When it comes to video, the top technical minds at MSOs are focused on a pretty big picture — one that ranges from tackling scaling issues for the industry's current darling, video-on-demand, to plotting set-top box strategies.
VOD is the top priority for most major operators, and even as deployments pile up, the technical issues remain.
Time Warner Cable's VOD rollout is likely to take a hybrid route. The MSO will store some titles centrally, while shipping more popular content to edge servers, according to demand.
"So you'd have to probably start out and say, 'OK, I'm going to put servers in three of my hub sites and back at the main headend,' " said Time Warner senior vice president of network engineering, engineering and technology Paul Gemme. "And eventually, maybe this one is combining with another hub site, and this one combines with another hub site, this one supports three."
While most envision the VOD network as one that's either centralized or distributed, "I think you do some of both initially," Gemme added. "It depends on the size of the network."
How an operator chooses to deploy VOD also affects the network, as subscription-based and free on-demand services tend to generate more viewer requests.
"Asset distribution now becomes a big problem. You can't have a system that says it's OK to take 30 days to get 10 movies out there," said Time Warner senior vice president of subscriber technologies and advanced engineering Mike Hayashi. "What we need is the next generation of asset distribution tools that takes into account traffic, as well as location, or the known architecture of how, what would be the logical caching points for these video and audio content.
"I think that's something we need to work on in the next 12 months."
Cox Communications Inc. plans to roll out VOD in seven markets by the end of the third quarter. Given Cox's network architecture, VOD systems in most of its major markets will be based in a master telecommunications center, with eight or nine hub locations, said chief technical officer Chris Bowick.
"They're huge headend facilities that the distributed architecture seems to be an appropriate architecture," said Bowick. "You can envision a migration of heavily used titles toward the edge of the network, and library titles toward the center of the network, or at the back end of the network, where the master telecommunications center would be.
"So, a distributed architecture certainly works in that regard," he said.
Cox also is working with N2Broadband Inc. on a "pitcher-catcher" VOD system, which uses satellite delivery for long-haul distribution.
While Cox dabbled briefly with fielding VOD on Motorola Inc.'s DCT-1000 units in Hampton Roads, Va. — using 64 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) — that's not the driving philosophy for on-demand video delivery, Bowick emphasized.
"Our preference for VOD, for spectral efficiency, is to launch with 256 QAM, just as it is with high-definition television," he said. " We're talking to Motorola about what to do about the 1000s."
Comcast Corp. senior vice president of strategic planning Mark Coblitz envisions a day when Internet-protocol delivered VOD will make life easier for the MSO.
"The ability to integrate any form of voice, video, audio, data under the same transport mechanism makes the ability to provision services easier, it makes the ability to deliver quality of service and to get better overall bandwidth utilization to be more efficient," he said.
Comcast has ordered Pace Micro Technologies plc's set-top box, which includes a Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) modem. That feature makes it possible to deliver other streaming media or data applications into the box.
"Let's assume that we did video conferencing off a digital set-top," said Coblitz. "That's a place where you would use the IP network to do that.
"I think there are a number of things that will affect us eventually, both operationally and from a service perspective from this IP-based network, recognizing that IP doesn't mean necessarily the Internet itself, it means using that protocol."
Partly spurred by pressure from Congress and Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell, in recent months a number of MSOs have introduced HDTV in select markets.
While the format's greater bandwidth demands are currently being managed for a limited number of channel offerings, the specter of capacity issues looms.
Time Warner has deployed HD service in 34 markets to date, and hopes to have at least 50,000 customers by year-end. HD content takes up only about 30 megahertz of channel capacity at present, and it is hard to tell how fast that could grow, Hayashi said.
"It's hard to forecast whether all 80 cable channels will become HD or not," he said. "I think getting to, let's say, the top 10 cable channels to be HD would be great for the consumer, as well as from a competitive standpoint. If you look at frequency constraint, and you compare ourselves to satellite, they would hit that problem first."
