Several deadlines are rolling down the train tracks toward cable operators. The first is the July 1 deadline to remove set-top boxes with integrated security, which has resulted in a slew of requests for waivers being filed by cable operators. The second deadline is the Feb. 1, 2009, FCC mandate to convert all signals to digital.

While the two aren’t joined at the hip, they are kissing cousins. BendBroadband received the news of its set-top box waiver being granted by the FCC at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

"The conditions of the Bendbroadband waiver were that we need to convert to all digital by the end of 2008 and that we need to be communicating with our customers," said Bendbroadband CEO Amy Tykeson. "We’re going to all digital as part of our waiver on our (Motorola) DCT700 set-top boxes."

Like a lot of other cable operators, BendBroadband is on the road to an all-digital platform via a digital simulcast rollout. While large cable operators have jumped into the digital simulcast waters several years ago, some of the smaller cable operators are just starting to get their feet wet. Bresnan, Service Electric Cablevision roll out digital simulcast In March, Bresnan launched digital simulcast out of its Billings, MT, market. From the central headend in Billings, Bresnan subsequently rolled out simulcast the same month in Bozeman, Missoula and Helena with Cheyenne and Casper, WY, to follow. Next month Bresnan will eliminate the traditional analog delivery platform and migrate to an edge MPEG-2 decoder that will receive the digitally encoded channels and convert them back to analog.

While Bresnan hasn’t mentioned any vendors, Service Electric Cablevision said in late March that it was using EGT‘s Quartet encoding systems for its digital simulcast rollout and digital program insertion applications.

On the other hand, BendBroadband launched its digital simulcast two years ago in its Oregon footprint, which was even ahead of the large MSOs in the state. Bendbroadband serves the communities of Bend, Redmond, and Sisters for the majority of the 55,200 homes passed by its 750 MHz plant.

"The reason we went ahead and did it then is because we felt it was an important first step toward moving to all-digital, but it really improved the picture quality in terms of digitizing the signals, particularly for the broadcast channels," Tykeson said. "We saw a couple of years ago that people were buying these big screen TVs, and they had an analog broadcast station that looked a little grainy. The digitization of that signal really improved how it looked on a big screen, and that really helped us. It improved the video and the audio."

Tykeson said Bendbroadband is running dual mode right now with analog and digital, but about 55 percent of its customers are subscribed to its digital service.

Bendbroadband uses a digital simulcast solution from Grass Valley/Thomson, but came up with an innovative way of testing vendors’ wares.

"We experimented some and did a lot of side-by-side testing," Tykeson said. "We sent signals from our headend to a big screen specialty store and compared the different vendors’ simulcast equipment side-by-side so we could decide which one did the best job in terms of clarity and the quality of the audio and video. We looked at about four different vendors that way before we made our decision."

While Bendbroadband will eventually benefit from freed-up bandwidth once the analog signals have ceased to exist, it will work on getting new set-top boxes into customers’ home as it migrates to all-digital.

"We have a couple of (set-top box) units from Motorola, and we’re due to get test units in from Pace any time," said Tykeson, who, along with Comcast‘s Brian Roberts, will receive the Vanguard Award for "Distinguished Leadership," at next month’s NCTA show in Las Vegas. "We’ve had our orders in with those vendors for many months, and the expectation is that the delivery schedule will be as promised." – Mike Robuck

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