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Video hardware

Comcast Puts SDV Vendors to the Test

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) has picked a handful of suppliers -- including C-COR Corp. (Nasdaq: CCBL), Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT), Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), and Scientific Atlanta -- to participate in the MSO's early technical trials of switched digital video (SDV), Cable Digital News has learned.

During a quarterly earnings call last month with reporters and analysts, Comcast COO and Comcast Cable President Steve Burke identified Denver and N.J. as the sites for "early stage" tests of SDV, but they did not go into vendor selection. (See Comcast Reveals SDV Test Beds.)

SDV, which promises to increase the efficiency of cable operator bandwidth by switching some channels individually -- rather than broadcasting in bulk -- is a technique already being championed in the U.S. by MSOs such as Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC). (See MSOs Switch Digital Gears.)

According to sources familiar with the trials, Comcast is piloting SA's switched video technology in Cherry Hill, N.J.

In the Mile High City, meanwhile, Comcast is said to be gearing up for something more akin to a multi-vendor trial. Both trials will start with "friendlies" -- likely to be Comcast employees.

In Denver, it's said that the technical trials will be executed on two different portions of the cable network. One piece will use a session resource manager from C-COR, and the other will leverage one from Motorola, which solidified its position in the SDV sector last fall after picking up Vertasent LLC, a closely held startup based in Colmar, Pa. (See Motorola Buys Vertasent.) Both portions of the Denver trial will employ encoders and new edge QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) technology from Harmonic. A source familiar with the trial added that the Denver trial will use Motorola video servers obtained by Motorola last summer when it purchased of D-RAM specialist Broadbus Technologies. (See Motorola Scoops Up Broadbus.)

Comcast did not comment about the MSO's SDV vendor selection in Denver or N.J.

Still, the outcome of those trials could determine which suppliers will have the inside track at Comcast and could shape how the larger SDV sector shakes out longer-term. Today, BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND) and Scientific Atlanta/Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) appear to be at the forefront in both categories, though they will certainly be pressured by competitors such as C-COR, Motorola, and Tandberg Television , which introduced an "open" SDV platform last month in Las Vegas at The Cable Show.

BigBand is notably absent in the Comcast trial so far, but that doesn't necessarily mean it has missed an opportunity to participate, as Comcast says it's open to looking at other technology. (See Tandberg Intros SDV.)

In April, BigBand said its SDV technology had passed more than 5 million homes, and it extended that figure to 6 million at last month's cable conference. Although Cablevision is BigBand's only announced SDV deployment, Time Warner Cable is a firm second, and there is belief that Cox Communications Inc. has also selected BigBand as an SDV partner. (See Mulling a Milestone.)

Charter Communications Inc. is said to be in the process of selecting SDV vendor partners, and it could kick off switched broadcast trials by the fourth quarter of 2007.

But how much revenue is up for grabs as cable operators make vendor selections and begin to deploy SDV technology in earnest? Some view SDV as a significant, long-term broadband efficiency play, while others believe it will offer operators some incremental aid as they tee up other bandwidth enhancement or expansion strategies.

In late February, company Co-Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer John Alchin said Comcast had set aside $150 million for its 2007 SDV efforts.

Morgan Keegan & Company Inc. estimates SDV systems could cost operators $5 to $20 per home passed, with the consensus value at about $15 per home. "Over several years, the initiative could be worth over $1 billion from multiple MSOs," Morgan Keegan analyst Simon Leopold said in a research note issued just ahead of last month's cable confab.

Despite that some vendors are further ahead than others in both product development and deployments, he suggests it's too early to start assuming which suppliers will end up winning the SDV sweepstakes.

"In a nascent market, what does market share mean?" Leopold asks. "I'm not quite sure it's meaningful until Comcast gets into a full ramp."

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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