If They Can Make It There

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Time Warner Cable is using its giant New York City system as a test bed for a groundbreaking initiative that could speed the MSO's introduction of advanced digital services, according to sources familiar with the project.

Dubbed ISA, for Industry Standard Architecture, the program would allow Time Warner to introduce hardware and software devices for two-way capable applications from several different vendors on a plug-and-play basis.

Also in New York, Time Warner is evaluating three video-on-demand vendors in preparation for a Big Apple VOD launch next year, according to sources familiar with the project. SeaChange International Inc, Concurrent Computer Corp. and nCUBE Corp. are all participating in the assessment, which is designed to test the performance, reliability and functionality of each company's servers, sources said.

Time Warner declined to comment on either the ISA test or the VOD evaluation.

The MSO's plans for New York jibe with other signs that after a year of testing, operators are finally gearing up for major VOD deployments in 2002. Most industry observers view this long-touted advanced service — which finally appears to be poised for substantial deployment — as a product with significant revenue-generating potential.

Operators believe that over the next year, many issues involving content and interactive program-guide integration will have largely been settled. And MSOs are vowing to roll out VOD even without the participation of studio holdouts such as Paramount Pictures, The Walt Disney Co. and Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Sources familiar with ISA, which has been more than a year in the making, said the program would give Time Warner "a more robust architecture and allow for rapid introduction of new two-way digital products."

In the test, different vendors will demonstrate their capabilities within ISA. Equipment suppliers said they were hesitant to comment or confirm their participation before Time Warner went on the record.

At press time, it was unclear whether other MSOs would follow in Time Warner's footsteps. But one industry noted that Time Warner's situation is unique, because it uses many different software and hardware vendors.

For example, the company has deployed Concurrent's VOD servers in Honolulu and Tampa Bay, Fla., and SeaChange's product in Austin, Texas. It also has plans to test nCUBE's VOD offering with its employees in Los Angeles this year.

Most MSOs are using just one or two VOD vendors.

One source familiar with the project said ISA could save Time Warner time and money by acting as a "bridge device," so its engineers don't have to rewrite software code every time they plug in a new piece of equipment or software.

For example, the standard would allow Time Warner to replace a SeaChange server in a headend with one from Concurrent or nCUBE without worrying about interoperability problems.

Billing systems, set-top boxes and other network software would also be subject to the ISA platform.

As for the VOD vendor test, one source said New York represents "significant challenges … They've got hubs larger than most cable systems. There are a lot of things they have to evaluate."

There are three items on Time Warner's agenda in its New York VOD-vendor assessment test, sources said:

  • Performance validation:
    Do the vendors deliver everything they say they do? For example, do they stream video signals down the network as quickly as they claim?
  • Reliability:
    How seamless are the VOD solutions and what's their "fault tolerance," or ability to continue operating even after one of the computer platforms breaks down?
  • Capacity and power:
    What are the streaming and content capacities of the storage?

The vendors started installing their systems at Time Warner's New York City headend in December and the actual test will last for several months, sources said. The MSO will decide when the test concludes.

Diva Systems Corp., which has the most VOD deployments in the industry, is not part of the New York evaluation. Diva is the only VOD supplier that Time Warner has not worked with in any of its deployments to date, but company officials have privately said they would reevaluate their platform if it met the MSO's specifications.

Matt Stump contributed to this story.

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