SBC Takes a Hybrid Path Toward Video

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Project Lightspeed, SBC Communications Inc.’s grand $5 billion buildout of fiber-to-the-node technology that will allow the telco to offer Internet-protocol television services, is a hybrid optical-fiber and copper network the scale of which will be unique to the U.S. telecommunications landscape.

While Verizon Communications Inc. pursues a more cable-like infrastructure for its fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) video plans, SBC will go forward with a less costly alternative, one it says will deliver data to the home at 20 to 25 Mbps.

The company is building two video-hub super offices, said SBC vice president, network Ernie Carey.

“We’ll ingest content in multiple ways,” he said. “We’ll get it off the satellite, and get some content over terrestrial optical feeds into those two centers.”

PAIR OF FORMATS

Those two super offices will process and reprocess video into two basic formats: MPEG-4/H.264 (Moving Picture Experts Group) and VC1. Since most feeds are presently encoded in MPEG-2, those feeds will be upconverted to the more-advanced codecs.

SBC continues to evaluate both formats, but it is designing the network, residential gateways and set-top boxes to encode and decode both of them, Carey said.

The first super office will be up and running in mid-summer, Carey said, with the other location expected to be operational in early 2006.

From those two master locations, the video signals will be sent out over SBC’s backbone to 41 video-hub offices (VHOs). Scientific-Atlanta Inc will supply the basic equipment for the super offices and the 41 hub offices. A $195 million deal covers satellite-receiver dishes, encoders, video routers and professional services.

SBC also signed a 10-year, $400 million deal with Microsoft Corp. for its IPTV Edition software platform. Microsoft servers also will sit in both locations.

“These locations look more like a data center,” Carey said. Content will be fully encrypted at each step along the way.

The video-hub offices will become operational timed to support the market introduction within various DMAs, Carey said. “It’s just in time hardware.”

Once the signal leaves the video-hub office, it travels across the Alcatel-built fiber network to video-serving offices, or VSOs. They’re essentially central offices, which can serve from a few thousand to perhaps 100,000 subscribers.

10 GIGE LINKS

The links from the VHOs to the video-serving offices are 10 Gigabit Ethernet connections. The links between the video serving offices to the access network are 1 Gigabit Ethernet.

At those edge-network locations, which tend to be within 2,500 to 3,000 feet of homes, SBC will install Alcatel’s 7330 model IP digital subscriber line access multiplexers. From those locations to the home, signals travel via SBC’s copper pipe.

Further up the network sit IP switches — Alcatel’s 7450 switches and 7750 VHO routers. “It’s a tree-and-branch structure,” he said.

In the home, SBC will deploy a residential gateway and IPTV set-top box. Carey describes the gateway as a wireless-fidelity (Wi-Fi) hub on steroids.

The physical layer will interface with an advanced home network. It contains very-high-bit rate DSL chipsets, Wi-Fi 802.11 access, RJ-11 jacks and analog terminal adapters.

Channel-switching occurs as close to the home as possible. If a subscriber is watching ESPN and changes channels to Cable News Network, for instance, the network will first look to see if anyone else in the house is watching CNN and switch the signal from there.

If that’s not the case, the network taps into the 7330s at its edge and sees if anyone else in the area is watching CNN, and then switches the signal from there.

If no one else is watching, the network moves to the VSO to get the CNN signal. All channels will be available from that location, according to Carey.

SIMPLE SET-TOPS

Unlike cable set-tops, Carey said SBC’s IPTV set-top will be relatively simple.

“An IP STB is not the same animal” as a cable set-top, he said. It will decode either an MPEG-4 or VC1 signal, and handles rudimentary booting and authentication, Carey said.

SBC is in the midst of field trials to test the IPTV technology. It will deliver 20 to 25 Mbps of bandwidth per home. That will allow four switched, all-digital video signals, plus a 6 Mbps high-speed Internet service and telephone service.

HDTV, video-on-demand, digital video recorders and ITV all will be part of the IPTV switched-video platform.

SBC plans to sell a dedicated data service at speeds of 6 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. It will also offer such ITV services as multiple camera angles for sporting events, and the ability to show multiple games, call up stats or capture photos on a home network for display on the TV.

The video-network upgrade is scheduled to be completed by 2007, and will pass 18 million homes, or about half of SBC’s total base, said executive vice president of IP operations and services Lea Ann Champion.

SBC also plans to pass another 1 million homes using fiber-to-the-premise technology in new housing developments and certain multiple-dwelling-unit areas.

Plans are to serve the other half of SBC’s 36 million home base through the telco’s marketing arrangement with EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network satellite platform.

SBC maintains its fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) technology can be built in one-quarter of the time of a FTTP build, at one-fifth the cost. It claims FTTN can deliver 70% of the network operational savings achievable from FTTP.

SBC has estimated initial success-based capital — covering the home gateway, set-top, in-home wiring and installation — would run at $500 to $600 per subscriber in 2005, declining to $300 to $450 per subscriber by 2007.

SBC has yet to disclose the vendors for its residential gateway, set-top box or VOD server components. It has announced that Amdocs Ltd. will supply billing, CRM and ordering software.

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