Q&A: Cox’s Steve Necessary

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As the satellite operators and telcos tout their ability to deliver more HD tonnage than cable, major operators are scrambling to free up bandwidth for bulked-up HD packages. Cox Communications vice president of video product development and support Steve Necessary spoke to HD Update about the “tool box” Cox is using to free bandwidth for more high-def content. An edited transcript follows:

Q: We’ve seen a lot of very dramatic announcements about the amount of HD channels satellite and telcos will be offering this year. Is this marketing hype or does it mean that they are ahead of cable in terms of the amount of HD channels they can offer?

A: There is a lot of rhetoric. But I suspect that it is rhetoric that passes legal muster. We all have lawyers and they look at everything. So, one would have to assume that the tonnage claims are backed by fact.

That said, the fundamental question behind those claims is simple. How much of that tonnage does the consumer actually care about?

If 20 of those channels or some large number of the channels being offered are regional sports networks, what’s the value in that? Most of us are not very interested in out-of-market regional sports.

You can also make the same argument about some of the unbranded content or niche content that is part of those packages. The channels that have strong name appeal will have highest value for consumers. Having a large number of channels that no one knows about will have commensurately less value.

But when you peel that onion, you see that we are offering the same amount of high value content. Then, on top of that cable has the advantage of being able to augment its high-def offering by literally orders of magnitude with the choices you’ll find in our HD on-demand offering.

So we are not particularly worried about tonnage itself. Ultimately quality is what matters. We are confident that our variety of choices will ultimately dwarf the number of HD choices that satellite can offer.

Q: That will require a lot more bandwidth. What are you doing to get the capacity for more HD choices?

A: The good news is that we have a pretty good tool box. We basically are using all of the tools at our disposal.

A quick laundry list would be bandwidth expansion -- we’ve taken all of our markets or are in the process of taking all of our markets to at least 860MHz. We are deploying switched digital video in several markets. We are selectively and modestly looking to take away analogue channels, which frees up capacity.

We are also looking to increase our compression ratios, which you have to do carefully so it doesn’t have a negative impact on signal quality. But there are some things that can and are being done that yield great pictures with a little less bandwidth with MPEG-2, and in the future MPEG-4 will be another tool in that mix.

Last but not least, is the physical architecture of our systems. You can reduce node sizes so that your capacity -- particularly your on-demand capacity -- is shared over a smaller footprint, which effectively increases the capacity in that node.

So we have a pretty full tool box. We are very confident that with the number of tools we have available that we will be able to provide a superior HD experience for our customers.

Q: What is your timetable for switched digital?

A: We have it operational in our Northern Virginia system and then we have two other large markets in the deploying in the first half of this year, Phoenix Arizona and Orange County California.

Q: How much new HD content have you added as a result of switched digital in Virginia?

A: It will obviously allow us to add more. But, Cox has a very high emphasis on quality. So we have been and will continue to be very deliberate in assessing the utilization and how much bandwidth actually gets freed up by switched digital before we try to fill all that capacity back up.

Said differently, the last thing we want is for a customer to turn to a channel and get an error message that says that channel is not available. We have not had that scenario and hope to never have that scenario. It is working very well and we are very encouraged by that.

Q: What are you dong in the area of compression?

A: The typical implementation of high definition would mean that we would carry that content on a system at somewhere around 19 Mbps.

We have found that with improved MPEG-2 encoders, that we can get equally good pictures to the eye in the 13 Mbps to 14 Mbps. So basically, that means you can squeeze three high-definition channels into one of the 6 MHz blocks instead of 2 channels.

Q: With increasing broadband speeds, do you have plans to offer more HD content online?

A: There is an opportunity to utilize the IP path as a means of delivering video. But our plans for it would at best be considered nascent. Frankly there are easier and more efficient ways to deliver HD content with MPEG-2 over QAM as opposed to MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 over an IP path. Yeah, it is ultimately another tool but it is a tool that we will leave at the bottom of the box for a while.

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