Big-picture analysts may fret over the future of advertising, but cable operators at the local level see ad insertion as a cash cow. The burgeoning on-demand world presents further opportunities. “Local commercial insertion is the last completely unregulated way for cable companies to make money,” Steve Fox, president of Fox Electronics, says. “While budgets have been cut back over the last few years, they have not been cut back for commercial insertion.” Fox Electronics’s QoIP system is one attempt to increase efficiency and improve profitability of this major revenue stream. Leveraging IP QoIP uses Internet protocol (IP) to distribute cue tones and relays over a regional cable operation’s Ethernet transport system, Fox says. Signals are delivered to within a few thousandths of a second, ensuring that the ads run on time, he adds. The key to QoIP is that it enables the operator to avoid the expense of replicating the cue-tone receiving equipment that previously was required at each secondary headend. In addition to trafficking the cue tones, the QoIP system has the ability to turn switches off and on remotely. This ability, known as relays, can be used to switch off programming that for legal reasons can’t be shown in a certain area (syndicated exclusivity, or syndex), to switch on the emergency alert system or other reasons. QoIP provides six relays that can be used in any combination of locations or channels. The system is being tested in a couple of Comcast systems, Fox says. The price will be in the neighborhood of $2,500 for each receiver and transmitting device. …and the on-demand platform Another new ad insertion project is a bit more expansive. N2 Broadband’s AdPoint, an end-to-end system is aimed at easing operators’ forays into on-demand cable advertising. AdPoint is a product designed to enable effective commercial advertising insertion in the far more complex world of on-demand programming in which spots will be more numerous and inserted in a more fluid manner. The AdPoint system is a comprehensive platform for the creation, management and placement of on-demand—or, as the company calls it, “nonlinear”—advertising. There are two main elements of the system. The AdPoint campaign manager allows operators to create content and campaigns based on a variety of criteria. The AdPoint media manager oversees the placement of the on-demand content based on rules set up by the campaign manager. …and standards Both Fox’s QoIP and N2’s AdPoint will comply with new standards being promulgated by the SCTE as a means of driving efficiency in on-demand commercial insertion. Paul Woidke, the vice president of technology for Comcast Spotlight and chairman of the SCTE’s digital insertion subcommittee, says that there are four key standards efforts. Two are complete, and two are in progress. The two completed standards are the familiar SCTE 30 and SCTE 35. (SCTE 30 enables communications between the headend splicer and the server. SCTE 35 replaces analog tones with their digital equivalents.) In addition, nonlinear initiatives such as N2’s will have to follow CableLabs’ content specification 1.1 and asset distribution interface (ADI) specs, says Raj Amin, N2’s vice president of business development. The committee now is working on a “cue message injector” that will enable programmers to insert the digital cues into the digital program stream. That work could be standardized by the end of the year, Woidke says. The other initiative, which is further down the road, focuses on giving operators and programmers the ability to insert at the set-top box. A more complex world The bottom line is that the world of on-demand commercial insertion increasingly will be challenging. “Today, the key capability is to be able to target by geography and content—we’re not necessarily looking to have separate campaigns on an hourly basis,” says N2’s Amin. “The complexity is something that will grow over time.” —Carl Weinschenk Flexible Networks
Fitting Upgrades to the System, and Networks to Demand Among the various ways to increase a system’s bandwidth and performance, flexibility is becoming a watchword. Take some of the former AT&T Broadband systems. Comcast now owns most of these systems. Last year it spent $2 billion upgrading 53,000 plant miles, largely taking down 450 MHz networks and constructing 860 MHz networks in their place. “Almost exclusively, they’re (now) 860 MHz,” Chris Coffey, Comcast vice president, operations, says. (For more on Comcast’s upgrade process, see related story on page 28.) Not uniform But Comcast sold some of these systems—largely smaller markets in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah—to Bresnan Communications, which has taken a more customized approach to the upgrade process. The specifics, as explained by Bresnan SVP of Engineering Gary McIntosh, reveal a multifaceted strategy. Those systems that never had been upgraded to 550 MHz, Bresnan is taking all the way to 870 MHz. Systems that already were 550 MHz are getting “enhancements” that increase bandwidth to 625 MHz. The name of the game is flexible and system-specific solutions. For example, McIntosh is further tweaking the 625 MHz networks, reducing homes-passed per node to less than 600. Nor is he afraid to ask vendors for custom-made equipment. “Why not get them to do a 700 MHz (equalizer), if your plant is truly 700 MHz?” McIntosh asks. The upshot is clearly plant that is upgraded, but not uniformly so. By mid-2004, nearly all of the Bresnan systems (92 percent) will be at least 625 MHz; with a preponderance (72 percent) at least 750 MHz, and another large chunk (39 percent) in the 860-870 MHz range. Bending and scaling down Even within the Comcast template, however, there is room to maneuver. “The network is fairly flexible,” Coffey says. “The idea behind ours is that you would pay as you grow.”
