As a broadband cable engineer looking to launch high definition television (HDTV), you can compress many of the hassles you’ll have to solve into this word: bandwidth. HDTV has a voracious appetite for it, but its hankering for elbowroom on your network doesn’t mean that the other video, data or voice services you’ve already launched will quit squawking for space.

Here’s the dilemma. You can use compression to offer more content, including HD programs, but if you overuse it, you’re left with reduced picture quality. And isn’t a better picture really the point of HDTV?

Why you should care—now

While this isn’t exactly a spanking new high-def issue, recent events could move it higher on the engineering community’s "to-solve" list. As you’ve heard by now, a national HDTV plug-and-play agreement was announced by seven top MSOs and 14 consumer electronics (CE) companies in December. The agreement means subscribers won’t be forced to have yet another box in their living room to receive HD—at least for one-way services. (Two-way offerings like video-on-demand and interactive TV will require an HD box. These services call for more complicated talks between cable and CE, which both have agreed to pursue.)

Proponents of the initial agreement note that consumers won’t have to worry that the HD sets they buy today will be obsolete next week. Additionally, content producers can feel more confident that a copy of their latest blockbuster won’t end up on the Internet free to anyone who wants it. That’s because the cable/CE agreement includes a draft security technology license and encoding rules that regulate copying.

The FCC still has to give its regulatory stamp to the two industries’ suggestions, but experts say that the agreement is a major milestone in the HD transition.

Squashing CE complaints

One pleasant point stemming from the pact is that you won’t have to hear the CE industry continuing to bemoan that cable technology is the reason that HD isn’t happening. Additionally, the agreement puts cable in a better position to compete against DBS ops, which have wooed cable subs away by offering pretty HD pictures. After all, DBS’s bandwidth isn’t infinite, and your networks have access to a lot more.

Of course, cable’s beefy bandwidth isn’t endless either. So, this could be where all that talk of engineering good practices to save bandwidth truly needs to go into practice. And, it also might mean that some MSOs decide to commit substantially to bandwidth-enhancing solutions vendors have been showing off over the last few years.

It also means that engineers will need to decide what is an acceptable amount of compression for high-def content. "This issue must be resolved quickly because the first to sign on for HD service will be well-heeled subscribers who represent an excellent demographic for up-selling additional broadband services," says Terayon’s Mark Jeffery, senior product line manager of digital video solutions.

Jeffrey suggests that the optimum output configuration could include the combination of both standard definition services as well as HD services into the same multiplex. "The ultimate solution will give the operator the flexibility to rate-shape both SD and HD services, as well as simultaneously insert revenue-generating SD and HD advertisements over a single physical output," he adds. SCTE members can download the paper he presented at Broadband Plus in December at www.scte.org/forum/index.cfm.

Laura Hamilton is editorial director, broadband at "Communications Technology." Reach her at lhamilton@accessintel.com.

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