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Video hardware

Charter Charts First SDV Course

Charter Communications Inc. has become the latest cable MSO to join the switched digital video (SDV) fan club, with plans to use the bandwidth-saving technology to beef up its high-definition (HD) television offerings in the Los Angeles area. (See Charter Deploys BigBand.)

Charter, which has selected its SDV platform from BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND), said it will roll out the technology to serve cities such as Malibu, Burbank, and Glendale. The MSO, which serves about 5.7 million customers in total, has roughly 420,600 subscribers in the southern California area.

Charter's official release did not specify a deployment timeframe, but a spokeswoman says the MSO is on track to pilot the SDV system during the current quarter, with a wider deployment expected in early 2008.

Charter will use the system to free up capacity for HD services, as well as more niche "special interest" programming.

Freeing up capacity
That capacity is freed up because, unlike current HFC cable systems that send all video channels to each cable home, SDV delivers video streams in a "switched" tier only when customers in a given service group select them for viewing.

If an operator "virtually" carries 50 services in that switched tier, for example, it's likely that only 10 to 12 of them are being viewed at one time and need to absorb true, physical plant capacity, notes Biren Sood, vice president and manager of BigBand's cable video business.

That frees up bandwidth for other services, such as video-on-demand streams. In the future, capacity freed up by SDV deployments could be utilized by Docsis 3.0, an advanced CableLabs specification that bonds together network channels to produce shared access speeds north of 100 Mbit/s. (See CableLabs Preps for Docsis 3.0 Tests .)

Citing SDV deployment data, BigBand says cable operators are experiencing bandwidth savings of up to 75 percent.

But SDV is not the only bandwidth strategy at cable's fingertips. Some are also gaining capacity with node splits and analog reclamation. Others are looking to tap into advanced compression as well as outright bandwidth expansion. (See Cox Makes 1 GHz Moves .)

Challenging DirecTV
Charter's decision to bolster its HD services by using SDV comes as one of the cable sector's toughest competitors, satellite broadcaster DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV), prepares to fuel its holiday run by offering up to 100 HD channels by year-end.

The MSO's spokeswoman says Charter presently averages about 20 HD TV linear channels per system, an average that would increase in markets covered by SDV deployments.

In the meantime Charter is fighting the marketing battle with DirecTV by saying it expects to offer more than 100 HD "options" in most of its markets by the end of 2007. Those "options" include HD video-on-demand titles in addition to the live HD TV channels.

Charter's SDV deployment
Rather than piecing together an SDV system from multiple vendors, Charter has selected a soup-to-nuts platform from BigBand.

Those elements include BigBand's SDV video management server, an SDV analysis application, and the BEQ 6000 "universal" edge QAM, a device launched into a hotly contested cable equipment category in September. (See BigBand Edge QAM Goes 'Universal' and Universal Edge QAM Market Heats Up.)

While the analysis component can be used as an all-purpose tool to gauge network performance, operators can also use it to generate streaming and viewership reports that help determine which channels are most conducive to a switched tier, according to Sood.

BigBand's latest coup
With the addition of Charter, BigBand claims that the five largest cable MSOs in the U.S. have selected its SDV technology.

Among them, Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) have deployed SDV the most broadly. Cox Communications Inc. recently selected BigBand for SDV deployments in Northern Virginia and Phoenix, Ariz. (See Cox Flips BigBand's DV Switch .)

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), which is in the early throes of SDV field tests in Cherry Hill, N.J. and the Denver area, has selected BigBand's SDV management platform, but has yet to say when it will use it in trials or deployments. It has already awarded edge QAM business to Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) and Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT). (See Comcast Puts SDV Vendors to the Test and Comcast Taps Arris for Edge QAM Initiative .)

After announcing plans to exit the cable modem termination (CMTS) business in late October, BigBand announced two new MSO wins, including one outside the U.S.

While Charter is now confirmed as one of those two, it has yet to reveal its new international customer. According to industry sources, Videotron Ltd., a Québec-based operator with 1.6 million cable subscribers, has already selected BigBand for an upcoming SDV deployment.

Overall, BigBand claims to have SDV deployed, or in the process of being deployed, with five operators in 20 cable systems that pass more than 11 million homes.

SA gets in on the act
Proving that timing is everything, Scientific Atlanta , another key supplier in the MSO video delivery system market, stole some of BigBand's thunder Monday by announcing that "commitments" for its SDV platform in the U.S. have exceeded 7 million homes passed. Among the top MSOs, Time Warner Cable has been divvying up its deployment commitments to both SA and BigBand. Comcast is also testing SA's SDV implementation for the N.J. trial. (See SA Touts SDV Milestone.)

The Charter deal offered little help to BigBand's stock, which took a beating in late September after the vendor slashed revenue guidance for the third quarter. (See BigBand Looks to Resolve BigProblems.)

BigBand shares were down 4 cents (0.67%) to $5.95 each in early trading Monday.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News


Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to The Future of Cable Business Services, a conference that will explore the swiftly expanding U.S. business services market. To be staged in New York City, December 6, admission is free for attendees meeting our prequalification criteria. For more information, or to register, click here.


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