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Comcast Back-Burners SDV (Again)

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)'s hot and cold relationship with switched digital video (SDV) has run frigid again.

"SDV is one of several technologies for managing bandwidth, and we've decided to put further SDV deployments on hold to focus on other solutions," an MSO spokeswoman confirmed to Light Reading Cable via e-mail.

Comcast declined to elaborate on those reasons or what's taking SDV's place on the bandwidth management pecking order, but the MSO confirmed the situation after an industry source said Comcast had recently "de-prioritized" SDV.

News of the decision comes roughly seven months after it appeared as though Comcast was starting to get gung ho on SDV, a bandwidth-conserving technology that multicasts a program stream only when a customer in a given service group requests it. SDV also has targeted advertising and IP video migration implications. (See SDV: Cable's Stepping Stone to IP Video? )

Last June, in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , Comcast said it intended to start deploying SDV in a "limited number of systems" in 2010, and proceed "more broadly in 2011-2012" to help clear out room for at least another 50 HD channels and push those totals beyond 150. Comcast made the statement soon after the FCC reversed an SDV-related ruling that froze new deployments of the technology. (See Comcast Getting Ready to Uncork SDV and FCC Reverses SDV Ruling.)

Since then, Comcast has been relatively mum on SDV, though there was word that it was doing some SDV work in the Philadelphia market, which followed some earlier technical trials in areas such as Cherry Hill, N.J., and Denver. [Ed. note: Philly, incidentally, was the first Comcast market to eclipse 150 HD channels.] (See Comcast Targets Philly With SDV.)

The deployment pause isn't great news for Comcast's historic SDV backplane and edge QAM partners, which include Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) and Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT). BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND) is a Comcast-approved SDV supplier, but the vendor has yet to disclose any deals with the operator.

None of the vendors contacted about the Comcast situation cared to comment. However, an analyst who follows this market doesn't see it as much of a material hit for them because no one was really banking on an influx, as the extent of Comcast's SDV deployment plans wasn't a known quantity.

For Harmonic and Arris, it "takes away a source of upside, but nothing we were explicitly counting on," Morgan Keegan & Company Inc. Analyst Simon Leopold said. "It removes a tailwind, but wouldn’t lead me to run out and change estimates."

However, the news will cause Heavy Reading Senior Analyst Alan Breznick to revise his SDV deployment estimates. With Comcast's earlier, more aggressive plans factored in, Breznick was expecting North American homes passed with SDV to hit the 80 million mark in 2011. He's now expecting something closer to 60 million. (See Cable SDV Makes Bid for a Tech Renaissance .)

Waiting for CMAP?
Comcast didn't discuss what other bandwidth management options it's pursing in lieu of SDV. It's already been clearing up space with an aggressive analog-reclamation plan involving inexpensive Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) devices. (See Comcast's $1B Bandwidth Plan .)

But there are other tactics it may be pursuing. The Comcast Media Center (CMC) , for example, has experimented with the idea of jamming four MPEG-2 HD channels into one 6MHz channel slot. MSOs are also looking at expanded HD tiers that rely on the more efficient MPEG-4 format as they continue to roll out boxes that support both MPEG-2 and MPEG-4. (See Comcast Unit Sizes Up 4:1 HD Compression .)

Leopold, meanwhile, speculates that Comcast may think it has plenty of relatively near-term bandwidth runway and can pull off a significant SDV push until gear based on its Converged Multiservice Access Platform (CMAP) initiative is ready for prime time. (See Comcast Proposes Its God Box , Comcast God Box Also a Green Box and More MSOs Back Comcast's Big Box Project .)

CMAP, a super-dense platform that combines edge QAM and cable modem termination system (CMTS) functions, will help to reduce headend space and power requirements as cable pushes toward more multicast and unicast services, including IP video. (See Cable Bridging CMAP's Migration Gap .)

Final form CMAP products are expected to emerge starting in 2012.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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