The inevitable growth of high definition TV (HDTV) and its migration into nearly every U.S. home within the next 10 years is re-shaping the cable/telco/satellite competitive environment – and along with it, the quality of service (QoS) paradigm and customer expectations of HD service.

Driven by the promise to deliver high quality HD content, and more of it, service providers are raising the HD quality bar while looking at ways to cost-effectively monitor and improve the quality of HD video.

HD numbers are spiking higher than ever, with 34 percent of households in the United States reporting at least one HD set and 25 percent likely to get another one in the next year, according to a recent LRG study.

Cable in particular is getting the message that HD quality matters, big time. And monitoring it is crucial, evidenced by an MRG research report that found 90 percent of cable operators saying video quality monitoring was either crucial or very important, and 58 percent reporting end-user quality of experience (QoE) as critical and needing to be maintained.

"We’re finding that cable is getting very interested in HD quality monitoring," said Gary Schultz, president and principal analyst for MRG. "It’s a wake-up call to MSOs, who are looking at HD QoS as a differentiator. That will continue being their mantra. HD is definitely driving high awareness of quality.
Change coming Yet cable operators, Schultz noted, aren’t exactly putting their money where their QoS is, at least not yet. "MSOs are spending approximately $2-5 per subscriber per year for QoS and/or QoE, with some budgeting nothing," he said. "But that is changing because quality touches customers, and that relates back to churning."

Changing, indeed. Consider Bresnan Communications, which, according to CTO Pragash Pillai, is focusing more on improving video quality and its monitoring with the advent of HD.

"Before HD, customers couldn’t distinguish between standard definition (SD) and analog," Pillai said. "But with HD sets, people recognize the difference between HD and SD. Customers expect great HD pictures. That is they key differentiator for us to be competitive."

Yet monitoring and improving HD video quality is easier said than done. "With the expansion of HD, you see more problems, and the challenge is looking at the last mile – from the drop to the home," Pillai said. "We’re looking now at set-top boxes themselves that can measure and send back data, and the visual side. We’re also focusing on the customer premises side, like house wiring. But we’re also seeing more tools to monitor and improve HD to be sure we exceed the quality standard. It’s not just quantity, but quality." Tools Many of the tools being developed are from an emerging group of companies in the burgeoning HD monitoring space, a growth market in and of itself with no fewer than 30 companies in the mix.

"All of us are seeing an emphasis on adding HD with higher quality and better up time," said Eric Conley, CEO of Mixed Signals, a player in the HD video monitoring space. "The trick for cable is providing HD channels without expanding its existing architecture, and as best it can with less bandwidth. But HD takes a huge amount of capacity. Now, quality monitoring for HD is a new space, and it’s less technical than practical, so the need for monitoring in cable, IPTV and satellite is high visibility."

There’s also a need for improving the business model. Added Conley: "The technology is there; now it’s more of a business challenge. Monitoring is going to where it becomes an active participant, (to) find all the problems and troubleshoot. But it doesn’t fix anything. That’s where we want to get to, where it fixes problems." Capacity Getting there will require some tough decisions around HD quality and how to monitor and enhance it. And network capacity is smack in the middle of the discussions, experts maintain.

"The sheer bandwidth required by HD necessitates an understanding of how this much traffic affects each other in the multiplex," said Matthieu Chamik, product marketing manager for V-Factor at Symmetricom, a provider of timing and frequency technologies, and which recently launched its Q-1200 pixel-by-pixel analysis of video and content. "We’re starting to see HD increase traffic tremendously on the network, so the new paradigm in HD quality monitoring is the need for end-to-end solutions and translated into QoE. That’s the direction we’re headed." It better work … Yet pixels or not, HD had better work, and well. "HD has got to work first," said Bruce Leichtman, principal analyst for LRG, a media research group. "If pixels aren’t working, it’s probably not a big issue. But if the picture is pixelating, that’s a problem. Operators are now thinking from a capacity standpoint and what is an acceptable level of quality based on that. But the HD bar is being raised, and you can tell the difference between real HD and ‘not real’ HD."

The difference between monitoring HD and SD, maintains Gino Dion, vice president of strategic solutions for IneoQuest, is in the HD streams.

"The fundamentals are the same with HD and SD, and there are several metrics we can look at," Dion said. "The difference is how many streams. HD streams 15-18 Mbps, which is five times SD. So it’s not as simple to look at all the streams simultaneously."

There’s also the competitive difference, which he said is a key driver for operators in their pursuit of an effective HD video monitoring strategy.

"We look at HD as the battlefront of service providers, and HD quality is a selling differentiator for them," Dion said. "People are buying bundles. If a service provider loses a video customer, they could lose the whole bundle, so HD drags that along with it. We’re seeing not just quality monitoring, but (also) operators lining up video quality with business metrics in terms of churn and call centers. It’s now about understanding the lifestyle of HD content."
Getting personal Part of that lifestyle is consumer personalization.

"There will be more personal TV, and that requires bandwidth," said Ran Oz, CTO, EVP and co-founder of BigBand Networks. "The Holy Grail is to get to switched unicast so every active tuner gets its own stream."

Yet there’s more to come on the HD front, Oz noted. "HD today is not the final story. There’s 3DHD, Super HD around the corner. But for now, the QoS challenges are with splicing ads and monetizing them."

One tool being worked on, he explained, would allow seamless switching to take higher quality HD stream capacity and switch it to a lower bit rate version. That would allow the highest quality HD in prime time. Simply put, "subscriber expectations of quality are going up, so more capacity is needed," Oz said.

And more technical advancements are in the works in the HD video quality monitoring space. One is the double stimulus, said John Alexenko, general manager of the Americas for K-Will, a provider of video quality monitoring technologies to the cable and IPTV markets.

"A single stimulus just checks for alarms and is simplified," he said. "A double allows you to get more detail like splice errors. There’s movement in that direction." Topic of discussion In just what direction the quality monitoring piece of HD moves will likely be decided by cost and competitive pressures. In the meantime, most experts concur that monitoring the video quality of HD needs to be a lead topic of discussion.

Concluded Schultz: "Monitoring an encoded MPEG stream is like pulling up a young plant to see if it’s growing, and cable and the telcos realize they have a lot of work to do. Once you make a big deal of providing all these HD channels, you’d better deliver. HD is definitely driving high awareness of quality."

Craig Kuhl is a contributor to Communications Technology. Reach him at [email protected].

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