It’s been pretty well established even beyond the usual cadre of cynics that cable networks, as they are currently configured, are hurtin’ for bandwidth. The industry is quietly – so as not to upset the money markets, of course – pursuing ways to solve this problem while warily watching Verizon roll out "true QAM" FiOS.
Two announcements this week showed two different ways in which the industry is moving. BigBand Networks, which has gone from a sideshow attraction to a leading vendor of switched digital video (SDV) technology, lined up Cox Communications as the third MSO – following Cablevision Systems and Time Warner Cable – for its gear.
"We’re seeing pretty broad interest among cable MSOs in North America," said John Connelly, executive vice president of marketing at BigBand. "You can expect to continue to hear stories about deployments in the coming months from a number of cable operators."
Cox, he said, wanted SDV to push more high definition channels out there to compete with satellite, which is promising to fill the skies and consumer dishes with a smorgasbord of HD. That threat/promise from the sky guys is about as serious as anything they’ve suggested in a while since a consumer with a $2,000 TV set would tend to want to watch as many channels of HD as possible – not the 15-20 the cable operators offer up – and would be more prone to switch over to a provider of hundreds of channels, even if it meant giving up VOD.
It’s not like cable operators can launch another satellite or two and – presto-change-o, alakazam – have unlimited bandwidth for high definition channels. And it’s certainly not like the industry is planning to overlay fiber-to-the-home. Embracing switched "They (cable) absolutely don’t have all the bandwidth in the world, and that’s why I think the industry is so broadly embracing switched," said Connelly. "When they do put the majority of their broadcast tier into a switched tier, it’s easier to defend this argument that they have lots of bandwidth to support their future service needs."
On the other side of town – OK, the other side of the industry – Wide Open West (WOW!) has taken a different route to the same goal of providing more HD and, in WOW!’s case, more HD VOD. WOW! (and that’s a real pain to type out with that exclamation point) tabbed Nortel Networks to upgrade the optics for networks serving customers in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.
"The enhancement to the VOD service is (to deliver) more titles and more on-demand, and they’ve added some resiliency to enable that additional higher quality service offering," said Shelley Bracken, cable and MSO solutions marketing leader at Nortel. "In addition to that, all of this infrastructure supports their high-speed data offer."
It’s not all about HD VOD, said WOW!’s Senior Marketing Director Cristin Brown, noting ominously (at least for more conventional cable operators in WOW! markets) that "the VOD usage we’re expecting out of the system is part of it, (but) there’s definitely other business associated with it I can’t discuss."
More on that by the end of the year, she promised. Operators are scrambling The point is, there’s not enough bandwidth, and operators are scrambling to either make do with what they have or bite the bullet and upgrade, such as WOW! is doing by transitioning off an old Prisma IP system and moving to Nortel.
Of course, it’s not always in the industry’s best interest to suggest there might even be the teeniest problem with continuing to grow faster than ragweed on an abandoned golf course fairway.
"There’s always the tactical and the strategic," said David Jacobs, founder and CTO of JacobsRimmell. "Do they have a tactical problem today? They’re always going to say ‘no’ because they’re growing like crazy, but the reality is there are more devices in the home physically, so you need lots more IP addresses. There’s demand for more complex components in the home that need to be configured, and they will also be more bandwidth hungry. The conundrum is how to deal with all of that."
DOCSIS 3.0 and bonded channels might help "to get greater bandwidth to the home, but then you have bigger problems of how many node splits you have to do or how many homes can sit on an individual node," Jacobs continued. "Arguably, they have a mechanism to deal with it; it’s just really expensive."
And nobody wants to hear that. – Jim Barthold