Editor’s note: For various reasons, the authors of this piece would prefer to go unnamed. They are, however, respected cable engineers, one for a major MSO and the other for a vendor.

Putting a couple of freethinking engineers in front of a white board can be dangerous. What emerged from one such recent exercise was the crazy idea of the cable industry embracing a government initiative, benefiting through economies of scale created by the regulation, and managing to the win/win of consumers. The premise Allow us to explain. Come Feb. 17, 2009, analog over-the-air transmission will cease. Affected consumers will need a box to receive digital over-the-air signals and convert them to analog to be backward compatible with existing analog TV sets.

Now let’s take the whole "analog tier" into account. The analog tier today includes the over-the-air broadcasters plus another 65 or so "analog cable programmers," which averages out to be about 77 channels of analog programming.

Here is what is required across the market for consumers to receive this historical "analog tier":

• After Feb. 17, 2009, the FCC requires a box.
• Today, satellite requires a box.
• Today, telcos require a box.
• Cable does not require a box.

Granted, it could be to cable’s advantage to be the sole-source provider of analog TV. The marketing engines of the satellite providers and the telcos, however, are all targeted around the rapidly maturing high definition TV (HDTV) programming market. Waging the legacy analog battle may be a hindrance to winning the war of the emerging HD market.
So, is it better to be "box-less" or market-less? The crazy idea Regardless of how you slice and dice it, whether you are broadcasting HD or switching it through narrowcast, HD needs spectrum. Additionally, future DOCSIS systems will also need more channels for higher data rates and broader return path options.

The biggest block of spectrum that today is the least efficiently used is the broadcast of 77 analog channels. Operators are effectively getting less than 300 Mbps with spectrum that 256-QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) could turn that into nearly 3 Gbps. Going all-digital, however, has a daunting capital proposition: adding what could amount to two times the number of digital boxes already deployed.

So returning to the white board, here’s the question: "What would happen if cable were to simulcast the ‘analog tier’ in both government-standard 8-VSB (vestigial sideband) and in cable-standard QAM?" This would allow the government boxes to be compatible with the cable system. (Remember, whether signals are transmitted in 8-VSB or QAM, at the transport and encoding layers it is all MPEG-2; only the modulation scheme and resulting data rates are different.

Cable could take advantage of the economies of scale generated through the government program. Cable’s long-awaited $40 dollar set-top box – thwarted by the separable security requirement alone – becomes a reality via the government program.

The message to consumers would simply state that the government boxes available at consumer electronics retailers are compatible. Simple self-install should prevail. When consumers move, their boxes are portable, on or off the cable plant. Just sign up for the "basic analog tier" digital package, connect your box, and you are set – like today, but with a box.

This story aligns cable with government, while positioning the industry – and consumers – with boxes that would work for both over-the-air and on the cable plant. Suddenly, cable is cooperating with the government rather than opposing it and managing it to a win-win for the consumer. Fly in the ointment Different rules may apply when cable digitizes the analog tier content and broadcasts it on the plant. But maybe it’s time to re-examine the rules.

Here’s one question: Why should the "analog tier" be treated any differently in tomorrow’s all-digital world than it is treated in the "analog tier" today?

It can be argued that the analog tier today is effectively "digital." Readily available and inexpensive technology easily negates the conversion cost and complexity of turning analog into digital. Cable operators broadcast analog tier signals without scrambling or other security that would prevent customers from directly connecting a TV set to a cable system and then recording those signals to tape, encoding to a hard drive, encoding and retransmitting via Slingbox or capturing to a PC. And all of this is legal under the guidelines of "fair use."

Consumers do this today, but when cable digitizes the analog tier, the government effectively is taking away that capability by mandating the encryption requirement for digital signals. Adjust that encryption requirement with respect to the analog tier, and new possibilities arise that provide the same effective security that we have today. Cable could adopt and interoperate using the government-standard 8-VSB converter box, creating a winning arrangement for consumers and industry.

The analog tier in digital would be just like it is today, albeit with a government box in between. That is to say, the same "analog" programming would be available. The digitized 8-VSB analog tier of tomorrow would be as "digitally secure" as the analog tier today, allowing consumers the same basic "fair use" ability as they have with the analog tier today.

For the cable companies, taking away the encryption – and thus the separable security – requirement for cable operators reduces the costs and complexities of related staging, binding, warehousing, installing and billing. The payoff Today’s analog lineup channels 2-78 take up 77 6 MHz channel slots. Say, in a particular market, there are 11 national and local broadcasters and 66 cable programmers. Moving the analog to 8-VSB results in an amazing amount of capacity. (See Table 1.) This shift would free up 43 6 MHz channels. That is enough to launch 86 HD channels natively or 129 channels at 3:1. That is a pretty good story. We just saved more bandwidth than we would gain by going to 1 GHz from an 850 MHz system.

Those knowledgeable say building 8-VSB edge devices that are bounded to 6 MHz channels and interoperable with QAM is neither hard and nor expensive. Such devices could even take advantage of the existing protocols and standards that MSOs use today to simplify operational requirements. With a little effort, the vendor community could create a huge win for the industry with little more than a few months’ work. The clincher Bring it all back to basics: today’s analog tier simulcast in 8-VSB, the government’s standard. It is a win-win for consumers and the cable industry. Call it thinking far outside of the box, if not inside the government box ….

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