Comcast’s long-term agreement with Level 3 Communications to extend its national fiber infrastructure by some 19,000 route-miles is another point along the migration of the cable industry’s video-centric business into what was once exclusively telco territory. This is far from the first effort to link the metro systems of an MSO to a national fiber infrastructure. Cox unveiled its Internet protocol (IP) backbone in 2003, in part to herald its voice over IP (VoIP) strategy; and Time Warner Cable long has been tied into the AOL Digital Transport Network (ADTN). Indeed, Comcast already owns—and plans to continue using—the backbone it acquired through AT&T Broadband, which itself was composed partially of assets once held by Excite@Home. What’s significant is not only the cost ($100 million) and extent (20-year rights on fiber, not simply wavelengths) of this build, but that it is being undertaken for more than high-speed data. "This backbone will carry video bits," David Fellows, Comcast CTO, says. In effect, Comcast is building an alternative to its satellite transponder video delivery system. Underlying this decision is the growth and localization of on-demand content. As Fellows explains, satellite delivery works best when the content is uniform across the board. "That way, you can pitch once and receive all over the place," he says. "But we’re going to wind up with different content in different parts of the country." Hitting limits As for the accelerating volume of content, Fellows says capacity limits come into play. Comcast currently is doubling its content from 2,500 to around 5,000 hours per month, still within the roughly 8,600-hour maximum that its 12 transponders can deliver. But content will continue to grow, even into a world, as envisioned by Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, of some 20,000 to 40,000 hours. Under that scenario, the margin for re-pitching content steadily diminishes, forcing a decision as one approaches the 8,000-hour threshold. In the case of Comcast, the calculation entailed weighing additional transponders that carry 12 compressed video signals apiece against a backbone initially provisioned with 10 Gbps wavelengths, each of which can carry some 3,000 channels. Additional factors tipping the scales toward the build were inherent benefits of a transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) network, such as its efficient handshaking and automatic retransmission of improperly received packets; the anticipated growth of compelling IP content, such as is found on Comcast’s award-winning Web portal known as The Fan; and the need to establish quality of service (QoS) guarantees for voice and other designated packets. Bake-off, Second RFP The initial build involved connecting Comcast’s New England system, which already carries converged video and data traffic, to the Washington, DC, system. Fellows says that unlike a traditional telco backbone, which includes separate layers of synchronous optical network (SONET) and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) gear, the Comcast approach was to go "from the routers almost directly down onto the fiber." The MSO tested two optical vendors for the New England-Washington run that could accommodate that design, and it began evaluating the results of this trial in January. Among the desired features were strong dispersion compensation capabilities, ease of installation and 40 Gbps optics. The winner, as yet unannounced, will then build out the entire network. As for routers, Fellows says Comcast is bringing up the network on one set (again yet unannounced), but will conduct another request for proposal (RFP) this summer for "a slightly different aspect of the network." Beyond interconnecting Comcast’s own systems, Fellows says one forthcoming goal will be to interconnect with other MSOs. Another view Robust and extensible regional optical rings feature into many MSO regions, but not all yet see the need for the kind of video-intensive backbone that Comcast is building. "It’s cheaper to do it over satellite—today," Mike LaJoie, Time Warner Cable CTO, says. "But this can change." "The trick is to build an infrastructure that can grow and change with the environment," he adds. Meanwhile, Time Warner is interested in seeing the emergence of a common control plane for all optics. The goal is to allocate dynamically circuits and bandwidth, regardless of transport method and protocols, all the way down to the hub. —Jonathan Tombes Latin America is shaping up as an attractive market for electronic program guides, according to two companies that are seeing renewed activity in the region. "I think there is a lot of opportunity," says Jack Kelleher, the general manager of the Tribune Media Services. "Their economies are turning for the better. There is an influx of boxes. (Motorola) DCT2000s and others are being deployed down there." Kelleher and Dan Ward, Pioneer’s vice president of marketing and business development, agree that it is a region in transition. On one hand, it has long been a convenient place for "repurposed"—used—equipment from the United States. That still is true. In addition, Latin America is moving aggressively into the digital age and becoming more interested in new equipment. A good example of the attention being paid by set-top-box and electronic program guide (EPG) vendors to the region—which includes Central America, South America, Mexico and the Caribbean—can be seen from software upgrades that have been included in the Passport DCT 2.5 from Pioneer Digital Technologies. The product offers configurable settings to customize by country, including parental controls keyed to Latin American ratings and modification of pricing into local currencies. How many Bolivars? It is both a promising and complex world, Ward says. Devices must support different currencies—such as the Venezuelan Bolivar and the Mexican peso. The range of numbers that must be supported often is radically different than those to which North Americans are accustomed. For instance, a video-on-demand (VOD) movie may cost 100,000 Bolivars; the software must be able to create such a number, and the hardware must be able to display it. There also are small but important details—such as the fact that some of these countries reverse commas and decimal points in their numbers. Those are the challenges. The rewards are significant. "The great thing about Latin America is that they are just now really getting into digital," Ward says. "For many years, they were hanging on to analog. There are a lot of Greenfield sites." An important driver of the transition in the Latin American market is the decision of several programmers—including influential Univision and Telemundo—to make the move to all-digital formats, Ward says. It follows that this has led to an uptick in interest in digital set-top boxes. The combination of continued demand for older North American gear and new digital technology means that Latin America could be a profitable— albeit somewhat confusing—place during the year ahead. "I think it could take off in 2005," Ward says. "Things are getting very active right now." —Carl Weinschenk

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