Time Warner's Flexible Backbone: ISA

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It's one thing to develop a new technology platform on paper and test it in a lab. But to widely deploy any new service — and work out all the bugs — within a short time frame is something else entirely.

Over the past nine months, Time Warner Cable has deployed — from scratch — a video-on-demand platform that has redefined the words "fast track."

After staging trials of various proprietary on-demand formations in a handful of markets, the Stamford, Conn.-based MSO deployed VOD with a vengeance early this year.

Nine months later, TWC has deployed hundreds of servers and catchers in 32 markets, offering on-demand movies, subscription VOD and free on-demand (FOD) programming to 3.5 million digital subscribers.

It's probably one of the better-kept secrets in the business. Senior TWC executives don't show up on AOL Time Warner Inc. earnings calls to discuss VOD deployments, as they do at other MSOs. And only recently have systems sought publicity for after-the-fact launches.

Part of the reticence stems from the MSO's desire to make sure the deployments worked well before going public. Competition from direct-broadcast satellite also entered into TWC's decision to keep a low profile.

But two senior cable engineers involved in the rollout — executive vice president of advanced technology Mike LaJoie and senior vice president of advanced engineering and subscriber technology Mike Hayashi — recently discussed the project with Multichannel News.

"When you look at it as a whole, and the numbers of new products and the depth of deployment, it's something that's never been done before in the cable industry," said LaJoie.

FSN roots

Although the Interactive Services Architecture moniker emerged in 2000, parts of the platform date back to around 1994. They're based on work TWC did in Orlando, Fla., with the Full Service Network and the Pegasus digital platform.

"It has been continuous deployment on a platform we architected years ago," Hayashi said.

That platform supports the rollout of high-definition television signals, now available in all Time Warner markets (penetration is expected to stand at 50,000 units by year-end); digital video recorder-enabled set-top boxes in three markets (Green Bay, Wisc.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Austin, Texas); and other futuristic applications.

One benefit of the ISA specification is that technological advancements can be built into the platform without shelving the whole thing.

For example, ISA was designed before SVOD was considered a factor in the marketplace. But its flexible, multiple-vendor nature made the specification adaptable to broader SVOD deployment.

"The plan was to do movies on-demand and maybe a little bit of SVOD," LaJoie said. "When we saw the response to the trials we had done, particularly in Columbia, S.C., we decided we could turn up the heat."

The system is now capable of interacting with more than one VOD-server supplier, Hayashi added — even in the same market. This means that servers from Concurrent Computer Corp., SeaChange International Inc. and nCUBE Corp. can work side-by-side.

That's good news for MSOs looking to continue to curb capital costs, or to integrate new server technology from an even larger pool of vendors.

BMS: Key interface

Time Warner also developed its own business-management support (BMS) system, a software link between various hardware and software vendors.

For the most part, TWC uses Scientific-Atlanta Inc. gear, but some systems have plant and set-tops from Motorola Inc. The MSO also uses set-tops from Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc. and Pace Micro Technology plc, employing S-A's conditional-access technology.

Time Warner has purchased servers from all three major server vendors: Concurrent, SeaChange and nCUBE. It uses N2 Broadband catchers to "catch" VOD content supplied by In Demand LLC through California Video Corp.

Time Warner's BMS links the software between N2 and the servers to the cable transport plant, set-top boxes and billing system. The ISA spec compelled all those vendors to work together, a price the vendors paid to get Time Warner's business.

LaJoie said the BMS runs on a Sun Microsystems Inc. server and contains a database from Oracle Corp.

"It scales to the size of the platform and sets up the on-demand streams," he said.

When a subscriber orders a movie, that request is processed from the set-top through the transport network to the digital network controller, then onto the server. The server spits out the content through an asynchronous serial interface or Gigabit Ethernet port to QAM devices at the hub and into the subscriber's home.

"The BMS is in the middle of all of that," LaJoie said. "It keeps track of the negotiations, keeps records, interfaces with the billing systems. The challenge is to be able to do this in a way that's standardized."

Cable Television Laboratories Inc. used some of the ISA standard to develop its specifications for metadata, or the information that flows through VOD systems for each piece of content that's delivered.

Targeted diginets

As other MSOs roll out VOD, they're using their own indigenous forms of ISA. But LaJoie and Hayashi said the standard allows for more than just VOD.

"Now that we have this switched-video infrastructure put in place, we have a method for setting up a dedicated stream to a subscriber as his request," LaJoie. "We could have a unicast stream directed at any home from any source. We could put a device in front of satellite IRD to switch content on an on-demand way."

The possibilities are intriguing. Time Warner could deliver diginets directly to only those homes interested in those channels, saving on bandwidth and transmission costs in other parts of the network. Even Internet content could be delivered on a per-home basis.

A more likely application is the network digital video recorder, on which linear content is captured and stored at the headend for playback in specific homes. It's what AOL Time Warner's Personal Interactive Video Group and its president, Jim Chiddix, continue to work on in Louisville, Colo.

The architecture also could be used for more robust HDTV offerings.

"HDTV takes up a lot of bandwidth," Hayashi said. "With switched broadcast, you could offer a very large number of HDTV offerings. You could cache everything."

Added LaJoie: "You could dedicate more channels as demand goes up or segment bandwidth to provide more bandwidth. The capital investment required to support additional channels is variable.

"Based on demand, we can rapidly — on the order of months — add more bandwidth to this switched-video infrastructure as demand goes up. And the cost for this bandwidth is dropping dramatically."

The operator is using ISA to help create a data repository for subscriber information — such as which services they've ordered from TWC, or how much of those services they're using — that customer-service representatives and marketers can then use.

"That allows us to introduce new products and services on the network that can cooperate with existing services on the network," LaJoie said.

What's next

One of the next challenges is to make the platform stable.

"It has to be very reliable," Hayashi said. "The more on-demand services you have, the requirement to have full connectivity all the time is going to be there."

The evolution of CableLabs's pending OpenCable Applications Platform digital-television standard is also a concern, he added.

"We'd like to see OCAP happen substantially before any type of regulatory deadlines," he said. "The big focus is on getting an OCAP middleware implementation done and getting some products developed on top of that middleware."

LaJoie said continued standards work would help cable in its fight against direct-broadcast satellite competition.

"We really need to have a national footprint for new products," he said. "We have a very mobile population in this country."

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