High-speed data, digital video and network-monitoring
techniques are presenting a formidable challenge for cable operators, which are trying to
find ways to squeeze more hardware into already-tight headend space.
Today's average-sized headend is between 4,000 and
6,000 square feet, with some reaching 10,000 square feet. Yet some operators admitted that
even those numbers may not allow the room needed for the burgeoning amount of hardware
critical to new services. Just a few years ago, a 200-square-foot headend was the norm,
The explosion in additional hardware crucial to launching
ancillary businesses is prompting operators to reassess their rebuild-and-upgrade
construction needs and to seek creative ways to save space and money through the efficient
use of headend square footage.
'The days of the 200-square-foot headend are gone.
With additional services, stereo, network-monitoring devices and fiber, with its banks of
lasers, it's not unrealistic to have 10,000-square-foot headends,' said Wayne
Davis, vice president of technical operations for Jones Intercable Inc.'s cable
Jones is literally knocking out walls to expand its headend
space, Davis said, and the MSO is making other efficiency moves, as well.
'We're moving away from the stand-alone
[scrambling equipment], which took up to four times the space compared with the new
technology. If an operator is rebuilding, he must consider tripling his current square
footage. If not, he still has to do something to save space,' Davis said.
With the average cost of a headend today weighing in at
about $2.5 million for the structure or facility and $1 million for electronic equipment,
Davis highly recommended an emphasis on space when rebuilding or upgrading headends,
including real estate.
'We make sure that we have real estate to expand, and
we factor in elements such as today's needs, what are the market demands and the
unknown. For instance, three satellite dishes in the headend doesn't work anymore: 10
Headend considerations generally precede outside plant
construction in rebuilds and upgrades by as much as a year, Davis said.
'In three of our upgrades, headends were installed one
year before outside plant construction began,' he added.
Cox Communications Inc., which spent $65 million in 1997
for 35 new 'superheadends,' will spend an additional $33 million in 1998 and $10
million in 1999 on 34 more headends.
Each headend in its nine clusters is 5,000 square feet and
expandable. 'We more or less bit the bullet,' said Alex Best, senior vice
president of engineering for the MSO. 'But we want to be the premier provider of
these services, so we needed these facilities. We've enacted a cookie-cutter approach
on how to build them, and we have also planned on how we will expand them.'
The issue of shrinking headend space and the eventual need
to expand facilities is gaining the attention of manufacturers like Scientific-Atlanta
Inc., with its Continuum headend system aimed at more efficient use of space. The system,
according to S-A, is designed to reduce typical rack-space requirements by more than 50
percent. The chassis is five rack units high, and it can hold eight application modules
and one controller, which enables up to 40 mono or 20 stereo channels per rack.
'Before, 10 or 11 racks of equipment were needed for
about 80 channels. Continuum can do that with two rack bays,' said Dick Gulley,
staff-applications engineer with S-A.
Continuum, however, is just one solution to myriad space
concerns at the headend, Gulley said. Another is air conditioning.
'The amount of air conditioning is now undersized at
many headends. Bigger and more powerful AC units have to be installed, and backup
generators now have to not only run a system, but the AC, too. There are so many things --
reverse nodes, laser-return nodes, modems -- and each node is a piece of hardware at the
Creating space at the headend for the crucial power-supply
system is now a key issue with operators in their rebuild-and-upgrade plans. With the
dramatic increase in headend size, protecting expensive equipment is paramount.
'The size of power-output capabilities is
significantly more than two years ago, and we've seen a dramatic increase in power
needs because of the additional hardware,' said Tom Osterman, president of Comm/Net
'The space issue is really a problem, especially if
digital is deployed. HITS [Headend in the Sky], for instance, takes several added racks.
We've already started replacing systems that we supplied power to just three years
ago,' Osterman said.
Comm/Net's power-supply package costs about $60,000,
according to Osterman, and it is designed to protect radio, telephone and security
systems, as well. As for space efficiency, Osterman said, the company gives very clear-cut
guidance for space inside and outside of the headend.
'To save space, we recommend where the generator goes
and how much maintenance access to allow around it. And as headends expand, we also make
recommendations on how to ground satellite dishes and how to use space efficiently in
installations of the power supply,' he said.
Comcast Corp. is also addressing the space issue, and
expansion is the operative word.
'We know what the future will require of us with
servers, capacity, et cetera, and it requires space,' said John Linebarger, vice
president of engineering for Comcast Cable Communications.
'We are upgrading 80 percent of our networks to 750
megahertz because that's where you need to be to better your product. So we're
stretching out and not cramming hardware into racks. One of our business models said to
add on incrementally and put the infrastructure in first, and we're doing that
now,' Linebarger said. 'And we're identifying how much air conditioning,
space and power we'll need at headends.'
The cost of being space-efficient, Linebarger admitted, is
'substantial,' at several million dollars.
'The bottom line is that costs are handled like
rebuilds or upgrades to accommodate additional channels. It costs a lot of money, and it
is a substantial investment in our future,' he said.
The future of new services, and just how much headend
footage to allow for their attendant hardware, remains cloudy.
'We know what services are here today, but we
don't know what new services are out there in the future and what the headend-space
requirements will be. It's a big issue, and we're approaching it system by
system,' Davis said.