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Imagine Raises the Bandwidth Bar

LOS ANGELES -- The customer is always right.

That business axiom appeared to be in play Monday when Imagine Communications introduced a digital video processing platform designed to cram 50 percent more MPEG-2-based broadcast channels into a slice of 6 MHz cable spectrum. (See Imagine Unveils Platform.)

Imagine's ICE Broadcast System, introduced here at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Conference on Emerging Technologies, aims to pack three high-definition linear video networks or as many as 15 standard-definition networks into a single 6 MHz channel. Those improvements are boosted by a variable bit rate (VBR) video quality engine called the ICE-Q.

Imagine, founded in 2005, originally focused on bandwidth-conserving systems for video-on-demand (VOD) and switched digital video (SDV). "We've primary been associated with consumer-initiated streaming," says Marc Tayer, Imagine's senior vice president of marketing and business development.

But he says requests from customers caused Imagine to reprioritize to make a broadcast video solution its first available product.

It has undergone a range of tests with "major" cable operators in the last several months, the company says.

Imagine isn't saying who its customers are, but it's been long rumored that Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) is front and center.

The MSO's chief technology officer, Tony Werner, alluded to such work last fall during a conference in Denver. He said Comcast planned to deploy "across the board" an "improved" compression scheme for its massive base of MPEG-2 digital set-tops. Werner did not talk about vendor partners, but did explain that Comcast was looking to improve bandwidth efficiency by 50 percent without affecting video quality. (See Comcast Ready to Reclaim Bandwidth.)

Comcast might use the Imagine system to free up room for more linear high-definition television channels and help it keep up with competitors such as DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV), but the initial thrust of "Project Infinity," an initiative announced at last week's Consumer Electronics Show, centered on a much larger HD-VOD library. (See Comcast Launches 'Project Infinity'.)

In prioritizing broadcast video, Imagine had to enable its system to handle real-time processing, as opposed to the offline pre-processing that's possible with VOD. The same heavy lifting will be required for Imagine's support of SDV, Tayer says.

Today, SDV systems "clamp" the video at a constant bit rate (CBR), which can affect the quality of the video and isn't the most efficient use of the available bandwidth, Tayer says. A VBR system, by comparison, is better suited to handle the bit-rate peaks and valleys of a fast-moving hockey game, for example.

Imagine hopes to have a VBR stat mux for SDV available later this year. "That's the ultimate end-game for switched digital video… to get the most streams at the best quality," Tayer insists. Imagine's VOD implementation, meanwhile, has been pushed to the second half of 2008.

Although it appears that Imagine has some big MSOs lined up, it will also face competition from others. RGB Networks Inc. introduced a similar system last year. SDV deployment leader BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND) is expected to put the heat on it in more ways than one. In addition to being in the same general sector as Imagine, BigBand has filed a patent lawsuit against Imagine, which happens to be led by several former BigBand execs. (See RGB Takes Aim at Imagine and BigBand Throws the Book at Imagine.)

"We continue to want to resolve this out of the expensive legal system," Tayer says of the lawsuit.

But Imagine will also be competing against other bandwidth management techniques, including switched digital video, node splits, advanced compression, and outright bandwidth expansion.

Predictably, Imagine thinks it has the most cost-effective and least disruptive solution. According to Tayer, Imagine's platform costs "way under" $1 per subscriber per 6 MHz channel freed up. It could drop to 25 cents "with some reasonable volume," he predicts.

By comparison, he says SDV can be done at under $2 per sub per 6 MHz channel created.

Considering U.S. cable's reliance on MPEG 2 and the massive expenses tied to a complete set-top overhaul, it's expected that operators will use MPEG 4 in a targeted fashion, likely teaming new set-tops with expanded menus of HD content encoded in the more efficient compression scheme. (See MPEG-4 Here We Come! )

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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