Video on demand isn’t exactly the new kid on the block anymore, but increased loads of on-demand services coupled with multiple vendors haven’t made monitoring the systems any easier, and applications such as switched digital video (SDV) will only multiple complexities.

"Is VOD hard to manage? It tends to be because there are so many parts to manage," said John Roy, Charter‘s senior director, advanced video implementation. "It’s a complicated network because I’m doing so many handoffs and touching a lot of different vendor partners. When something doesn’t work, it really is a challenge to troubleshoot, so the training of your employees is No. 1. We’re spending a lot of time training employees on video-on-demand; some folks think it’s just a black box that sits in the headend."

While there’s no single silver bullet in terms of keeping a happy, healthy VOD system, there are a few best practices to follow. For starters, Communications Technology columnist Ron Hranac recommends the entire cable network – headend, distribution network and subscriber drop – meet or exceed the assumed RF channel transmission characteristics in the DOCSIS Radio Frequency Interface Specification.

"One might be inclined to wonder why I would recommend DOCSIS compliances in a VOD environment, but the bottom line is if the plant meets or exceeds these parameters, plus meeting or exceeding the FCC’s technical rules Part 76, the digitally modulated signals used for digital video will be far more reliable," Cisco‘s Hranac said. VOD installs at the premises Lisa Pickelsimer, Cox‘s director of video product development, said VOD is often the canary in the coal mine because if there are any network problems, VOD will expose them.

"It’s (VOD) an application that gets used a lot, and it depends on having a working return path," Pickelsimer said. "We have to go around and adjust filters in the plant as the temperatures change because it changes how the filters and amps function."

The little details also count: Pickelsimer said techs need to be aware of having connectors on properly when getting cable ready for VOD installs at homes. They also need to use quality splitters and be ready to replace splitters that customers have bought at retail stores, the latter of which can introduce noise into the network.

And then VOD techs need to be aware that others may come along after them to install another service.

"In some cases, we’ve had customers get digital video from us and then later high-speed data or telephony," Pickelsimer said. "They (technicians) have tweaked the high-speed data to work properly, but sometimes that can introduce problems into the video side. It’s really a matter of being cognizant of the fact that there are multiple services coming into the home and making sure that before technicians leave, everything is working properly." Calling all nonresponders Since VOD is interactive by nature, cable operators can ping set-top boxes each day, but having a plan in place for nonresponders is key, Roy said.

"If folks don’t look at their nonresponders at all, they’re usually running at 15 to 20 percent nonresponding converters," he said. "If you have an aggressive program, you’re more in the 3 to 5 percent range. We strive to get down below 5 percent, and most companies do that. If you’re going to have a problem with VOD, it’s more likely an interactive issue."

Since some nonresponders may not actually be a cable system problem – for example, the subscriber could have the box rigged to a light switch that powers it down when flipped off – Roy said to age the nonresponder list for a week to two weeks before making a truck roll.

"You can grab that (nonresponder) information from billing and start sorting it street by street or household by household," Roy said. "A lot of folks in the industry have come up with homegrown tools to manage nonresponders. It’s not a science; it’s a process you have to deal with." Getting the big picture By using interactive data collection and reporting technology from companies such as Everstream, cable operators are able to get a better picture of what is going with their VOD systems. Last month, Charter said it had completed deployment of a comprehensive suite of Everstream software solutions across its entire national network. The rollout incorporated key components for collecting, analyzing and reporting on VOD service usage and operational performance while providing a core platform for measuring audience impressions, viewing time and reach for long-form – commercials longer than 60 seconds – advertising campaigns.

"In the industry today, we have open systems like (Tandberg‘s) N2Broadband and proprietary systems such as SeaChange, Concurrent and C-COR," Roy said. "When I have a proprietary system and I have errors, I know what is going on with my system, and I can manage my issues. When I have an open system, I may have an open backoffice and may not be able to glean all of the information back to the main display. Everstream allows us to normalize information and gives us visibility at a corporate level on how we’re performing across all of our sites."

Charter’s deployment uses a wide array of Everstream applications including Oi (Operational Intelligence) for VOD, which delivers insight into service performance and the subscriber viewing experience.

"Being engineer-focused, I think the performance information that we get from Operational Intelligence helps us manage VOD," Roy said. "Having that information is a marketing dream, but being able to link that with how VOD is performing allows us to focus on making VOD better."

With cable moving toward SDV and edge QAMs controlled by master session resource managers, or edge resource managers, Roy said more tools will be required to manage capacity and monitor performance. – Mike Robuck

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