Video services

Cablevision Girds for Remote DVRs

Industry executives are buzzing about the scaling problems Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) could face with its pending Remote-Storage DVR (RS-DVR) launch this summer. But the MSO might have an answer already.

Multiple industry sources say SeaChange International Inc. (Nasdaq: SEAC), Cablevision's primary vendor for regular VoD services, has a prominent role with the new RS-DVR.

"SeaChange is betting the farm on this and the upgrades to the system to manage it," says a person familiar with Cablevision's RS-DVR vendor lineup.

SeaChange wouldn't confirm an RS-DVR connection, but it did acknowledge having new technology that happens to be applicable.

The RS-DVR topic is piping hot again now that that Cablevision appears to be clearing certain legal entanglements. After Cablevision told an industry analyst that it expects to fire up the RS-DVR this summer, the Department of Justice suggested last week that the U.S. Supreme Court should not bother with a hearing. (See DoJ: Butt Out of Cablevision RS-DVR Case and Satellite No Match for RS-DVR?)

Assuming that hurdle is passed (the high court could reject the DoJ opinion and opt for a hearing), Cablevision is still faced with some technical challenges as it gets ready to launch the service.

Among those is one factor going under the unfortunate name of "ingest" -- the ability of the RS-DVR to record thousands of programs at once. For Cablevision's RS-DVR, "the Achilles' heel is going to be the [underlying] VoD system and the amount of ingest and the amount of play-out," says one cable executive.

That's because Cablevision's service will create a new copy of a program for every recording request a digital subscriber makes, a scheme that's necessary in order to stand up to the fair-use tenet. (See Court Resurrects Cablevision's Network DVR .) So, if a program is popular -- a New York Yankees game, for example -- the RS-DVR may have to make thousands of copies. (For the Florida Marlins, dozens of copies.)

Today's VoD systems, by contrast, are designed to cache a handful of copies and generate thousands of streams from them.

"VoD systems are being designed to ingest more and more content, but not 2,000 recordings concurrently. It's that piece that hasn't been tested at this type of scale," says the cable exec.

Concurrent Computer Corp. (Nasdaq: CCUR) has a two-rack-unit platform can ingest 120 channels worth of programming at once, and a future version will double or triple that figure. Arroyo Video Solutions -- which, according to earlier court documents, was being used in Cablevision's RS-DVR project -- builds video pumps that can ingest 160 channels, at least according to old specs. Cable Digital News asked Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), which bought Arroyo in 2006, for updated stats on those servers, but the company has not returned calls. (See Cisco Snatches VOD Vendor Arroyo and Inside Cablevision's 'RS-DVR' .)

Update: Cisco did get back to us on this one, relaying that the company has indeed made several updates to the video platform originally acquired from Arroyo. A "next-gen" product, set for launch later this year, will be capable of ingesting more than 2,000 channels simultaneously, according to Cisco. (See Cisco Gears Up for RS-DVRs.)

SeaChange surfaces
SeaChange has developed a session resource manager that lets an RS-DVR tap the same pool of network capacity that VoD systems use, without requiring the MSO to partition the network. SeaChange has also created an RS-DVR server, which comprises the bulk of the costs associated with such a service.

Bang Chang, the company's vice president of products, claims SeaChange's approach is 80 percent cheaper than it would be to deploy set-top boxes with DVR hard drives, although he won't cite specific numbers. "The storage has to be scalable… and has to be big and cheap to support each person getting 100 SD [standard definition] hours" on the RS-DVR system, Bang Chang says.

As for the scaling question, SeaChange has developed a proprietary way to let video ingest grow with video storage.

"Storage vendors have never seen a workload like this. There's a tradeoff between the processing power and the number of disks you put in a system," says Bang Chang. SeaChange apparently has figured out how to manage that tradeoff in a way that EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) and other vendors of massive storage systems can't do.

Capacity questions
Ingest questions aside, what about available spectrum for this larger load of unicast traffic? Nothing would frustrate a customer more than seeing an error message pop up on the TV screen because the MSO did not provision enough capacity and streams to handle the demand.

People familiar with Cablevision's network say it's prepared in this area. As part of its plan to go all-digital, Cablevision has trimmed its analog lineup to about 30 channels, giving it about 50 additional channel slots for unicast services like VoD and the RS-DVR. (See Cablevision Eyes All-Digital Future .)

And a source familiar with the plan says Cablevision is keen on edge resource management (ERM) technology that will let it share QAM capacity among its various digital video services: VoD, addressable advertising, broadcast digital video, or the RS-DVR.

Just how much more spectrum is required? Many MSOs build for 5 percent to 15 percent peak usage on systems that offer traditional video-on-demand and subscription-VoD (SVoD), estimates Jim Brickmeier, vice president of the video division of Concurrent. MSOs that offer a feature like "Start Over," which lets viewers restart a program that's in progress, tend to double those numbers.

Brickmeier believes an RS-DVR could require the MSO to build for peak usage of 40 percent or even 60 percent.

License to stream
On the business side, programmers have fought vehemently against the RS-DVR. But Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Inc. analyst Craig Moffett says that in recent conversations Cablevision executives cryptically said they may be on the verge of an agreement that placates programmers.

There's speculation that Cablevision could disable the fast-forward feature, let the RS-DVR insert more targeted ads, or at least add the ability to replace stale commercials with fresher spots. But consumers like to skip ads, and Cablevision has pledged to make the RS-DVR feel like a regular DVR or VCR machine.

So, Brickmeier thinks Cablevision could try a hybrid approach like the one Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) pioneered for Start Over. TWC goes out of its way to obtain approvals from studios and networks before shows can be enabled for the service.

If Cablevision could do the same, negotiating licenses for popular programs like American Idol, it could avoid having to record and maintain up to 500,000 copies of those programs, easing the ingest problem. (Unlicensed programs would still require one copy per viewing request.) "The hybrid model seems to make a lot of sense to us," Brickmeier says.

Although Cablevision says it will launch the RS-DVR this summer, it has not said whether it will start small, targeting a few neighborhoods to see how the system affects a network.

In a sense, a summer launch is a small start to begin with, because ratings from the major broadcast networks will be lower at first. In fact, maybe starting small is how Cablevision plans to handle the ingest question. "I suspect they're probably limiting the scale of the launch versus having solved the challenge associated with the scaling," Concurrent's Brickmeier says.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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marcusthompson 12/5/2012 | 4:03:37 PM
re: Cablevision Girds for Remote DVRs

I'm glad advances in storage technology offer potential benefits for consumers - I'm only troubled that these advances are in the hands of Cablevision. Cablevisionhas horrible customer service and lately has been taking advantage of the digital transition to reduce channels or alternatively increase prices. I hope Cablevision employs remote DVR technology fairly - a novel concept for this company.

cablemaster222 12/5/2012 | 4:03:34 PM
re: Cablevision Girds for Remote DVRs

I could not agree with Marcus more.  I don't think there is any chance that this new service from Cablevision is going to live up to the hype.  Cablevision has been having horrible customer service problems just delivering regular digital cable.  They have been over-charging people and forcing / tricking people to rent equipment from them that they didn’t want or need.

DVR technology is great but I wouldn’t count on Cablevision’s dumbed-down version of DVR.  They are going to charge more for it and you are going to get less for your money.

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