HD Drive Puts BigBand Routing System In Gear

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The cable industry's new push to put high-definition TV in the mix has sharpened the business opportunity for bandwidth-management technology provider BigBand Networks Inc.

The Fremont, Calif.-based company last week landed a major contract with Cox Communications Inc., and foresees other deals in the works, said chief operating officer Jamie Howard.

Cox will use BigBand's multimedia routing system for its HDTV rollout, which starts in Las Vegas and Phoenix, Ariz., then expands to other markets later this year. The media routers can multiplex and rate shape both standard- and high-definition signals.

That's important given HDTV's potential effects on cable operators' network bandwidth. The sharper HD picture contains six times the amount of picture information that's in a standard digital-TV signal, and each HD signal usually consumes about 19.2 megabits per second in bandwidth.

Depending on which compression scheme is used, a cable system can fit two or three HD signals onto a standard 6-megahertz channel, compared to 10 standard digital signals at 3.5 mbps each.

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BigBand's high-definition rate-shaping application uses bitrate-adaptation algorithms to multiplex digital feeds, a process that can boost channel capacity by 50 percent for live programs while maintaining picture quality.

The upshot for cable operators: The technique allows for more programming per quadrature amplitude modulation stream, said Howard.

"Through the rate adaptation, we are able to get rid of the null packets, which free up additional bandwidth for us to insert additional HD programs or SD programs into a single QAM," Howard said.

The system also combines the video signal with the programming metadata that interactive programming guides need to describe content and direct its placement — an element that can also be used for future interactive-TV deployments.

The Cox announcement is another indication that MSOs have increased their HD-related activities. Responding to a plan proposed by Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell, the top 10 operators in April pledged to make up to five HD channels available in the top 100 markets by Jan. 1.

"Our observation is that the industry is definitely mobilizing around it and to stand behind that commitment," Howard said. "We've been in discussions with several of the top MSOs about similar deployments."

While a majority of cable systems will still use standard digital formats, the addition of high-definition has spurred BigBand's business. For existing customers, adding HD is not a major additional hardware expense — the BMR ports that handle digital feeds can be configured for either standard or high-definition signals, so upgrades to HD can be as simple as activating an unused port on the chassis and buying the HD rate-shaping software.

If all of their ports are in use, an operator can add a new port via card installation, Howard said.

"We can combine both HD and SD together, so by doing so you create more bandwidth capability," he said. "We see that HD has some strong potential to drive our SD sales, and we are also seeing that our existing customers that initially bought us for SD rate shaping capability are using the HD rate shaping capability in the same chassis."

With the addition of Cox, BigBand gear now feeds more 1.5 million digital subscribers across several cable MSOs, including Time Warner Cable, Rogers Communications Inc. and Blue Ridge Cable Television Inc.

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