A Service Station for the Cable Systems

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The network operations center is not just about monitoring hardware anymore. It's also about services.

As cable operators deploy more fiber in their networks and offer consumers more advanced services, these centers will increasingly be called on to store and deliver video programming when viewers request it; decipher voice traffic to ensure that calls within and outside a cable company's own network get handled properly; handle multiplayer games; deliver instant messages — and help define and manage whatever new services are deployed on data lines.

Today, cable operators generate more than 20% of their revenue from services that work on Internet protocols, such as Web traffic and telephony. In 2005, $4.7 billion of Comcast Corp.'s $21.2 billion in revenue, or 22%, was generated from data and telephony services, and that number is expected to increase as the Philadelphia-based operator widens its telephony rollout.

Other operators are also rolling out telephony service using Internet standards, and much of the “brains” behind those services will be housed in cable network operations centers.

THE SINGLE CENTER

Most operators have one central network operations center, to handle network-management functions.

Time Warner Cable's national network operations center is in Herndon, Va. From there, Time Warner engineers oversee all of the communications lines the company has leased to ship video and data traffic between its different cable systems.

The center gives the company a “national” view of all its cable-system plant deployed at the regional and local level, said senior vice president Jim Ludington. Time Warner Cable leases the communications lines because it's cheaper than owning them.

But increasing attention is being paid to the company's seven regional network operations centers, where Time Warner Cable has placed its softswitches, the software-based telephone gear that helps handle growth in digital phone service.

The cable operator also is looking at adding video servers in those regional network operation centers to store video-on-demand content that isn't used that often, said Ludington.

The increasing amount of fiber running video, voice and data traffic at Gigabit Ethernet speeds allows the cable operator to store on demand content that might be hundreds of miles away from a consumer, yet will arrive within seconds after ordering.

“We could pitch video content to the network operation centers and send VOD from there,” Ludington said. “The less-used content gets stored there, while the high-use product gets stored close” to the viewer.

Adding video servers to regional network operations centers also provides backup. “If this link or server is down, we can jump to another one,” Ludington said.

Tom Buttermore, a former Adelphia Communications Corp. engineer who's now general manager of the Global Cable division at Nortel Networks, believes cable operators will start shifting some monitoring functions traditionally handled within the network operations center to an “application” monitoring center.

“The historical fundamental function [for NOCs] was to coordinate network change management,” said Buttermore. “The NOC had visibility into what types of change activities were going on in the network,” such as adding a new cable-modem termination system at the headend to handle increasing amounts of high-speed data traffic.

If a local system was going to swap out a line card in a cable-modem termination system or swap out a router, the network operation center would coordinate the change so service to the subscriber would not be disrupted, he said.

Network operations centers also would house routers, switches, cable-modem termination systems and other hardware needed to move traffic through the network, Buttermore said.

NEED FOR ALARMS

The network operations center would create rules to alert technicians when, for instance, more than 10 cable modems experienced problems in a node or when the temperature in a headend passed 90 degrees.

“That would generate an alarm that would be sent to the network operating center,” Buttermore said.

With the introduction of voice-over-Internet protocol telephone service, cable is deploying its second application, following data, on its high-speed Internet protocol network. As cable adds other applications, Buttermore said, the monitoring tools at the network operations center will evolve to monitor those services.

“How do we monitor services rather than boxes and wires?” Buttermore said. “It will boil down to services.”

Those new services could include gaming or instant messaging or new services evolving from cable's wireless communications initiatives.

“The service provider not only has to make sure that they have allocated the right bandwidth for that particular service, they also have to look at the entire network to see what else is impacted by that,” said Roger Smith, senior product manager at Cisco Systems Inc.'s cable division.

The cable industry has traditionally shipped MPEG-2 (Moving Picture Experts Group) video signals down one transmission path to the home and high-speed data and voice bits separately, using the Internet protocol.

That meant cable operators had two separate transmission paths, or “silos,” to manage, with two different sets of hardware and software equipment, and even two different computer screens for network monitoring. One “silo” was for video; a second “silo” was added for IP-based services.

“Instead of the siloed approach to service management, you need to have some type of convergence,” said Smith. “They need to converge the operational process. You need management platforms and operations that are converged as well.”

Converged management also makes the technician's job easier. “You don't want to have a swivel chair and have to be looking at five different monitors for five different applications,” Smith said.

Cisco is pitching operators a common management platform software tool that allows cable operators a single screen view of their entire network. “It allows you to do a better job of running diagnostics and seeing issues on the network,” Smith said. “It also allows you to do 'what if' scenario planning,” such as can the network handle 10,000 more voice subscribers in a hub.”

Network operations center software tools can also aid cable systems in setting up policy-management rules, according to Smith. Such rules would allow operators to allocate bandwidth automatically if a subscriber wants to jump from a high-speed data service speed of 5 Megabits per second to 10 Mbps, just for the weekend.

“You need some type of dynamic allocation for particular applications like gaming, voice or for better quality of service,” said Victor Lee, systems marketing manager in the product technology marketing group at Cisco. “How do you manage and limit the last-mile bandwidth to each of these subscribers?”

Time Warner Cable's experience with launching voice services, which included adding telephone hardware and software at regional network operation centers, could be replicated by other operators. The second-largest multiple system operator struck a balance by establishing a central point of control but putting backup equipment and the delivery of services close to the consumer, Ludington said.

While the company's Herndon network operation center remains “the centerpoint,” Ludington said, “we're moving a lot of views and eyes on glass into the regions.”

<p>Broadband Services Deployment: Status</p>

U.S. Television Households: 110,200,000

Digital Cable Customers: 27,600,000

Cable Modem Customers: 24,300,000

Residential Cable Telephony Customers: 4,500,000

TV Households figure from A.C. Nielsen Media Research, January 2006
All broadband service figures: September 2005.
Source: National Cable & Telecommunications Association

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