Insight Communications Co. plans to offer an HDTV package by year-end. Chief technology officer Charlie Dietz acknowledges there may be bandwidth issues down the line, but he also envisions potential solutions.
"I see us recovering a lot of our analog bandwidth," he said. "The normal cable programmers, I don't think, are going to be going real fast to HDTV until they're sure there's a market out there and they can justify their costs. While HDTV may be catching on among MSOs, there is still a lot of work to be done to make it consumer-friendly."
Comcast's Coblitz noted that his own HD set has analog inputs, making for an awkward integration with the digital set-top box.
"It's quite frustrating, actually, to be watching something in high-def and want to get guide data on top of it, and not be able to get it," he noted. " So it's those kinds of things that I believe you have to learn to do on your own."
These days, set-top talk often revolves around getting more services out of extant units, as well as on the development of media centers that combine home networking and media management with traditional digital functions.
Time Warner, for example, plans to continue its digital deployment with a mix of boxes. That's no easy task.
"The problem we're having, probably as a whole, is that our supplier community is very limited in their R&D [research-and-development] capabilities, which then forces us into buying one particular brand of one particular type of box," Hayashi noted. "And in some cases, if you don't provide the right directions early on, then you won't have the right type of box.
"So when we talk about advanced set-tops, it really depends on how early on we have deployed it."
He pointed to the delay in readying the Explorer 8000 box. Also called the "Gemini Box," Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s latest product has been in development for more than two years.
"I would say that's really unacceptable going forward," Hayashi said. "We need to have products that could come to market inside a year."
To do so, Hayashi said box volumes will have to reach a level that attracts multiple vendors and greater design competition.
"If you have three or four manufacturers, it's hard to split an order for 50,000 units," he said. "But if you had a marketplace that evolved into millions a year, then it's easier to bring on more OEMs.
"I think once we deploy the Gemini boxes — which I am hopeful would be sometime before Q2 of this year — I'm very hopeful that there will be a great acceptance in the marketplace, and stimulate other manufacturers to invest in building a second sources to the primary source we have today."
For its part, Comcast is interested in a media-center box, even as it focuses on a pending order with Pace Micro Technologies. Right now, though, the MSO is window shopping.
"The question really is, what's the right structure for us as Comcast to deploy that?" Coblitz asked. "I think as you look at how we have historically rolled out product, and looked at things which are new, we have pretty much focused on one or two new products every year.
"And the product for this year is video-on-demand. I believe that there is a future for media centers, as I said."
While the media center option may be in the works for other MSOs, Dietz said Insight likely will stick to its workhorse, the Motorola DCT-2000.
"You've got to look at the costs, the efficiency, everything that it can do," Dietz said. "Five years ago, four years ago, that was just a quick step to get in the door before everybody rushed off to the 5000 platform.
"I think the industry has seen that for the cost, you can do an awful lot on the 2000 series box. Yes, there will be customers that will want to pay for a box that can do more. And it's going to be looking at these new services, seeing what customers what to do with home networking between the boxes with PVRs whether they are at the set top or at the head end, and look at the business case to justify them."
There's also a loud debate about whether to put digital video recorder (or personal video recorder) functions in the box or the network — or in both.
"I've always said that network PVR to me is fairly complementary to integrated PVR in a set-top. You can leverage each of those," said Cox's Bowick. "The more integrated PVR boxes that you have out there, the less you will tax your network from a bandwidth perspective, and vice versa.
"Network-based PVR, especially in a scenario where you would allow something like a live Super Bowl to be on network PVR, the bandwidth that would be driven off of all the pauses and replays, and pauses rewinds, and fast-forwards would drive bandwidth through the roof. So I think there is a place for network-based PVR, and for integrated-PVR functionality."
To get to market faster, Cox is looking at sidecar DVR boxes.
"We are working with a vendor for a sidecar solution which would get us out there sooner than our integrated vendors can get us out there with a potential solution," Bowick said.
"We had TiVo [Inc.] in one of our markets, just so we could better understand how these devices were being used, and sort of put that in our thinking caps as we wanted to try and deploy integrated VCRs and PVRs, and true sidecar PVRs."
