Comcast ramps up HD VOD, Cox crunches numbers and Verizon launches VOD over GPON. Video-on-demand (VOD) has come a long way since cable operators launched the first movies in 2001. In the beginning, it was all about getting movies to customers while finding the best architecture and creating a billing system. But VOD has evolved, both within and beyond cable. How VOD and digital program insertion interact (covered in our May issue) continues to be a hot industry-wide topic. Here are three more, organized by provider: Comcast’s goal of reaching 100 hours of high-definition (HD) VOD by the end of this year; Cox’s use of software that enables it to pool usage data on a system or national level; and Verizon’s competitive VOD offering. Comcast eyes HD VOD Comcast has a proven record when it comes to serving up VOD offerings in its systems. Last year, the biggest cable operator in the country had 1.4 billion VOD views, which was a dramatic increase over the 567 million views in 2004, and it was one of the first cable operators to launch the service back in 2001. Now Comcast is taking a bead on increasing its HD VOD offerings. At Cablelabs’ analyst briefing in May, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said his company hopes to have 100 hours of HD VOD programming available in some markets by the end of this year. Mark Hess, Comcast’s senior vice president of digital TV, says Comcast currently has 10-15 HD VOD movies in the markets that offer the service, so the one of the immediate thrusts in reaching in the 100-hour mark is finding more HD VOD content. “I think more and more movies will be coming, which is a logical place to start,” Hess says. Comcast could encode HD content itself for its on-demand offering by using its Comcast Media Center, but it will probably lean on existing relationships with programmers such as HBO. Hess says the details of finding the content are still a work in progress. “If you’re talking about movies, the content is obviously there in HD form,” says Digdia analyst Gary Sasaki. “The problem there is whether or not the studios decide to release it in that form or not. There is some controversy about the copy protection that makes some of the studios nervous about it, but by and large they’re releasing it.” When it comes to HD offerings for TV shows, Sasaki says the pickings are slim in regards to what is available in HD form over VOD. “It’s just a matter of trying to work with all of the different content providers and determine what’s the best content for the consumer and what’s the best mix for us,” Hess says. Ramping up When it comes to provisioning the increased amount of HD streams for VOD, Sasaki says for most cable operators it’s a matter of allocating existing capacity. Depending on how it’s compressed, an HD stream takes five to six times more throughput than a standard channel. As far as VOD capacity is concerned, most systems have been built for 10 percent utilization rates, but are currently hovering around 5 percent utilization or less. “If you’ve built for 10 percent utilization, then you have a lot of headroom at the moment for HD content,” Sasaki says. “Those utilization rates are going to go up the more HD content we have. The only thing that will mitigate that issue for HD content is that not a lot of people can necessarily take advantage of the HD content yet. At the moment, the HD impact phenomenon isn’t as big as it will eventually be, but by the end of this decade a lot of people will be looking at wide-screen TVs.” Thanks to its $39 billion upgrade, Comcast has options for allocating capacity to the places that need it for HD VOD. One key, according to Hess, is fine-tuning a streaming architecture. “Not to downplay it, but there’s no real magic to delivering an HD VOD stream,” Hess says. “The bigger challenge is that we architected this for all SD (standard definition) streams. When we first did the VOD architecture, we said, `Let’s do 10 percent contention.’ But an HD file is much larger. You have to look at how it will be used; and do you need to either catch smaller service groups or do you need to have more bandwidth?” Comcast will look at how many HD set-top boxes there are in a node, what the usage will be and how it mixes with SD. “You really have to re-engineer, to a certain extent, the architecture to make sure you have enough capacity,” Hess says. “That’s the big challenge with HD in terms of streaming it. “The challenge we’re looking at is 15 or so movies fit right within our model. At 10 percent contention, we had more capacity than we needed at the time, but when we go to 100 hours, we might get more HD usage, so we better take a hard look at it.” To start with, Comcast will pick a node that is easily serviceable so there are no contention issues, or it will pick a section of a system and allocate more capacity to it. “We’ll pick a market for a more expansive HD offering, gauge the usage, and then move from there,” Hess says of the deployment strategy. (Editor’s note: For an early analysis of how session resource management can help allocate capacity for standard def and HD VOD, see the article by Time Warner Cable’s Glen Hardin in the May 2005 issue of Communications Technology, also available in our archives at www.ct-magazine.com.) Cox pools VOD data When the first VOD movie rolled down the pipe into a subscriber’s home, a billing system was in place to track the usage to the consumer. However, with the advent of free VOD content or subscription on-demand content, cable operators needed to find a way to track usage and data, both internally for engineering purposes and externally for advertisers’ long form advertising campaigns. David Porter, Cox Media’s vice president of marketing and new media, says his company wanted to find a way to gather data from its SeaChange and Concurrent VOD servers that are deployed in 10 markets. “In a single market, we may have 20, 30 or even 40 VOD servers in various nodes, so what we needed Everstream to do for us was to gather back the data off all of these individual VOD servers,” Porter says. “They (Everstream) harvest that data off of the VOD servers and then pull it into a centralized database where it can be cleaned and scrubbed for consistency and integrity. Then it’s stored in a data warehouse where we can run reports and queries off of it.” How it works Charlie Lougheed, Everstream’s co-founder and president, says Everstream works with Oracle for its database, but cable customers—including Adelphia, Comcast and JCom, can use a variety of vendors for hardware and operating systems. Cox uses components of Everstream’s Data Suite solution. The Everstream servers can be deployed either centrally or in a distributed manner in headends or super headends. An interactive data gateway pulls the log files or transaction files from the VOD servers; once the data has been normalized and aggregated, it sends it either to a regional data suite or an interactive data