Intertainer Inc., Arepa Inc. and other, unnamed suppliers
are joining with Cisco Systems Inc. in a broadband-content initiative that could be a boon
or a threat to cable operators, depending on one's view of the high-speed-data
Cisco's "Built for Broadband" program is
designed to accelerate the availability of new-media and content services for delivery
over ADSL (asymmetrical digital subscriber line), cable and other high-speed access links,
said Kip Compton, manager for entertainment solutions at Cisco.
"A number of content providers have come to us asking
if we would work with them to ensure that their content will work over the infrastructures
of our service-provider customers," Compton said.
"At the same time, our service-provider customers want
to know what they need in their infrastructures to support these new applications and what
restrictions they need to put in place to keep those applications from overloading their
networks," he added.
Part of the task is educational: Parties to the discussion
are learning how to exploit the IP-multicast (Internet protocol); quality-of-service; and
network-metering and billing capabilities that are intrinsic to the broadband components
that Cisco is supplying for high-speed-data backbones and access networks.
But Cisco also hopes to bring content suppliers and service
providers together on a means of ensuring that content designed to exploit these
capabilities will work as readily over one type of access network as it will over another,
For example, when it comes to delivering content in
multicast mode (which delivers multiple simultaneous streams to end-users from one file),
cable has a specific way of accommodating the technology over its shared distribution
network, and suppliers of DSL technology have other methods.
"People want to be able to write the instructions once
and ensure delivery of their multicasts through the UBR [Cisco's headend-based
"Universal Broadband Router"] or the DSLAM [the DSL-access multiplexer at the
central office]," Compton said.
The same holds for setting QOS parameters, where network
equipment provides means of flagging and prioritizing different data types. To ensure
distribution to all interested end-users, no matter what type of access network
they're using, requires that the industry sectors agree on a common means of
communicating and triggering the QOS, multicast and other functions to the edge equipment
that runs the access-network portion, Compton said.
"We need to know how to tie things together without
trying to homogenize the methods of operation in the access networks, where the operating
functions are optimized for the specific architectures," Compton said. "The key
question is: Can we establish a common scheme in directories for setting up multicast or
QOS, regardless of the access architecture?"
Such a scheme or means of communicating instructions would
tie in with the "Directory Enabled Networks" initiative spearheaded by Cisco and
Microsoft Corp. The DEN initiative is promoting the development of OSS (operations-support
system) solutions that will give service providers the means to run their businesses
efficiently on a nationwide basis, with centralized control over provisioning of services,
billing and network management.
These efforts coincide with wide-scale acceptance of the
Internet-directory system known as "Lightweight Directory Access Protocol,"
which is designed to simplify linkage of information across several applications fields.
For example, Cisco has adopted an LDAP-based OSS technology
supplied by American Internet Technologies Corp. in its new line of router switches.
Such a system provides the linkages between the basic
IP-address information of each user and virtually any type of application, starting with
the initial installation and registration of a customer and extending to provisioning of
specific services, billing and the customer-care process.
This integration allows service providers to more
thoroughly automate operations and to scale their systems as the customer base grows.
Intertainer and Arepa represent a new class of IP-oriented
content providers with businesses that depend on broadband access exclusively. Besides
working with Cisco, the two companies are structuring an agreement between themselves that
will allow Intertainer to make Arepa's network-distributed CD-ROM service available
to its customers, said Terrence Coles, vice president of e-commerce and advertising for
"We're still playing with the business model, but
the idea is that Arepa will enable us to get access to and provide a vast reservoir of
existing content that's ideally suited for broadband distribution," Coles said.
Arepa -- which is currently undergoing a trial with @Home
Network -- is completing the development of a software platform enabling online delivery
of high-bandwidth content, starting with CD-ROM material that the firm converts to IP
files and secures using proprietary technology. Users can access the files and interact
with the CD-ROM material as if the CDs were running on their computers, with no
discernable degradation in the speed of interaction, Coles said.
Intertainer -- which is in the midst of market tests with
Comcast Corp. in Willow Grove, Pa., and with U S West in Denver -- is building a portfolio
of content, from movies-on-demand to highly interactive, Web-oriented fare like the Arepa
service, in preparation for commercial launches later next year, Coles said.
"We don't have any set plans for commercial
launches, but we believe that everything will be in place by that time frame," he
Intertainer's service can operate over any IP network,
connecting with any clients equipped with software interfaces that communicate in the Java
programming language, Coles said. The service has investment backing from Comcast, U S
West, Intel Corp., Sony Corp. and NBC.
It operates from locally positioned servers accessing
storage-disk arrays holding 500 hours worth of content that are refreshed at a rate of 20
percent per month from Intertainer's facilities in Culver City, Calif.
Where cable is concerned, Intertainer is seeking deals
where operators would dedicate one 6-megahertz channel to the service. It would allow
customers with personal computers -- or, eventually, with intelligent, modem-equipped
set-top boxes -- to access local servers containing movies, TV programming and other
material, much of it with links to Internet sites. At the same time, the company is
offering access to its servers via telco lines equipped with ADSL modems.
Intertainer's content is delivered in MPEG-1 format,
which gives the company some flexibility in working out ideal delivery speeds for DSL
platforms, Coles added.
"There are a lot of different DSL rates, starting as
low as 512 or 768 kilobits per second and going as high as 7.1 megabits per second, and we
want to be able to accommodate what's out there," he said.
It remains to be seen whether the cable industry will play
ball in facilitating greater market reach for entities like Intertainer. But Compton made
it clear that Cisco is not attempting to dissuade operators from maintaining control over
what subscribers can access.
"I think that operators will understand that this is
about expanding the menu of broadband content, which is important to driving penetration
of their services," Compton said. "As content aggregators, cable companies will
have more to offer, but they will have the same control that they have now over how
services are packaged and priced."
Cisco is in discussions with other content providers that
are committed to the broadband sector, and it expects to announce new initiative partners
in the near future, Compton added.