Why the Local Headend Isn’t an Endangered Species

4/18/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

the notion of the national data center
replacing the traditional headend: “Great,
thanks a lot. My boss read your piece and
immediately blasted off an e-mail asking
if this means we can replace our 50-plus
headends with one data center. To cut

Well, reader Jack, it’s a fact that
today’s cable industry is run largely by
people whose tastes lean towards accounting.
But that doesn’t answer your

Here’s some better ammo: The answer is no. Or, at
best, not yet. Sure, for national TV channels — which,
let’s face it, are most of them — it’s possible to consolidate
functions, like receiving, processing and retransmitting.

That means it’s true that what used to be a cascade
of engineering functions — pulling signals off of satellite
IRDs (integrated receiver decoders), demodulating, processing,
re-encrypting, combining — can now be done in
one “super headend.”

But a national video headend won’t get you far for
those other niggling obligations, revenue streams and
local franchise requirements: emergency alerting, dealing
with local blackout requirements, inserting local ads,
receiving and transcoding local TV channels.

Yes, headend consolidation was a top-three priority
on engineering to-do lists over the last decade. It
happened in lock step with optical techniques, notably
“dense wave-division multiplexing,” or DWDM.

In engineering-speak, DWDM lengthened optical
budgets considerably — to the hundreds of kilometers.
That’s plenty enough to ring an area with glass, then
consolidate everything within. What was a region served
by 30 headends, let’s say, drops to one or two.

Ask your boss this: After you consolidate all channels
into one facility — which presupposes the existence of a
fiber backbone and video content-delivery network (CDN)
to link out to regions and local systems — then what?

Does the local ad-sales force in Dayton sell an ad to
Joe’s Pizza, which then gets backhauled 1,000 miles to
a super-headend in Denver, inserted into the stream and
sent back?

What about tornadoes, hurricanes and other tricks of
Mother Nature, which only happen locally? How do those
emergency alerts go out?

Local channel maps come to mind, too. Ask this
of any system-level engineer, working for an MSO that
consolidated their guide-data activities: What’s it like
to make a quick change to the lineup? On the scale of
winces, it’s somewhere after a scoff but before actual

Technically, it’s possible to handle lots of local matters
at a national level. In the fullness of time, perhaps
local headends do become vestiges of their former
selves — but it’s unlikely that they’ll go completely extinct
anytime soon.

Or, as my old boss Roger used to say: Let the new
guys deal with it.

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