For the nostalgic among us (or those whose brains just don’t sort out the good from the bad), this used to be the time of year the cable industry would gather among browning Christmas trees withering under yellow skies at the Western Cable Show in Anaheim, CA. It was at this unlamented gathering that John Malone coined the phrase "500-channel universe" during a news conference heard ’round the world, essentially marking the transformation of cable from community antenna television (CATV) into a telecommunications cornucopia that has since spawned direct broadcast satellite (DBS) telco-based IPTV.
 
This year, the much more diversified industry gathered a bit farther West – or actually East – at ITU Telecom World Hong Kong. Oddly enough, in a sort of déjà vu, the announcements coming from that gathering mirrored the types of things one might have heard in Anaheim and offered evidence that more changes are on the way for the video space.

Cisco Systems demonstrated how it’s pulling together the pieces of its IP dream – and all those companies it’s been acquiring – around Visual Quality Experience (VQE) technology. All for one … VQE, for Cisco, is part of "a journey" that has nothing to do with traveling halfway across the world to a trade show, said Suraj Shetty, director of routing and service provider technology at Cisco. "We’re addressing specific issues whether it’s wireline, cable, wireless or for that matter over-the-top providers like Google or Yahoo! or Microsoft."

Cisco is pushing Video 2.0 – the next generation video delivery method that includes targeted on-demand advertising, a convergence of mobile and wireline networks, and, perhaps most importantly for telcos entering the video space, rapid channel changing within switched digital video (SDV) networks along with the ability to do rapid error recognition and correction on copper lines. While not quite as catchy as a 500-channel universe, Video 2.0 still resonates as something that will change the way people watch television – starting with how quickly channels change.

"In the cable space, all the channels are enabled all the time. When you switch the channels, it’s pretty much instantaneous," Shetty said. "In the digital switched video of wireline IPTV, you might have a problem where you see a blank screen for a couple seconds. Those challenges have slowed down IPTV deployment." S-A boxes to the rescue Cisco is using what many consider a cable birthright – a Scientific Atlanta set-top box – to help cable’s telco competition overcome the problem. When a channel change is requested, VQE technology inside the S-A 7600 set-top captures the request and uses information it has stored in an internal buffer to send that new channel to the TV in less than 100 milliseconds.

"We’ve basically spoofed the user experience so the user sees an immediate channel change, Shetty said. "We have enhanced the channel surfer’s experience by making the video screen enabled immediately instead of a 1- to 3-second wait that might happen in the digital switched medium."

Cisco also takes aim at another telco video network problem: errors on the DSL line either due to old copper or weather conditions or other extraneous factors.

"We do network repair using a network-based appliance that will eventually be integrated into the 7600. The set-top box will detect a packet loss and using standards-based protocols communicate with a VQE that runs inside the Scientific-Atlanta platform and detects the error," Shetty said.

A deep buffer (and you thought those things were only used to clean the hallways in the headquarters building) stores all the last known video streams, finds out which packet was corrupted, and sends it back to the set-top in "less than 100 milliseconds," Shetty crowed.

Being a good neighbor, Cisco is not keeping these innovations in its own stable of products – which, come to think of it, include just about everything an operator needs these days anyway.

"The VQE technology is network-based. It will be embedded into our routers and switches, and it’s standards-based so we can pretty much interoperate with anybody’s set-top box that supports these standards over time," he said.

For those who were wondering what Cisco had in mind for Scientific-Atlanta when it swallowed half of the industry’s set-top duopoly, error repair and rapid channel changes only scratch the surface of a more world-shaking plan.

"The set-top box becomes the control point for creating the first impression," Shetty said. "We’ve done some great innovations in the set-top box: cell phone tracking via GPS; on-screen caller ID; multi-room DVR; DVR with DVD burner. That’s creating another paradigm shift in how people watch television." – Jim Barthold

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