nCUBE Pushes Headend-Based PVRs

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At next week's National Show, nCUBE Corp. will introduce a headend-based personal video recording system for cable operators that it believes is a better economic and technological alternative to a set-top-based arrangement.

"nCUBE's nPVR system enables cable operators to exceed the service offerings available from 'traditional' set-top-based PVRs and satellite service providers," said Dan Sheeran, senior vice president, worldwide sales and marketing.

The headend-based system allows an operator to share hard drive costs among multiple users, reducing the overall system cost, Sheeran said. Additionally, "if the disk drive in a set-top-based PVR fails, the entire stored library is lost."

One key hurdle faced by nCUBE and other headend-based PVR proponents, such as Concurrent Computer Corp., is making the economics work for cable operators.

Video-on-demand servers presently cost between $300 and $400 per stream, said nCUBE vice president of broadband solutions Jay Schiller. To store 700 hours of programming, or roughly 350 movies, it costs an operator from $300,000 to $400,000, he said.

A network PVR would need 16,800 hours of capacity to store 100 channels for one 24-hour period, Sheeran said. That puts network PVR costs in the several-million dollar range. But outfitting 100,000 subscribers with a $500 set-top, versus a $350 set-top, would cost an additional $15 million.

In theory, operators could charge a set per-month fee, of perhaps $5 to $10, to provide network-storage capabilities for consumers who missed their favorite episode of Dawson's Creek
or Friends, Sheeran noted. Hard drive and network equipment costs are also falling, he said.

Another key question is how current operator-programmer affiliation contract language might relate to headend-based storage systems. A number of programmers, led by premium networks such as Starz Encore Group LLC, Home Box Office and Showtime Networks Inc., are offering subscription-VOD packages.

But the jury is out on whether operators have the right to store non-real time cable programming without the network's permission. Operators could contend that headend-based PVR functionality is nothing more than a service consumers could enjoy in the privacy of their own homes by videotaping a program for later playback. The only difference is that the operator maintains the storage and playback functionality, Sheeran said.

nCUBE plans to collaborate with companies like Motorola Broadband Communications Sector, Scientific-Atlanta Inc., Prasara (now part of PowerTV Inc.), Liberate Technologies on headend-centric PVR systems, Schiller said.

Schiller says most operators are looking at 35 percent to 40 percent simultaneous PVR- usage rates, but that number could be far higher in reality.

"We believe the numbers could get to 70 percent to 80 percent," he said.

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