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Getting the Signals Straight

Cable operators are getting pretty worried about the reliability of their video signals. And for good reason: Cable subscribers are increasingly griping about the quality of their viewing experience as they run into technical, computer-like glitches they've never encountered before on their TV sets, such as channels that take too long to load, tiling pictures, or frozen frames. At the same time, key competitors such as DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) are making hay with consumers by playing up the supposed superiority of their digital and HDTV pictures.

Speaking at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Philadelphia two weeks ago, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) COO Steve Burke acknowledged the problem and conceded that the industry has not dealt effectively with it yet. "For us, the next frontier is video reliability," Burke said. "We need to be better proactively at managing our networks... If we don't have that reliability, it's going to stop us from bringing a lot of exciting things to market."

As we'll explore in Cable Next-Gen Video Strategies, a Light Reading Live event being held July 24 in Los Angeles, those "exciting things" include more linear HD channels, HD video on demand (VOD), network digital video recorders (DVRs), interactive TV applications, mobile video, and Internet video, as well as commercials targeted at individual neighborhoods, homes, and even viewers.

Faced with daunting software integration issues as they install complex switched digital video (SDV) and tru2way technologies in their digital headends and set-tops, cable operators are turning to new video testing and monitoring tools. But they're still lagging behind: In a recent survey of executives at nine MSOs sponsored by Symmetricom Inc. (Nasdaq: SYMM) – which, naturally, offers a new video-quality monitoring system – only 31 percent said they rely on network monitoring tools to root out video errors.

Cable providers are also trying out various methods of compressing video signals more effectively. For instance, they're finally starting to switch from MPEG-2 encoding to the far more efficient MPEG-4 format, which permits them to squeeze the same amount of video into half the bandwidth.

But these steps, while needed, still may not be adequate. MSOs must also clear enough raw bandwidth so they can add new HD, VOD, and other video services without further jamming up their networks. That's why it's so important for them to eliminate, or at least strip down, their analog tiers. Cable operators must also find ways to guarantee the proper bandwidth for core video use. If this means bandwidth caps and policy controls for other types of services, then so be it.

Ultimately, though, MSOs may just have to stop compressing their signals so much through aggressive transcoding or rate-shaping techniques. In the end, it might pay to give up a few extra HD channels to make the rest of the lineup look better.

— Alan Breznick, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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