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Comcast to Roll SDV in Philly with Motorola

Jeff Baumgartner reports today that Comcast is ready to start deploying switched digital video in the Philadelphia market using Motorola technology. After stalling out back in 2008, SDV has made a comeback in recent months. In June, Motorola announced an SDV rollout with Charter Communications, and Charter says it plans to have SDV in 60% of its footprint by the end of the year. Comcast, meanwhile, has had Motorola technology at the ready since October 2007. However, the cable operator put switched digital video on the back burner in 2008 in order to focus on DTA deployments. Returning to SDV now, Comcast plans to start rollouts in 2010, with broader deployments in 2011 and 2012.

Interestingly, Jeff points in his article to the idea that Comcast could use switched digital technology for 3D content, and as a way to migrate to IP delivery. In the short term, Comcast has said it wants to free up enough bandwidth to offer more than 150 HD channels.

Motorola’s New Hosted Switched Digital Solution

Timed to coincide with the Independent Show kicking off today, Motorola has announced a new hosted switched digital video solution for small, independent cable operators. The idea is to provide SDV benefits to operators who don’t have the necessary equipment to do switched digital on their own. In an effort to stay competitive, particularly with their HD offerings, smaller providers are feeling the bandwidth crunch as much as their larger cable brethren. However, there’s a cost barrier in implementing SDV, and sometimes a barrier in managing the day-to-day operations of a switched network as well. The new hosted SDV solution aims to reduce significantly both the cost and complexity of switched digital video, making it possible for independent operators to reclaim bandwidth and expand their services to meet subscriber demand.

The really interesting part about the new SDV offering is how it works. Motorola operates the NAS-RAC system out of San Diego, which provides access to a DAC and associated equipment to independent operator customers through a VPN. The SDV solution works in the same way, with the primary switched digital equipment hosted and managed by Motorola out of NAS-RAC. Operator customers still deploy and maintain the edge QAMs in their individual systems, but they don’t have to take on the cost or hassle of adding new SDV-specific hardware. [Clarification note: the hosted SDV solution also works for operators with their own small DACs who want to offload only the SDV infrastructure components.]

Prior to launch, the hosted SDV solution was tested extensively in Motorola labs. If you think of an average NAS-RAC system as supporting two thousand set-tops, the number of channel changes during peak usage time nets out at about twenty channel changes per second. The new SDV system, however, was tested at up to twenty five times that rate. That means the hosted solution can support up to five hundred channel changes per second, more than enough for any real-world deployment.

The NCTA and Tuning Adapters

We’re likely to hear more about tuning adapters in the coming months as cable operators ramp up their switched digital video rollouts. And there’s more proof today that those ramp-ups are far more than rumor. According to comments by the NCTA, five of the largest US cable companies are already deploying tuning adapters, meaning they’ve also already implemented SDV in their networks. And Jeff Baumgartner reiterates that Comcast has aggressive SDV plans for this year and 2011.

Cable’s resurgent interest in SDV is causing some controversy among providers of retail set-tops that use CableCARDs. The pool of subscribers with these retail CableCARD devices, however, is still relatively small. In contrast the additional bandwidth that operators stand to gain from SDV is significant, particularly in light of HD and upcoming 3D demands. It’s a trade-off cable companies are willing to make.

Walking a Fine Line with Set-Top Data

The topic of how operators use viewing data from set-tops has long been a controversial one. Despite the widespread use of user tracking technologies online – or perhaps because of them, and the resultant privacy debates – service providers have been reluctant to pursue aggressive set-top data mining strategies. However, as Todd Spangler at Multichannel News notes, that doesn’t mean they’ve avoided data mining altogether. They’re just walking a very fine line to keep users, government, and advertisers happy.

On a less controversial note, there are very basic geographic viewing trends that are easy and useful to track as operators determine the best uses for switched digital video. After writing last week about the resurgence of SDV, I continued digging to see what I could find out from actual deployments. Not surprisingly, providers make decisions about which channels to switch on a market-by-market basis. There are certain rules of thumb, like the farther south you travel, the fewer Spanish channels are moved to a switched tier. But operators sometimes tweak their SDV settings on a weekly basis depending on the habits of any given market. Viewing data certainly comes in handy as service providers try to maximize the amount of bandwidth they can re-farm for more HD content today, and other advanced applications in the future. And that’s something everybody wants: subscribers, operators, and advertisers alike.

Here are a few more examples from the Multichannel article on how set-top metrics are being used today.

  • Time Warner Cable, Charter L.A., Dish and others are providing internal set-top data as a sales tool for local ad reps
  • Simulmedia analyzes anonymous data from 15 million set-tops to improve the effectiveness of tune-in programming spots
  • TRA’s 370,000-household database cross-references set-top data from TiVo and others with purchasing data from retailers’ frequent- shopper cards
  • Canoe Ventures will track viewer response to request for information spots, set to debut in June

Charter, Motorola, and the Return of Switched Digital Video

The buzz on switched digital video has slowly risen to a fever pitch again over the last few months. After initial excitement back in 2007, enthusiasm for the technology waned in the wake of DTA success, and regulatory concerns around the tuning adapters needed to make SDV work with retail DVRs. Now SDV is making a comeback. Motorola announced this morning that cable company Charter is deploying Motorola’s switched digital solution and has a goal to launch SDV in 60% of its footprint by the end of the year.

At the Cable Show last month, I heard unofficially that SDV is gaining popularity again across the cable industry. In fact, the technology has never gone away, but operators haven’t used it in recent years for its bandwidth-saving attributes. With increasing consumer demand for capacity, however, SDV is being reconsidered for its ability to extend bandwidth. More bandwidth means room for more HD content and higher broadband speed tiers.

Stay tuned for further details on the resurgence of switched digital video. I’m working on getting more answers in the coming days.

Extending Bandwidth: Density, Encoding, and Switched Digital Video

UPDATED with correct video link

Yes, switched digital video may be making a comeback. But before we get to that (in a future post), take a look at this Motorola video from The Cable Show on broadband demands, and the array of techniques being used by operators to extend bandwidth.

Note: The YouTube embed function is not working. Click on the image above to see the video on YouTube.

Fragmentation and Flexibility

I spent time at a conference last week where one of the prevailing themes was fragmentation. As much as we talk about convergence (of devices, services, applications), the truth is that end-user experiences are fragmenting. It used to be that many of us watched the same shows on the same types of TV sets, communicated primarily on landline phones, and had some kind of stereo system for listening to music at home. Now the communication and entertainment choices are endless, as are the ways we choose to access them.

From one perspective, this fragmentation means that technology has to be extremely adaptable. Service providers are trying to address a million and one different demands while also finding ways to stay cost efficient. So they’re turning to technology providers to make it possible. Here are just a few examples:

  • The rise of HD is one of the factors leading to adoption of the MPEG-4 AVC compression scheme. However, it will take a good long while before every consumer has a set-top that can accept MPEG-4. The result: new receivers/transcoders that can use both MPEG-4 and MPEG-2 compression.
  • Consumers want more content choice, but bandwidth is not limited. Enter switched digital video. With SDV, operators can switch on specific channels only when they are requested – delivering certain programs when they’re wanted, but saving the bandwidth when they’re not.
  • Demand for higher broadband data rates to support Internet media has led to the introduction of DOCSIS 3.0 channel-bonding technology. But consumer modems won’t transition overnight. So technology in cable modem termination systems has to support not only DOCSIS 3.0, but also legacy DOCSIS 1.X and 2.0 modems.

There are many, many other examples, but the point is that technology is increasingly called on to be more flexible. Convergence=Fragmentation=Flexibility.