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Virgin Taps Cisco for Video Upgrade

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner
9/11/2009
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Offering a glimpse of how similar MSO strategies might play out in the U.S., British cable operator Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED) is leaning heavily on Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) as it rolls out a more efficient and diversified video and TV content delivery network.

Under a deal announced Friday at the IBC show in Amsterdam, the U.K.-based MSO is set to upgrade its regional and central headends with a wide range of IP core and edge network gear from the equipment vendor. Financial terms weren't disclosed, but the deployment includes Cisco's 7609 routers, 4948 10-Gigabit Ethernet switches, digital content manager, RF gateways, and the vendor's multicast manager and "ROSA" control/monitoring system. (See Cisco Lands Virgin Upgrade Deal.)

The integrated system will eventually cover Virgin's entire network, which passes 12.6 million U.K. homes (about 50 percent of British households), but the MSO and vendor didn't specify when they expect to complete the rollout.

Although IP-based content distribution is central to the upgrade, the MSO hasn't revealed much about how it will use the updated system to offer additional managed IP video services (beyond using it to deliver video-on-demand), or if it will even consider using it to help customers pipe in "over-the-top" Web-based video directly to TV screens.

Today's announcement did note, however, that the new "simplified infrastructure" will help Virgin Media "support the rollout of new conditional-access security services," indicating that the MSO may be looking to offer a new range of IP-based services using digital rights management (DRM) systems.

But the plan revealed today "isn't quite announcing the 'launch of IPTV services'," a Virgin Media spokeswoman noted in an email response questions from Cable Digital News.

"The agreement with Cisco is to help enhance our existing TV platform, which broadcasts content over DVB-C [Digital Video Broadcasting – Cable], and then our VoD service runs on IP," she noted.

Indeed, Virgin Media and Cisco have been working together for some time on figuring out how the MSO can more efficiently transport video content -- especially British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) 's popular iPlayer service -- across its network. (See Virgin Media Weighs CDN Options.)

Whatever services Virgin ends up developing following the upgrade, it will certainly involve the use of Docsis 3.0, which the MSO is using today to offer a 50-Mbit/s downstream tier in all its systems. It's also conducting a 200-Mbit/s trial, which bonds together four 8 MHz channels, in Ashford, U.K. with Cisco . (See Virgin Takes Fight to Its DSL Rivals and Virgin Bonds With 200 Mbit/s Trial .)

And industry sources have indicated that Virgin is eager to deploy a new breed of hybrid cable gateways that can feed in both traditional QAM-based video as well as IP-based content using embedded Docsis 3.0 modems. Using Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) , or other high-speed home networking systems, those gateways can shuttle video and other digital media to multiple screens in each home.

The good news for Virgin is that there doesn't appear to be a shortage of suppliers for those kind of boxes. Cisco, for example, has its own line of hybrid set-top boxes. Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN), meanwhile, has launched a Docsis 3.0 hardware development kit (HDK) for video gateways that match up its Puma 5 chipset with MPEG tuners from MaxLinear Corp. . (See TI Debuts Docsis 3.0 Video Gateway Kit.)

TI posed the hybrid gateway concept last year with the introduction of the TNETC4840, a chipset that can bond eight downstream channels. However, a video gateway configuration would allow the device to "extract" up to four of those channels to deliver and convert the operator's traditional QAM-based video to IP. That would allow any authorized IP-capable device on the home network (a PC, a handset, or an IP set-top, for example) to receive and display those video feeds. (See TI Flexes Docsis 3.0 Muscle .)

Hitron Europe and Advanced Digital Broadcast (ADB) are also introducing new lines of hybrid cable gateways at this year's IBC show. (See Hitron Unveils Video Gateways .)

Virgin has yet to reveal publicly that it's taking the hybrid QAM/IP gateway route. However, some U.S. MSOs are expected to pursue it.

Engineering executives at MSOs such as Cox Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) indicated recently they're interested in using gateways that can encapsulate MPEG video streams into packets that can then be read by IP-capable devices. Some MSOs also want their suppliers to adapt their cable modem termination system (CMTSs) for IP-based service delivery.

BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND), meanwhile, is advocating a "bypass" approach called "vIP PASS" that would sidestep the core CMTS and pipe in IP video directly through universal edge QAMs. (See How Will Cable Deliver IPTV?, BigBand Lays Cable IPTV Groundwork, and Koreans Take Cable IPTV for a Spin .)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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