Digital Simulcast: Costs and Benefits for Smaller Operators Two cable operators took the helm during a technical session at this week’s NCTC/ACA-sponsored Independent Show in Chicago to discuss their deployment of technology that enables the simultaneous broadcast (simulcast) of all-digital and analog lineups. Patrick Knorr, general manager at Sunflower Broadband, and Jim Brown, director of engineering for Buckeye CableSystems, described similar challenges, but somewhat differing approaches and benefits. Sunflower eased into all-digital simulcast a year ago one QAM at a time, all the better "to manage what were primarily in-home wiring issues," Knorr said. Additional issues exposed in the launch were linked to receiving dishes and headend equipment. To postpone the additional expense of digital program insertion (DPI) equipment, Sunflower decided to encode after analog ad insertion Knorr emphasized benefits of removing "the majority" of 2,000 Motorola DCT-1000 set-top boxes and replacing them with DCT-700s. He said that the palm-sized form factor of the all-digital DCT-700 was a big hit with customers and that related capital cost savings totaled almost $2 million over the first 12 months. Buckeye and Motorola Buckeye deployed digital simulcast hub-by-hub and, like Sunflower, discovered that most of the issues surfaced close to the home. "Ninety-nine issues identified during the launch have been from the drop in," he said. The upshot was a rise in service call rates of 3 percent to 4 percent. Unlike Sunflower, Buckeye jumped into DPI, using equipment from SeaChange and Terayon. Brown said this added complexity and cost (about $100,000) to the launch, but promises operational benefits going forward. Other major components in Buckeye’s case were statistical multiplexing and decoding equipment, also from Terayon, and encoders from Harmonic. As for overall costs, Buckeye’s Brown said it was important to factor in not only the major components, but also operational costs of the entire platform. His list of non-core elements included powering, edge QAMs, satellite receivers, ASI or Ethernet components, time server, distribution amps, cabling and more. Apart from DPI, another contrast with Sunflower is that Buckeye is realizing only about $200,000 per year in annual cost savings through the purchase of a smaller number of DCT-700s. Motorola Director of Product Management Ray Bontempi, who also participated in this session, explained the DCT-700’s attractive cost structure in obvious terms: "You don’t have analog hardware in the set-top." But a trickier question about further cost reductions surfaced in the question and answer session. Why hasn’t Motorola produced a hardened, all-digital network interface device (NID) that would eliminate time-consuming and expensive in-house installations? Bontempi answered the question, which generated brisk audience applause, by acknowledging that "there is some interesting development going on this." In his presentation, Bontempi said that other benefits of digital simulcast include the "perceived and actual" improvements in video quality, a digital headend architecture that is "simpler and more flexible" than the analog counterpart, and the potential for this platform to serve as a "launch pad for switched digital and all-digital." Spectrum and revenue Both operators noted simulcast’s cost in spectrum. Brown said that what’s needed ranges between six and eight 6 MHz channels. In Sunflower’s case, the spectrum tax has ranged from 11 to nine channels, moving down to seven as they continue converting from 64- to 256-QAM. Other techniques for acquiring the necessary spectrum noted by Brown include the elimination of analog premium and pay-per-view channels and more effective multiplexing and rate shaping. Sunflower and Buckeye funded the transitions themselves. Sunflower’s Knorr said that digital simulcast led to a 50 percent increase in digital tier penetration, a 100 percent increase in VOD-enabled households, and overall nearly a $1 million jump in revenue.  But other, small cable operators may need the help of an even more-cost effective solution, which Motorola and others appear to have in the works. Jonathan Tombes

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