Cox Adds HDTV Space

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On the cusp of trotting out a slew of new high-definition programming, Cox Communications in less than a month will go live with a switched digital video system across its Northern Virginia market.

Cox deployed BigBand Networks' switched digital system in its 240,000-subscriber Northern Virginia system in just 6 weeks, vice president of video engineering James Kelso said.

“It was a very fast project,” he said. BigBand, which says switched digital deployments typically take closer to three months, managed the rollout for Cox.

Later this year Cox plans to roll out the system in its Phoenix and Orange County, Calif., systems. Currently, in Northern Virginia, the BigBand system is working smoothly with “friendlies,” Kelso said.

“We've proven it out with our work with the friendlies and in the lab,” Kelso said. When Cox delivers switched digital video to all subscribers in about 30 days, “we're looking for there to be no negative impact to the subscriber experience.”

Switched digital video works by delivering channels over a cable network only when a subscriber requests them. That allows operators to deliver more channels in the same amount of bandwidth, on the assumption that not all the channels will be viewed simultaneously.

For now, Cox isn't detailing what additional content or services it plans to deliver using the space freed up by the switched digital system.

PUMPING UP HIGH-DEF

But adding more HD channels is surely at the top of the list. Cox president Pat Esser in June said he wants the multisystem operator to be able to offer at least 50 HD channels across all systems by the end of 2007 and then double that to 100 by the end of 2009.

In the Northern Virginia system, which serves Fairfax County and Fredericksburg, Cox provides a total of 20 local and national HD channels today.

Beefing up HDTV lineups has been a competitive imperative for all cable operators as DirecTV continues the march toward its goal of offering 100 high-definition channels by year-end.

In addition to HD programming, Kelso said, Cox is also exploring delivering new interactive TV features and video-on-demand.

How much bandwidth will Cox have to work with? Citing competitive reasons, Kelso would not reveal how much space the switched digital project will yield. But he did say Cox Northern Virginia is switching more than 100 channels.

Using conservative assumptions, then, the Northern Virginia system will get back at least 30 Megahertz of spectrum (or five 6-MHz quadrature amplitude modulation channels) as a result of the project — more than enough space for a minimum of 10 new HD channels.

“We're being very aggressive with switched,” Kelso said, adding that the BigBand product is robust enough to handle a large number of switched channels and subscribers.

“We'll still broadcast the most popular channels,” he said. “But if you're going to be aggressive with SDV, you're doing almost everything [in the switched group].”

As to how Cox picked the three initial markets for switched digital — Northern Virginia, Phoenix and Orange County — Kelso was circumspect.

“There are a lot of different ways to free up bandwidth, and switched was the way to free up bandwidth for these three markets,” he said. “We have quite a lot of opportunities for Cox to better manage bandwidth, and you trade off money you have to spend [with bandwidth gains].”

Switched digital video, Kelso noted, “is fairly expensive. There are no two ways about it.” But he added that he thinks Cox got a good deal from BigBand.

REASONS FOR PICK

The operator picked BigBand for two main reasons, according to Kelso. He declined to say which other switched digital video vendors Cox considered.

First, BigBand “delivered a very trouble-free deployment. Switched is something that is a big deal, and it was nice to have a big-deal deployment done in a way that's seamless.”

Second, Cox wanted to make a companywide decision, and BigBand's switched digital system fit the bill in being “open” enough to work with equipment from multiple vendors. For instance, the BigBand platform works with Motorola and Scientific Atlanta set-top boxes, as well as different vendors' QAMs.

According to Biren Sood, BigBand vice president and general manager of cable video products for North America, Cox's plans to use the systems with Motorola and SA set-tops is a proof point that BigBand isn't tied to any particular environment.

“There's been some discussion about who's open and who's not,” Sood said. “We think this demonstrates the openness of our solution.”

OTHER MSO DEALS

Cox is the third major cable operator to publicly acknowledge using BigBand's switched digital system.

Cablevision Systems earlier this year completed deploying the system across its entire footprint, and Time Warner Cable has targeted switched digital video for more than half its divisions this year, after first launching BigBand's switched digital video commercially in Austin, Texas, last year.

Comcast, meanwhile, is in the middle of testing various switched digital systems in trials in Denver and New Jersey. Last month it picked a universal edge QAM platform from Arris Group designed to deliver switched digital, VOD or high-speed data services over the same infrastructure.

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