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MPEG-4 Momentum

Amidst the stats in today’s Motorola earnings announcement is a note about continued uptake of MPEG-4. In the past quarter Motorola added several new MPEG-4 customers including DirecTV, HBO Latin America and Starz.

Other signs pointing to growth in MPEG-4 AVC:

  • DirecTV plans to introduce roughly 30 new HD channels in the next two weeks, all transmitted in MPEG-4
  • DISH Network is now dangling 1080p out on its hook for subscribers with MPEG-4 set-tops
  • Digital Tech Consulting predicts that shipments of “traditional” MPEG-4 AVC digital devices such as set-tops, digital TV receivers and gaming consoles will roughly double in the next two years (Though MPEG-4 will still be massively overshadowed by its MPEG-2 counterpart)

Remember that late last year Motorola’s Geoff Roman predicted that standalone MPEG-2 set-tops will completely disappear by the end of 2009.

State of VOD Report

Interesting VOD stats out from Rentrak this week. Among the operators Rentrak surveyed, VOD orders were up 43% in 2007 over 2006, with an increase of 29% in the number of unique set-tops accessing on-demand content. (The numbers don’t include “adult” content.) Most of the orders were for free programming, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing operators or network executives down in promoting their VOD services. In an article by Craig Kuhl over at Multichannel News, it’s clear from a few of the quotes that the goal is to hook viewers on programming available on-demand and then transition them to linear broadcasts for new episodes of their favorite shows. At least that’s the goal until targeted advertising is widely deployed.

Making an educated guess, I bet the VOD growth rate will increase even further in 2008 than it did in 2007. Here’s why:

  • Many operators are converting to all-digital, meaning a large and growing percentage of set-tops in 2008 are capable of supporting VOD services.
  • There is more VOD content available. Back in January, Comcast promised there would be 6,000 on-demand movies made available in 2008 as part of Project Infinity.
  • There is more really good VOD content available. Not only are the Olympics coming to on-demand, but operators are showing more and more early-series episodes of great shows in advance of fall premieres. (That’s how my brother got hooked on Mad Men.)

As VOD continues to grow, one of the key things operators have to pay attention to is how to scale both streaming capacity and storage capacity effectively. On-demand television is a completely different technology model from live broadcast, and it demands a lot more from the network delivery systems.

Speed Wars

In a post yesterday, Stacey Higginbotham over at GigaOM equated broadband to electricity and public education. Everyone should have access. That’s true, and we certainly have a lot of work to do in some rural areas, but there is good news. Access speeds are increasing in the US, and by a significant margin.

I remember sitting on a briefing last year when a Motorola exec predicted cable operators would soon be marketing 20-25 Mbps speed tiers in certain markets. Then last October Time Warner Cable made a splash by introducing 20-Mbps service in NYC. TWC wasn’t the first to offer such a tier, but 20 Mbps was still a big deal at the time, and the announcement got a lot of attention. Take a look at what the big ISPs were marketing in late 2007. This is from a quick review I did of marketing claims last October:

  • AT&T U-verse – will offer an “elite” speed tier at 10Mbps in 2008
  • Charter – will bump its highest speed tier to 16Mbps as early as November
  • Verizon – currently testing a 20Mbps speed tier in New York City
  • Time Warner – currently offering a 20Mbps tier in New York City
  • Comcast – currently offering a 16Mbps tier in competitive markets

Fast forward to today. Cable operators are actively testing DOCSIS 3.0 gear, and 20 Mbps is not uncommon in competitive markets. Comcast has a 50-Mbps tier in Minnesota, and operators are starting to throw around numbers like 150 Mbps, which is what DOCSIS 3.0 could ultimately help deliver. (Witness JCom DOCSIS 3.0 service in Japan)

A lot of the talk is just that, talk. But the combination of competition from Verizon (which offers 50 Mbps everywhere now) and the growing demand for video on the Web is driving the big ISPs to show they can deliver big broadband. Even if the really high speed tiers are still only in limited geographic areas, it’s a start. Last year we were buzzing about 20 Mbps. This year we’re buzzing about 50 Mbps. It’s progress.

Motorola Re-org

The Wall Street Journal got wind of a reorganization of the Motorola Home and Networks Mobility business. Naturally what has followed is a lot of speculation that the company is looking to sell off pieces of that group in a possible reverse spin-off of the Mobile Devices division.