“As demand increases, the networks are scalable,” he says. Ample fiber—as a rule 12 strands per node—and the capacity to split those nodes makes it possible for networks to be “downsized on a case-by-case basis.” “We have examples where the take rate on a cable modem service may be very particular to an elementary school. So in that instance, you may be dealing with three or four nodes,” he says. As for modular upgrades of legacy field gear, Coffey says he has not taken that approach with the AT&T upgrades. “There are probably areas where that makes a lot of sense, depending upon the demographics or geographic issues.” “We were basically buying new, from the likes of S-A, Motorola and C-Cor,” Coffey says. —Jonathan Tombes Pay Now or Pay Later
Optimizing Plant and Procedures SCTE recently elevated James Wilson, area engineering and construction project manager, at Comcast of Nashville, to Senior Member status. We sat down with him recently to chat about upgrades, advanced service delivery and keeping the boss—the subscriber—smiling.
What are some of the most challenging tasks you’ve faced in the last five years? “One challenge in my position as a project manager is making sure the cable plant is built and activated before the homeowner moves in. The threat of dish and other satellite providers has made us move at an unprecedented pace. Another challenge is working with new technologies—VOD, high-speed data, VoIP—and their associated equipment demands. For example, we have to search out vendors and make sure we put in enough research and planning to make the best decision for now and future deployments.” What have you been working on in Nashville over the last six months? What are the biggest challenges you tackled during this time? “We just finished rebuilding the acquired Tele-Media systems in Tennessee and Kentucky. We are upgrading existing plant for high-speed data and VOD, while building new miles of plant daily. “The biggest challenges that I face are getting materials in on a timely basis; getting everyone on the project in sync to meet deadlines and to have a good finished product at completion; and coordinating technician training for the service and maintenance of new equipment without impeding their daily service call completions. It’s a pay it now or pay for it later theory concerning training.” —Monta Hernon Elementary, My Dear Cable Modem
Inspector Idea Wins Ops Award Wouldn’t it be great if your field crew could use the information already provided by modems to tune the subscriber’s installation accurately or troubleshoot network problems? And wouldn’t it be great if they could do it without the need for a big investment in new instruments? That very idea is why SCTE and Telecrafter Products named Mario de Oliveira, an engineer with Nuevo Siglo Cable TV, the 2004 Field Operations Award winner for developing the Cable Modem Inspector (CMI). The CMI takes advantage of the information already provided by cable modems, without additional cost for new instruments. It essentially uses a central computer at the headend to read data from particular and identified cable modems in the field (called CMI) and sends this information to the technician who is connected to the CMI. This information (Rx and Tx power, SNR, percent packet loss and other parameters) goes through a video and/or audio channel and is used to tune the subscriber’s installation accurately or troubleshoot network problems. Mario de Oliveira is a second-time winner of the Field Operations Award, having captured the award in 2002 for his idea “Power Cellular Monitor,” which monitors power supplies through the use of cellular phones. He is 33 years old and has more than 11 years experience in cable television and telecommunications, including his role as a teacher and researcher for the National University of Uruguay. De Oliveira entered cable in 1997 with Equital SA, a national MSO, working as an engineering and maintenance chief. He recently became an engineering manager for Nuevo Siglo Cable TV, involved in all technical issues related to field and headend operations. The annual Field Operations Award, sponsored by Telecrafter, acknowledges employees or contractors working in the field for creating ideas to improve field operations. De Oliveira received an all-expense-paid trip to this month’s SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Orlando (including registration, transportation up to $500, hotel accommodations up to $500), $500 cash and a plaque to be presented during the Annual Awards Luncheon. Members of SCTE may access the entire article on the “Cable Modem Inspector” by logging in at www.scte.org, selecting “Knowledge Resource Forum,” and then selecting “Field Operations Award—Winning Papers.” For more information on SCTE’s awards, visit http://www.scte.org/membership/index.cfm?pID=26. For more information on SCTE’s Cable-Tec Expo, visit http://expo.scte.org. Encoding Fuels All-Digital
