Cable Operators

Comcast Preps For VOD 'Infinity'

3/30/2009 12:18 PM Eastern

Call it VOD 2.0. Comcast, in the next prong of its video-on-demand strategy, is centralizing the management of its VOD infrastructure into two very large regional server farms, according to people familiar with the project.

It's a move that could let the operator boost its content to more than 100,000 VOD titles, as well as provide operational efficiencies and — farther down the line — provide a platform for serving personalized ads in on-demand content on a nationwide basis.

Comcast declined to comment for this article.

Sources close to Comcast said the consolidation is a key part of its Project Infinity strategy, which CEO Brian Roberts outlined at last year's Consumer Electronics Show. The initiative emphasizes rapidly ramping up available on-demand content, both on cable VOD and online at Fancast.com.

“Project Infinity builds on our commitment to bring more content to people across all platforms at home and on the go, and we'll work with our partners, programmers and video producers to deliver on this vision,” Roberts said in January 2008.

Today, Comcast touts more than 10,000 VOD selections a month, including up to 1,000 titles in high-definition.

To get to “infinity,” Comcast will need to overhaul the way it delivers video-on-demand.

Comcast's VOD-consolidation project will provide centralized libraries for on-demand assets in two locations, West Chester, Pa., and Denver, according to industry executives with knowledge of the plan. Those would serve East and West Coasts, backstopping each other in the event of any technical problems.

That consolidation would greatly simplify the process of managing tens of thousands of assets. Video files would be automatically distributed in a hierarchical fashion, so that the most frequently accessed VOD titles are stored in local headends or hubs for quick response time (and to reduce backbone traffic).

In the Internet world, caching content in this way is a longstanding principle, as embodied by content-distribution networks like Akamai Technologies and Limelight Networks.

The main goal with the project is to increase the amount of VOD available to subscribers, by better coordinating the distribution and tracking of very large amounts of content.

In Philadelphia, for example, Comcast is operating 13 separate VOD sites — each with a complete replica of the MSO's entire on-demand offerings for the month. “Multiply that nationwide and imagine how many different copies of the same asset you have to track,” said an industry executive familiar with Comcast's infrastructure.

And beyond upping library size and cutting operational expenses, the VOD centers would also put Comcast in a position to demographically target ads, dynamically inserted in on-demand content on a national basis.

“They will be well and simply placed to be able to do that,” said the executive. “Your nationwide advertisers only care about the national footprint.”

Furthermore, the two VOD supercenters would most likely ingest and store content for Comcast's planned “Start Over” service, which the operator has yet to launch commercially, according to industry sources. Start Over, pioneered by Time Warner Cable, lets viewers replay certain shows if they've tuned into them in mid-episode.

But at least initially, Comcast's VOD centers would not be designed to serve Internet video for Fancast.com or other services, a source close to the operator said.

Comcast's proposed OnDemand Online service has been described as serving up a slew of cable-TV programming that has been otherwise unavailable to Internet users, through sites including the Fancast portal. Such a service, as described by Comcast executives, would be available only to cable-TV subscribers and aimed at reinforcing the pay TV model (see “Comcast: Net TV Plan Supports Cable,” March 23, 2009, page 9).

According to industry executives, Comcast has not begun vendor selection for the VOD server-consolidation effort but is expected to issue a request for proposals soon.

Comcast's current VOD vendors include Motorola and SeaChange International. The MSO also has invested in a Boston-area startup, Verivue, whose network-oriented video-on-demand system is engineered to handle large volumes of content in a hierarchically distributed manner.