher customer satisfaction.” At the end of each day, the technician uploads the data from all of that day’s installs to a central database. TechComplete can generate a variety of management reports to identify trends or problems at different levels. Managers can spot which techs aren’t performing the tests, which installs don’t meet quality standards, and assign additional training as necessary. Such quantitative data are especially useful when overseeing contractor-performed installs. Operators also benefit from reduced training costs, by bringing consistent test procedures to the instrument. “Having verifiable and recoverable data available with this ease is, in fact, a step forward,” wrote one of our judges. TechComplete can be integrated with billing and workforce management systems. This integration allows cable operators to download work orders to the DSAM, collect the test results from those orders and update the billing system with data from completed installs at the end of the day. “By integrating with the billing and workforce systems, we can ensure that for every job done a test was taken, and the tests were either passed or failed,” said Morrall. “Without the integration, you don’t know on that particular job or service call whether the tests were actually taken.” Sandvine combats worms
As high-speed data services contribute a larger share to cable operators’ revenue streams and play an increasingly important role in subscribers’ lives, strategies for protecting those services are critical. Peer-to-peer specialist Sandvine has developed a Worm/Denial of Service (DoS) solution for use with its Policy Traffic Switch. By employing deep packet inspection of traffic both entering and leaving the cable operator’s data network, Sandvine can identify and eliminate 98 percent of worm traffic. The solution won our Readers’ Choice Award in the high-speed data category. “Worms account for 2 to 10 percent of all traffic. But it’s the consequences of malicious worms that’re important to understand. They are a prelude to two bad things—distributed denial of service attacks and spam Trojans,” explained Tom Donnelly, Sandvine co-founder and vice president of marketing and sales. In a DoS attack, the worm first infects a subscriber’s computer and then uses that computer to launch an attack against another Web site. Spam Trojans allow someone to remotely control an infected computer and use it as part of a spam distribution network. “These things irritate subscribers and make them unhappy,” Donnelly said.
Part of that unhappiness stems from traditional methods for dealing with worm traffic. “Providers have used relatively blunt means to protect themselves. They turn off service. That’s not very customer friendly,” Donnelly added. With Sandvine’s solution, cable operators can easily identify infected computers. The next time a subscriber goes online, the operator can direct them automatically to a captive portal that displays a message such as, “You’ve been infected by the SoBig.H worm. Please click on the links for more information.” Links can direct subs to software downloads that will mitigate the worms. So how does the solution eliminate worm traffic from the network? It scans all incoming and outgoing traffic looking for behavior patterns and characteristics that are common to all worms. Operators then set their own thresholds (or use Sandvine’s) to deal with suspect traffic. It can be rate-shaped (throttled back to a lower level), refused or “blackholed” (sent to a nonexistent IP address). The advantage of this is that it never enters the network, thus avoiding unexpected traffic spikes. “Providers don’t have to add capacity to support the peaks caused by worms,” Donnelly said. “Clearly worm and DoS attacks are huge issues for ISPs (Internet service providers),” wrote one of our judges. “Sandvine’s new traffic mitigation solution goes beyond the basic capability of detecting and isolating such attacks by providing an automatic redirection and decontamination capability for ISPs.” Alpha monitors power with DOCSIS
Standards play an increasingly important role in cable operations, and power monitoring is no exception. Alpha Technologies nabbed the top spot in our outside plant category with its DOCSIS Power Monitor. The company’s XMS2 Digital Embedded DOCSIS Transponder enables cable operators to manage their network powering through the existing cable modem infrastructure. Multiple power supplies, batteries and a generator can be monitored using a single transponder. The transponder transmits its data over the existing DOCSIS channels and through the existing CMTS to a network management system. Because the status monitoring data complies with ANSI/SCTE HMS standards, operators can use any simple network management protocol (SNMP) management system to collect and analyze the data. “I welcome the freedom that the open standard of DOCSIS will provide from proprietary status monitoring systems,” wrote one of our judges. The solution enables cable operators to save money by leveraging their existing DOCSIS assets. “It eliminates all the headend controllers—the proprietary equipment—that one used to need to communicate with power supply transponders,” said Rob Anderson, director of product management at Alpha. “If you are offering high-speed data service, then putting a DOCSIS monitor in the network is no more difficult than adding another subscriber.” Hardware, software and training costs are all reduced, Anderson added. Other benefits accrue from moving transponder communications to DOCSIS. “With proprietary transponders, you had to allocate a separate band upstream and downstream to talk over the network. With the DOCSIS transponders, you don’t have to do that. They use the same spectrum as your existing data service,” Anderson explained. The transponders also can be used to gather data to determine whether the quality of your plant in that area is sufficient to support IP telephony. And they shorten manufacturing lead times. “With proprietary transponders, because each one had its own frequencies for upstream and downstream transmit and receive, there were more products to stock,” Anderson explained. “DOCSIS is frequency agile, so one part covers all applications. That makes it easier to stock and helps us shorten lead times.” Alpha’s XMS2 can ship with new power supplies or be retrofitted to units already deployed. The incremental price of the transponder is typically between 20 and 30 percent of the cost of the power supply, but this is less than the cost of proprietary status monitoring, said Anderson.
Voting pays off
It’s not just the vendors who benefit from participating in Communications Technology’s Readers’ Choice Awards. This year a record number of Cable-Tec Expo attendees cast votes and were eligible for our drawing of $1,000. The lucky winner for 2004 is Dave Lester, maintenance class II, with Adelphia’s system in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Congratulations to Dave, our winners and all of our finalists in the 2004 Readers’ Choice Awards. Jennifer Whalen is the managing editor and director of custom publishing for Communications Technology. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.