DVR is also a priority for Time Warner, which is looking at such boxes, as well as Maestro, a network-based scheme now under development.
"We certainly would like to see Maestro or network PVR happen," Hayashi said. "But in an interim, I think we need to deploy these PVR boxes. We specced these boxes two-and-a-half years ago, so we are anxious to get them out."
That could happen as soon as this summer, but a box software-stumbling block remains.
"The navigation system is quite complex," Hayashi said. "One, you have the PVR navigation system that has to be integrated, and also a dual tuner. So you have to deal with things such as, 'How do you deal with watch and record? How do you deal with picture-in-picture?' "
Time Warner takes a harder view of the sidecar option than Cox. Attaching such a unit to a home entertainment system proves confusing for customers, said Hayashi.
"The temptation's to just slap on a sidecar, and put on a little IR blaster, and it should be OK," he said. "Could be. We're not sure. We're not pursuing that route."
Comcast is looking at options for DVR functions ranging from a media center to traditional set-top. "PVR is in our future, and we have definitively made provisions in our next set top, to be able to deliver PVR, if that's what we want to do," said Coblitz.
But he also left open the possibility that network-based DVR and set-top based technology could co-exist.
"There are a lot of advantages to network-based PVR, not the least of which is the potential ability to deliver services to an awful lot of homes that already have digital set-tops in them," he said. "I'm also a big fan of IP structures as a way to deliver this, which existing set tops don't have.
"So that's something which has to be worked out. But that being said, we know there are some subscribers that will want to have control in their own home. And there's an interesting advantage for us if there is storage in the home that's part of our network — in the ability to pre-position secured content, released at the appropriate time. That has positive implications on our network."
While interactive TV has slipped to a lower slot on most operators' priority lists, there hasn't been a halt in activity. Cox is working with middleware vendor Liberate Technologies Inc. and MetaTV Inc. So far, the MSO has fielded only one ITV test in San Diego with Liberate.
"We certainly are looking at Internet to the television as one potential application in the future, but let me say that our focus, at least this year, will not be that," Bowick noted. "It will be more of a focus on newsletter, sports, informational kinds of services that our customers may want overlaid on top of the television set."
Similarly, Time Warner has trialed several ITV applications, but has not brought any to market. The closest product to market launch is a joint offering with sister company America Online that would enable TV-delivered electronic mail, chat and instant messaging.
Hayashi said Time Warner is nearing a beta test, but there are still business issues — including whether such a service should be offered free, or as an added charge.
Meanwhile, AOL has invested in ITV provider Digeo Inc. Although Digeo's system was initially designed for the Motorola platform, Hayashi said it is of interest for Time Warner's plant, dominated by S-A gear.
"I think it would be very interesting for all of us to try it, so I don't really see a downside," he said. "In fact, it's good to have other operators work on, work with different manufacturers or OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] to get a product out to market."
For Charter's Coblitz, gamers presently comprise ITV's biggest audience, even if they don't fit the traditional definition of ITV. But he stopped short of saying Comcast would tap that market with a server-based gaming product.
"Whether we host or not is an interesting question," Coblitz said. "But I think that there are some other things around games like that, that will become important over time, and these are going to be a whole new group of people who are going to feel, I hope, very positively toward cable and what cable has been able to do for them."
Insight, which uses the DCT 2000, has added interactive services from Liberate, including a network-served interactive guide, simple games and locally cached content, including school menus, restaurant menus and theater listings.
Working with Liberate's lighter system has been fairly positive, but Dietz noted that the MSO has run into some box-integration problems.
"Where it gets to be a bear is all the testing between different phases of boxes," he said. "As the manufacturer finds different ways to keep costs down inside the box, we've got to make sure that we're constantly checking the software to make sure that it integrates correctly with every new phase of box.
"So the last year and a half or so we've seen a lot of different upgrades of the box; the good news is that stabilized. We'll see one new phase of DCTs this year that we'll have to integrate to."