Video hardware

Bresnan Still Not Sold on 'Switching'

LOS ANGELES -- Switched digital video (SDV) isn't for everyone, at least not just yet.

While majors such as Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) continue to lead the way with SDV deployments, and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Charter Communications Inc. , and Cox Communications Inc. begin to get their switching strategies off the ground, Bresnan Communications LLC thinks it can offer up to 50 high-definition channels by the end of this year without using the bandwidth-conserving technique. (See Charter Charts First SDV Course , Cox Flips BigBand's DV Switch , Comcast Reveals SDV Test Beds, and SDV Deployment Snapshot II .)

While others may have to use SDV to free up room for more HD networks, Bresnan is relatively flush with capacity, according to Bresnan VP of strategic engineering Pragash Pillai, who presented here during the "QAM Before the Storm" event leading into the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Conference on Emerging Technologies.

Pillai tells Cable Digital News that Bresnan systems average 65 analog channels, versus 70 to 80 analogs that other operators tend to support. Recalling his previous stint at Charter, he says that MSO's Los Angeles-area system had a whopping 96 analog channels when it started to deploy a digital simulcast platform.

Bresnan, which serves about 300,000 customers in parts of Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah, "might look at switched digital in 2009," he said. Because it serves primarily rural areas, Bresnan tends to compete with satellite TV service providers, more so than the telcos.

"They [DBS competitors] are incumbents in our markets, so we have to do everything we can to get those customers back. HD is one way to do that," Pillai said.

And one way to add more HD is to use SDV, which streams out channels in a switched tier only when a customer in a given service group selects them for viewing.

Using SDV, operators can offer twice as many programming services in a given QAM channel, said panelist Greg Hardy, vice president of business development for the Scientific Atlanta division of Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO).

That ratio could be pushed to four-to-one as more programming enters an operator's switched tier and oversubscription rates rise, suggested Doug Jones, the chief cable architect for BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND), which has SDV deployments on more than 20 systems operated by five MSOs.

But Pillai questioned whether operators truly reclaim bandwidth using SDV. "You optimize [bandwidth] by adding more programming to the same QAM. But you won't really recover [any bandwidth]," he said. "SDV is another tool to manage bandwidth. For us, it's not a technology play."

Although Bresnan doesn’t anticipate a bandwidth crunch driven by HDTV this year, the MSO is still giving a long look to other bandwidth management options, including MPEG 4. The MSO is leading that effort by introducing a new line of boxes from Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) that support MPEG 2 as well as the advanced compression scheme. Later, Bresnan and other MSOs may start to target MPEG 4 services, such as a broader HDTV tier, tailored for these boxes. (See Moto Plants Seeds for MPEG-4 and MPEG-4 Here We Come! )

Pillai estimates that the new MPEG-4-capable boxes cost less then 5 percent more than earlier-generation set-tops. "It's a good way to seed new technology," he said, adding that Bresnan plans to introduce units into the market by the late second quarter or into the third quarter of 2008.

While Bresnan still has some bandwidth runway in front of it, Pillai acknowledges that the MSO could come up short in 2009 if HD demand increases without Bresnan assembling a solid management plan that uses tools such as advanced encoding and, eventually, SDV.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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