As cable operators struggle to add more high-def content, they also face increasing demands on their networks for faster Internet speeds and more interactive services. In a lengthy interview, Harmonic’s senior manager of cable solutions and strategies, Keith Rothschild discusses those challenges and describes some of the strategies they’re using to retain their competitive edge. An edited transcript follows:
Q: When you look at the cable operators, what are some of the key things they’re doing to reclaim bandwidth so they can offer more competitive high def video packages?
A: There are really two answers to that: Some of what they’re doing has to do with reclaiming bandwidth and some has to do with using it more effectively.
In terms of reclaiming, there is obviously analog reclamation. It tends to be somewhat disruptive to customer and tends to be a little tricky because a lot of the programming contracts require networks to be put in most commonly carried tier. So operators are trying to negotiate some contracts so they can slowly reduce the number of analog channels.
In terms of using the bandwidth more effectively, one of the things they’re doing is node segmentation. Essentially, they are driving fiber deeper in the network, closer to the home.
In terms of products we are very big player in the edge QAM [quadrature amplitude modulation] market. Whenever they do node segmentation, they can either reduce the amount of spectrum they are using for narrowcast services because they serving smaller groups or they can take and split the group into two, which means they can give the same number of subscriber twice as many services.
HD on demand requires a lot more bandwidth, so we’re seeing a lot of activity there because VOD is typically one of cable’s differentiators over satellite.
The operators are also very active in network DVRs like Time Warner’s Start Over service and with our VOD back office products, which comes with a whole suite of products, including the ability to take that content and prepare it for the VOD system.
And then there is switched digital, which is essentially for linear content. The idea with something like switched digital is that you will have a group of services that you are going to continue to broadcast but then you switch the mid-tail and long tail content that isn’t as heavily used.
On the broadcast side, one of the things we do a lot of is re-encoding. You are probably aware of the news items about the problems one particular operator had with their three to one HD product. That case didn’t involve our equipment and we’ve been working with a lot of operators with this three channels to one [QAM] type technology. It has been received very favorably and it is not noticeable by the vast majority of consumers. It has the advantage of allowing operators to deploy more HD with the same bandwidth.
The other thing that we working on a number of operators with a number of operators is MPEG 4, which give them the ability to use less bandwidth to offer services to the set-top box or in some cases to the PC.
What is unique about all of is and what sets us apart is that when you talk about all these different areas--switched or compression or nodes splitting or whatever -- we are involved with all of them. On the segmentation side, for example, we have segmentable nodes, edge QAMs, encoders, the whole works.
Q: Which of those tools do you see the operators putting the most emphasis on?
A: I think they need almost the whole array of tools to get where they need to go. There are strengths and challenges to each.
Node segmentation is disruptive to the plant. It requires additional equipment and work on the plant. But in terms of the customer service, or the applications on the set-top box or what the customer experiences, there are no changes.
With something like switched digital video, it does require new equipment in the head end and it requires the customer service and field service technicians to trouble shoot problems in different manner.
So that actually is causing the deployment of switched digital to slow down in some operators. It is a major change in how they view their operations.
But ultimately that is where they all need to go. Ultimately it doesn’t make sense to broadcast all MPEG-4 content to every customer.
As they do more and more work, [the switched network] will collapse in with VOD and the network DVR and you will really start to see a unified video delivery platform.
Q: How well equipped are operators to find the additional bandwidth they need for HD at a time, when they also have to find the bandwidth for a number of other services, such as network DVRs and faster speeds for their high speed data offerings?
A: The No. 1 capacity constraint I see on day to day basis working with the operators, isn’t bandwidth, its manpower. The tools are there. The question is how do you prioritize and best cater to the needs of the market. There is only so much you can do at once and throwing more people at problem frankly doesn’t solve the problem because that just means additional people to train and manage.
Ultimately you don’t want to be changing too many things at once as you are installing new services. It is really a question of how quickly can they execute and how cleanly can they execute. They have to look at it on a market by market basis and see what they are most ready to do.
If their plant is in tip top shape and they are ready to do node splits that’s what they are doing. In other cases they are doing upgrades first, or going heavily into switched digital.
In terms of the VOD, we also see a lot of activity there.
And content is still a big issue. You can get HD channels up but that doesn’t necessarily all mean that all the content on these new channels is in HD. Consumers are increasingly educated and I don’t think those kind of channels [with a lot of upconverted content] will fly.
Q: The telcos have been touting the advantages of their IPTV and fiber to the home architectures in providing more HD content. How do you see the relative advantages of the telcos versus cable?
A: I work specifically in the cable space and we have another team that works with the telcos. So I’m less familiar with them. Having said that, I think it’s important to point out that all of the cable operators aren’t coming to us asking how they make their traditional infrastructure beat the telcos. They are very much looking not only leverage DOCSIS to emulate IPTV. They are also driving fiber deeper and ultimately even looking at GPON [gigabit capable passive optic network] technologies.
And, if they aren’t taking fiber to the home, its pretty close to it. They won’t lose because of their networks. They are going to have the right networks and technology. They are going to figure out what they need to win and they are going to win.