Simulcasting Toward Bandwidth Savings High-speed Internet, video-on-demand (VOD), voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), niche programming-customers are demanding more services from their entertainment providers. A quick run of the numbers shows the competitive savvy in going all digital-6 MHz per digital channel, 3 MHz per high-def channel, 6 MHz per analog channel. But by 2009, savvy will turn into necessity. Within the next five years, Congress intends to shut off analog signals and HDTVs will account for at least 50 percent of TV sets. "If you’re interested in being completely up to date by 2009," said Mark Bishop, vice president of hardware at the National Cable Television Cooperative, "you’re going to have to go all digital. Everyone knows that’s the direction we’re headed," which, for now, means set-top boxes for every customer and every TV set, a solution that can be cost prohibitive. "People"-cable operators and consumers alike-"need a transition," continued Bishop. "It can’t be revolution." The simulcast solution Digital simulcast is that transition. With digital simulcast, cable operators encode their entire analog tier in a digital format and transmit it, along with the original analog channels and those digital channels they receive directly, to their customers. Working with the natural churn of their businesses, operators can move new customers into an all-digital package, with the much more cost-effective all-digital set-top boxes. For primary sets, set-tops can cost around $200, but for secondary sets, operators can draw on Motorola‘s DCT700, which runs just under $80. Initially, digital simulcast does exact a bandwidth penalty, but it puts operators on a road to eliminate their analog offerings and to reclaim substantial bandwidth for other services, such as high-def. For example, if churn approximates 20 percent per year, then operators only need to purchase one set-top box for every five customers, slowly migrating to an all-digital offering over the course of a few years. In the meantime, digital simulcast can also play off the analog advantage. "You can advertise that you’re all digital, just like satellite. But you can still put cable on your customers’ TVs without putting a box on every set," said Bishop. "You can offer the best of both worlds." Although the road to all digital takes on a gentler slope with its set-top box transition, unfortunately it’s still a steep climb. Encoders for each analog channel, A/V distribution amps, muxs, edge decoders, quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM)-recent estimates put digital conversion at $8,000 per channel, or very conservatively, $650,000 to convert a 72-analog channel plant. Should Congress’ ruling hold and analog signals face their doom in 2009, operators won’t need encoders. "But they shouldn’t wait that long," said Bishop. "They can’t wait that long. As long as cable companies don’t have a digital tier, they’ll continue to lose subs to satellite." Another path up the digital mountain Enter Comcast Media Center and its Headend in the Sky (HITS) Total Digital solution. For the past 12 years, CMC has provided an economical alternative for more than 3,000 cable system headends by digitizing and packaging 160 second-tier channels. With HITS Total Digital, CMC and partner SES Americom tackle the core analog channels and offer a centralized solution to the all-digital quandary. Using a single satellite, SES Americom’s AMC-4, CMC will digitize and deliver 72 channels over six transponders. The prepackaged digital versions-encoded, compressed, optimized and equipped with digital insertion triggers-are compatible with 256-QAM units. Currently, CMC is negotiating transport rights. HITS Total Digital is set to launch in the first quarter of 2006. "With that, CMC has knocked off a half million out of the encoding and compression equation," said Bishop. "We’ve taken all the heavy lifting off the operators in the headends in terms of configuring and managing the equipment that’s necessary to do this work," said Gary Traver, senior vice president and chief operating officer at CMC. In return, operators pay a marginal transport fee, which decreases with scale, buy one receiver per transponder, like the Scientific-Atlanta 9829 (1RU), and point their antennae to SES Americom’s satellite. The cost of all six receivers, said Traver, is about the same as encoding one channel locally. For those operators who are wary of the bandwidth demands imposed by digital simulcast, especially those that are operating 330, 450 or even 550 MHz plants, HITS Total Digital offers a cost-effective solution to going all-digital faster. "When we look at some of these small operators, we believe it’s imperative they get to the point where they’re not doing a simulcast, but where they’re actually operating in an all-digital environment as quickly as possible. It’s the only way for them to effectively compete in the future," said Traver. "Going to an all-digital form is a replacement for a plant upgrade." With HITS Total Digital, operators are left to encode their local over-the-air channels-which becomes moot when analog signals are eliminated-and sports channels. For designated market areas with critical mass, such as Denver and Albuquerque, CMC plans to deliver digital versions of the local channels. Another option lies with Turner Media Group. With their solution, operators pull digital versions of local analog channels from an EchoStar dish. Sarah Mote

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