Efficient, Lower-Cost Solution The “dual (analog/digital) mode” video delivery at Ontario’s Mountain Cablevision involves both new technology and cable fundamentals. Enabling the MSO’s all-digital option is gear from EGT Technology, a manufacturer of programmable digital signal processor (DSP)-based MPEG-2 encoders. Mountain Cablevision is using the EGT Professional Encoder to encode digitally and improve off-air, analog signals, especially those traveling long distances. “I really like what the EGT did to some of those signals,” Bruce Marshall, Mountain Cablevision technical director, says. EGT CEO Greg Nicholson also thinks that efficiency accounts for his company’s success—which includes a deal with Persona Inc., another Ontario-based MSO. “Our bit rates are 30 percent lower than the competition.” And what’s the secret? “New algorithms, more complex processing,” Nicholson explains. “And a lot less expense.”
As for consumer premises, once a software “hiccup” is fixed on the Motorola DCT 700, Marshall says Mountain plans to make this low-cost digital device available, first through a coupon program with all TV set retailers in the service area. Mountain has activated a 270-channel, all-digital lineup on existing customers using Motorola DCT 2000-class or DCT 5100 or DCT 6208 set-tops. The 40,000-subscriber MSO already offers 12 HDTV channels. To handle these advanced services (it also delivers 5 Mbps download to high-speed data subs) Mountain emphasizes the basics. “It’s a whole bunch of things,” Marshall says. “Small 125-home nodes. Lots of back-up power. Triple-shielded drop wire into all the homes. New cable plant all rebuilt. High quality taps. High-quality craftsmanship.”

Jonathan Tombes Why Standards Equal Savings
Three Questions with Terry Cordova SCTE recently announced that its ANSI-accredited standards program attracted 11 new members since the first of the year, boosting its membership total to 132. We interviewed Cequel III’s Terry Cordova, an SCTE at-large director and senior vice president of engineering at Cequel III, about his company’s interest in the Society’s standards program. Why did your company join the SCTE’s Standards Program? “I have always felt very strong about the SCTE and its efforts in establishing standards within our industry. As an industry, standards are extremely important. We can see challenges across other industries where the lack of standards is yielding higher costs of operations. DOCSIS is just one example of a standard that has delivered capital and operational savings.” What would you like to the SCTE focus on this year? “One area we would like to see more focus from the HMS subcommittee is on the management of the digital set-tops and the digital infrastructure. “The second area of focus we would like to see from the DVS subcommittee is on an open conditional access system for digital systems such as Sony Passage.” Why do you feel these areas need standards development? “HMS subcommittee: The DOCSIS standards enable us to use an open source SNMP polling engine to diagnose capacity and RF issues on the plant. With VOD and other interactive applications available on the legacy digital platforms, we need similar standards-based tools. In addition, the cable modem network only looks at one channel, while over the course of a day, set-tops will provide signal quality on every channel. “DVS subcommittee: A problem currently facing the cable industry is the high cost of digital set-tops along with the time it takes to bring new technologies such as DVR to the market at an affordable price. We need formal backing for an open conditional-access standard such as Sony’s Passage to provide programmers and manufacturers with the confidence that the system is secure. There is a market for products from third-party suppliers. Simply comparing the cost curve for DOCSIS modems vs. digital set-tops over the past three years demonstrates the need for this solution.” —Jennifer Whalen

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Nielsen released its first-ever report of the television media landscape’s progress and gaps in on-screen inclusion.

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