warehouse. Cox required both local and enterprise-wide reporting. “For example, in San Diego they may want to know how many total views they’re getting in a given time period and how many unique subscribers are accessing the content. That’s all well and good for San Diego, but we need to roll that information up across the entire enterprise,” says Porter. “That’s where Everstream comes in and pulls all 10 of our VOD locations into a centralized warehouse where we have Web access to this Web server. I can go in today and run a report that shows views across all 10 markets.” Porter says the real sweet spot of Everstream’s solution is that the company constantly keeps track of any changes to the VOD servers by the vendors. “Any change that they (SeaChange and Concurrent) make could have a ripple effect, so Everstream constantly adjusts the way they pull the data in and the way they clean and parse it,” Porter says. The benefits When it comes to free VOD content, the challenge for cable operators is finding ways to monetize the free offerings, or services that aren’t kept track of by the legacy billing system. “We provide the framework so the digital media industry can continue to grow,” Lougheed says. “Content providers get better access to data, and the data is standardized. It helps companies that do media analytics, like Nielson or Rentrak, get better information through combined or enhanced data about the market. “It helps cable operators see trends, how to package things better or ID subscribers who might churn or possibly upgrade.” Porter says Cox can show an advertiser how effective a long form advertising campaign was because there are measurable results. It also gives the engineers a leg up in viewing information about the VOD platforms that are being used. “We have to know how the platform is being used and which services, whether it’s the subscriptions services or the free content,” Porter says. “It’s also a great indicator for our engineering department because we can gauge the amount of traffic and the amount of usage. That gives us some trending and benchmarks so we know how to build out the system and how we’ll need to expand it in the future.” Verizon does VOD The popularity of VOD services certainly isn’t lost on competitors such as Verizon. As of late June, Verizon had rolled out its FiOS TV service in 50 markets across seven states. “We have 2,300 (VOD) titles, and that puts us in second place in the industry,” says Joe Ambeault, Verizon’s director of interactive TV applications, and who formerly worked for SeaChange. Digdia analyst Gary Sasaki says that in order to lure customers away from cable or direct broadcast satellite (DBS), Verizon needs to offer compelling VOD content. On that note, Ambeault says Verizon has on-demand content for CBS shows such as “Survivor” for free while some cable operators charge for the same programs. News clips that are available for viewing on Verizon’s wireless V Cast service could also be viewed in longer form through its VOD service. Verizon also has a karaoke service for $7.99 a month that allows users to purchase and use mixing boards and microphones as well as utilize video backgrounds similar to those used in kaoroke bars. “We also have an offering called Community Studio,” Ambeault says. “This is done with partnerships like the American Association for People with Disabilities and the Black Leadership Forum. As part of our free on-demand content, we’re offering a large collection of content that is really focused on public interest and civil rights.” Verizon has an HD VOD offering slated for release in the third quarter of this year. “It’s a competitive advantage of the FiOS network that we can deliver a huge amount of VOD content,” Ambeault says. “We feel that is extremely important for our networking going forward, and (HD) VOD will be nothing different. It will be an extremely aggressive foray as opposed to one or two IMAX titles being offered up symbolically.” The F in FiOS The obvious difference for Verizon is that its fiber goes all the way into customers’ homes. (See Figure 1.) It’s a hybrid approach, involving quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) modulators for broadcast delivery and Internet protocol (IP) for on-demand programming. Verizon uses Microsoft TV Foundation Edition, which some cable operators have deployed (see story on Comcast Seattle) but as modified for its hybrid network. It uses Motorola DCT 2500 (SD), DCT 6200 (HD), and 6416 (HD/DVR) set-tops and leverages other on-demand digital gear that cut its teeth in cable networks. Figure 1

Figure 1 “The cable industry has been headed down the track of bringing more and more IP services into their networks because of the cost reductions and flexibility,” Ambeault says. “They’ve made some interesting strides, so we did get to take advantage of some stable technology for VOD that is related to IP. It’s easier, where it makes sense, for us to have highly centralized VOD services, where in some situations our competition has more expensive distributed infrastructures.” Unlike AT&T, which is provisioning its video service through very high data rate digital subscriber line (VDSL), Verizon’s fiber solution can serve multiple TV sets in a home. Ambeault says the network can “pretty easily accommodate four VOD or other interactive sessions in a home.” Verizon’s architecture starts at two super headends in Florida and Illinois that serve the same storage-hosting role as the Comcast Media Center. From there, the content arrives at a video hub office (VHO) where Verizon’s SeaChange servers are located, along with centralized storage fed by the content center. A VHO has about a 50-kilometer reach to the video serving office (VSO), which is collocated in the telco’s central office. Verizon doesn’t divulge the contention rates of its network, but Ambeault says it’s within the industry average for VOD capacity. The difference is Verizon can turn up the capacity without taking away from other offerings. “If my business case justifies more VOD demand—say we did something unique and compelling that quadrupled our VOD usage—it’s frankly a matter of meeting with network engineers and turning up a switch for more bandwidth dedicated to VOD,” Ambeault says. “And going forward, our network is future-proof with GPON (gigabit passive optical network). We can make significant leaps and bounds in capacity by basically changing out the lasers on each end of the glass without having to dig up the ground or run new fiber on the poles.” How effectively cable competes with a GPON architecture’s capacity for immense throughputs is an open question, one that will be answered in large part by the timing of customers’ demand for the kind of capacity-intensive HD content that Comcast, among others, is eager to supply. Mike Robuck is associate editor of Communications Technology. Reach him at mrobuck@accessintel.com.

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