Why the Local Headend Isn't an Endangered Species

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In last week’s mail was this comment, about 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 costs.”

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 question.

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 lockstep 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 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 vomiting.

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.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at www.translation-please.com or multichannel.com/blog.