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MSOs Unite Against Telcos at the Headend

Jeff Baumgartner
12/29/2008

The cable industry is about to see if it can turn an important grand unification theory into a technological reality that will enable MSOs to seamlessly blend broadband video and data services.

To that end, CableLabs has published a suite of new specs that could hasten the deployment of switched digital video (SDV) and lay the groundwork required so that “universal” edge QAMs can truly share cable network resources among different digital services, including broadcast video, SDV, video-on-demand (VoD), and even high-speed data.

CableLabs issued the specs under the “Modular Headend Architecture” (MHA) banner last month. (See CableLabs Bows Specs.) One primary concept: to combine or “harmonize” the Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC)-led Interactive Services Architecture (ISA) and the Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)-led Next Generation On Demand (NGOD) platform. A large group of vendors and operators contributed to the development of the recently published specs:

Table 1: Modular Headend Architecture Contributors

Cable operators/cable organizations Vendors
Comcast Corp. ETRI
Time Warner Cable Arris
Cox Communications BigBand Networks
Rogers Communications Broadcom Corp.
Shaw Communications Camiant Inc.
CableLabs Europe Cisco Systems Inc.
Harmonic Inc.
LiquidxStream Systems Inc
Motorola
RGB Networks
Vecima Networks
Source: CableLabs




Although both systems have become de facto standards, there’s enough difference between them that it has forced edge QAM vendors to develop, test, and maintain two different software loads for their respective products. Among the variances, ISA and NGOD use different interfaces and different messaging protocols for apps such as SDV.

And that requirement has sunk added costs into edge QAMs, a product that MSOs will be deploying by the boatload as they reclaim more analog spectrum and launch more video services. [Ed note: Edge QAMs, which reside at the headend or hub, repackage packets of video or data and into an MPEG transport stream, and place that stream onto a downstream RF carrier.]

The lack of a unified approach has also prevented those products from becoming truly “universal” in the sense that operators can plug in and mix and match edge QAMs from any supplier.

The new specs borrow heavily from NGOD and include extensions for ISA, the older approach of the two.

The new updates give vendors “a consolidated interface,” essentially unifying ISA and NGOD into one protocol, notes Chris Brown, the senior product manager of digital video systems for Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)’s Home & Networks Mobility Division. That consolidation “makes it more efficient for everybody,” Brown adds.

“Making it just one platform will make it a lot easier for all of us. Those that have innovated the most will benefit from [the new specs],” agrees Tony Pierson, VP of business development for LiquidxStream Systems Inc. , an edge QAM startup based in Montreal. (See LiquidxStream Enters E-QAM Race .)

“Opening up this spec means the vendors have a level playing field,” says Scott Davis, director of technology strategy at Vecima Networks Inc. (Toronto: VCM), maker of the universal device called the HyperQAM. “It gives [vendors] an opportunity to develop more stable and reliable products in the field.”

Vendors are also looking forward to taking advantage of the cost benefits afforded by the new specs.

“It’s not free to support a second interface,” says Doug Jones, the chief cable architect for BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND). The physical hardware may be the same, but the software loads for the ISA and NGOD interfaces are different, so vendors that want to play in both sandboxes have to implement multiple tests and apply resources to both versions.

Shaving down those requirements should help vendors to wring some costs out of edge QAMs, which, in terms of units, could be deployed in the tens of millions over the next few years. Not only do operators want to pick from multiple edge QAM suppliers, but, given the volumes that will be required, they also want the devices to be dirt cheap.

But that isn’t to say that vendors will be starving. “It’s a fertile market. There’s a lot of money to be made on edge QAMs,” Jones says.

Speeding up SDV
At this point, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) have SDV fairly widely deployed. Others, including Comcast, Cox Communications Inc. , and Charter Communications Inc. , are still testing and installing it at a much smaller scale. Although some recent SDV-related fines by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may discourage some MSOs from going deployment crazy, the new CableLabs specs should grease the skids a bit. (See FCC Levies More SDV-Related Fines .)

The lack of a unified spec “was supposed to be a stumbling block to the widespread installation of SDV,” says Heavy Reading senior analyst Alan Breznick. “We’ll see if this clears a path or not.”

Next steps
Vendors are now tasked with applying the paper specs to their own products. For a vendor like Motorola, that means applying them to its universal edge QAM, the Apex 1000, and to the edge resource manager it obtained via its 2006 purchase of Vertasent LLC. (See Motorola Buys Vertasent.)

“There’s a lot of implementation left to be done,” says Pierson of LiquidXstream. He adds that getting edge QAMs up to speed for the SDV component of the new specs is "the hard part.” Implementing the devices for some of the other, more mature service components -- VoD and the M-CMTS, for instance -- is expected to be much more straightforward.

Getting all the pieces of the new specs implemented by mid-2009 is a “good timeframe,” suggests Davis of Vecima. Others add that MSO deployments based on the MHA platform could start to kick into gear by 2010.

CableLabs, meanwhile, is expected to hold the first MHA interop in the second half of the year, though no date has been set yet. Although CableLabs is working on a qualification program for the modular CMTS, it hasn’t decided whether to do the same for the other elements related to the new headend architecture.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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