While smaller operators have been particularly hurt by satellite’s large high definition channel packages, Bresnan Communications has been fighting back with aggressive plans to expand its HD lineup. The MSO’s vice president of strategic engineering Pragash Pillai talks about its efforts to upgrade their networks and more efficiently use available bandwidth. An edited transcript follows:
Q: How much high-definition content are you planning to add?
A: We are going to very aggressively ramp up our HD offering. Our target is to have 50 linear HD before the end of the year, not including our VOD offering.
We started some of preliminary work last year and right now, some markets can get up to 30 linear HD channels. Most markets have over 20 and we continue to add more all the time. About 89% of our total subscribers have access to HD and that number will go to 97% before the end of 2008. We are doing a lot of work.
Q: What are your plans for HD VOD?
A: We have some high def VOD deployed now and we are in the process of increasing that. I would say we will have a couple of hundred hours by the end of the year.
Q: What kind of work are you doing to expand your bandwidth to handle that content?
A: About 96% of our markets was 750 MHz and above. So if we hadn’t upgraded the systems when we acquired them and we had a bunch of 550 MHz systems there is no way we could be deploying the HD channels we’re offering.
The other good thing for us at Bresnan is that we have very limited analog compared to other MSOs. On average, we have about 65 analog channels on our system and some only have 55.
So from a bandwidth perspective we are not really in a bad position to launch more HD.
Mainly what we are doing is converting 64 QAM channels to 256 QAM to get more efficiency, which gives you about 40% more efficiency with bandwidth we have.
We are also almost done with converting our linear premium on the analog side to digital. When we take that away, that leaves only a few live pay-per-view events in analog. When you have the premium digital and HD offerings, you don’t need analog premium, which saves bandwidth.
We are also doing advanced grooming, which allows us to get an average of 2.5 HD channels per QAM. If I have satellite channel, I can get three to one but if I have an off air channel I can only get two to one. So it is some combination of three to one or two to one that gives you an average of 2.5 per 6 MHz channel.
The next wave of technology that we are exploring for 2009 is the switch to M-PEG4. We will have some limited M-PEG4 boxes deployed this year.
We may offer a M-PEG4 tier of HD services for those customers who want specific services.
When you have HBO talking about 20 M-PEG4 HD channels it doesn’t make sense for cable operators to convert all 20 to M-PEG2. Maybe we will pick a few that are important and carry them on M-PEG2 and the rest on M-PEG4.
When a customer wants those services, we can do a truck roll and we put in an M-PEG4 box. That gives us an opportunity to start seeding the market with M-PEG4 boxes. It is a great way to introduce the boxes and we won’t have to spend the money to put them in all households.
Q: What sort of demand for HD services are you seeing in the rural markets you serve?
A: Interestingly, we are seeing very aggressive demand for HD. We are doing a lot of HD installs each week. What is happening is that the cost of TVs is reaching a point where it is reasonable enough for consumers in rural markets to get them. If someone is buying a TV today, it just doesn’t make sense to buy a standard-def TV.
Q: Have you gone to digital simulcast to help prepare your network for more content?
A: Last year we did Montana and this year we will do Cheyenne, Wyo. As you know, digital simulcast actually uses more channels. But it gives us the flexibility to deploy all digital boxes and eventually M-PEG4 boxes.
It is a pain upfront but there is no gain without the pain. You have to do some of these things to get a future benefit. We are looking at it as a long term play, which is important when you see projections that 63% of all homes will be HD homes in 2012.
What you are seeing among smaller operators is that we are not just focusing on day to day any more. On top of the day to day operations, we’re looking out at long term strategies.
It used to be that smaller operators were just focusing on the 12 month budget cycle. Now that new technology is coming out to quickly, we can’t just react in a short period of time. I have to make certain that I’m always looking ahead so we are ready to meet the new bandwidth requirements. We can’t be in a position where our marketing and product groups want to add a product and we don’t have the bandwidth.