Even if I knew something about Motorola’s overall corporate strategy, which I don’t, I obviously couldn’t write anything about it here. But whatever the ultimate goal is, I can say that certain aspects of the re-org make a lot of sense no matter what happens next. The combination of Motorola Digital Video Solutions (DVS), IP Video Solutions (IPVS) and the Broadband Solutions Group (BSG) into one business – Broadband Home Solutions – is a logical step. Data and entertainment delivery is converging, thus the business groups within Motorola should be under one leader with vision and insight across the entire industry segment.

Heading up the new group is rising star John Burke, who has led DVS until now. In the five plus years I’ve known Burke, he has steadily earned more responsibility in the company. And in those five years, he has contributed to Motorola’s success even as the set-top industry as a whole has undergone radical change. He’s seen the mass adoption of DVRs, the transition to digital cable, the massive growth of VOD services and the introduction of the CableCARD. He is certainly the smart choice to take on the new leadership role he’s now been given. (Read my interview with John Burke from last December)

One further note: I have to admit to a twinge of satisfaction at seeing the new video/data group renamed Broadband Home Solutions. There was a brief period of time when broadband as a term was considered too inaccessible (read: technical) for broad business use. When it comes down to it, however, that’s the business that Motorola is in here. It all comes back to broadband delivery.

Light Reading Live

Light Reading hosted a one-day event yesterday on Cable Next-Gen Video Strategies. While I wasn’t able to make it out to LA for the conference, I’m hoping to hear back soon from a friend who was on the ground. In the meantime, Jeff Baumgartner writes that Mark Cuban’s interview with analyst Alan Breznick was as interesting as a Cuban interview always is. Cuban believes tru2way is a good start for the cable industry, but that it needs to be more open to achieve its full potential.

From everything I’ve heard about the tru2way/OCAP development process, there are realistic limits to how open it can be. Forget the standard itself. The issue is that cable operators have to prioritize the apps they’re going to deploy, at least initially. The good news is that program guides (EPGs) are at the top of that priority list. I predict we’ll see some significant EPG improvements over the next 18 months – a result of both growing tru2way deployments and competition from the telcos.

And speaking of which, take a look at Dave Zatz’s coverage of the latest beta software Verizon is trialing for FiOS TV. It’s bringing Web video to the Motorola set-top.

Stream High-Def Content Wirelessly at Home – New Consortium Says It Will Happen in 2009

There’s big and unexpected news out today. AMIMON, along with Motorola, Hitachi, Sharp, Samsung and Sony have formed a consortium to develop a new standard for streaming multimedia content wirelessly across multiple rooms. The new standard will be based on AMIMON’s Wireless Home Digital Interface (WHDI) technology, and is expected to be embedded in products at retail in 2009. This is far sooner than many folks (myself included) expected to have an effective wireless HD solution.

I sat down with Motorola’s Paul Moroney last week to discuss the new consortium, also being called a special interest group, and learned quite a bit of interest. Because Motorola’s been an AMIMON investor since early in 2007, Motorola engineers have been studying the WHDI technology from the inside. In the beginning Moroney says he and others were convinced that what AMIMON claimed it could do was too good to be true. In very basic terms, WHDI prioritizes video components according to their importance. There are the most significant bits (MSBs) and the least significant bits (LSBs) in a video pixel. The MSBs get more error protection when they are encoded than the LSBs, and they are also transmitted on frequency bands with less noise.

AMIMON’s method, called Joint Source-Channel Coding (JSCC), allows WHDI to do something no other technology on the market today does: wirelessly deliver uncompressed HD video. And according to Moroney, it works incredibly well.

Here are a few key specs on AMIMON’s WHDI solution:

  • Designed for uncompressed HDTV video up to 1080p
  • Operates on the unlicensed 5Ghz frequency band
  • Uses four transmit antennas and 20-40MHz bandwidth

The WHDI standard is expected to be completed this year.

Stat Check – More Content than Ever

A couple of stats caught my eye this week illustrating that consumers have more content choices than ever. First comScore reported that 12 billion videos were served up online during the month of May. Sure many of those were probably YouTube videos of cute cat tricks, but 12 billion is still an awful lot.

Second, and on a much smaller but still noteworthy scale, a writer on the U-verse Users forum reported that the U-verse VOD library now exceeds 1,000 titles. I wonder how many of those are related to the Olympics.

Content is growing. Have we found better ways to manage it yet?