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Test & Measurement

Mixed Signals Checks SDV's Heartbeat

Mixed Signals Inc. is taking its act to the network's edge in order to handle the monitoring requirements of two advanced digital cable services that require consistent TLC: switched digital video (SDV) and video-on-demand (VOD).

The Los Angeles-based vendor is addressing that growing operator requirement with Sentry Edge, a new box designed to reside in cable operator hubs, complementing Mixed Signal's more centralized Sentry flagship platform. (See Mixed Signals Monitors SDV.)

Although SDV has proven to help operators conserve bandwidth in the near-term and could open the door to more addressable advertising applications down the road, operators are discovering that the base switched fabric requires constant attention at system hub sites, says Eric Conley, CEO of Mixed Signals.

That added monitoring can reduce trouble calls and truck rolls, Conley says, noting that operators today are relying on limited diagnostic information from SDV vendors and waiting for customers to tell them if something is amiss.

Sentry Edge monitors video after it exits the edge QAM, checking for video freezes, signal loss, audio problems, and other anomalies that can occur in VOD and SDV streams.

It also makes sure channels in the "switched" tier are being turned on and off based on requests in a given service group, and it feeds that information back to the operator's centralized SDV management system. Instead of monitoring everything all the time, which is too costly, Sentry Edge uses a prioritized, spot-check approach.

Sentry Edge

That may sound like an integration headache in the making, but it shouldn't be, Conley feels, because MSOs have forced SDV vendors to standardize the communications protocols to the QAMs. As one can see from our newly posted Who Makes What: Switched Digital Video report, that should be welcome news for operators, considering the lengthy list of vendors making edge QAMs these days and the variety of gear and software that can populate SDV networks.

"The challenge is not integration. It's purely scale," Conley says.

While the number of cable hub sites has remained relatively unchanged, the number of edge QAMs required in those hubs has increased dramatically as operators introduce SDV. In some cases, one hub can support as many as 20 SDV service groups. Some operators are working toward a goal of managing 30 to 40 service groups per hub, Conley says.

The need for hub-based monitoring has emerged as those sites have grown in complexity, Conley asserts. Historically, operators have not been able to justify the cost of monitoring in hub sites, but the addition of SDV and the dynamic switching it requires in those sites have caused some MSOs to change their tune.

"Now you've got critical equipment in the hubs for the first time with SDV," Conley says.

Mixed Signals is not disclosing cost models yet, so it's difficult to know how close the company is to hitting the mark that operators are seeking.

Its new product has not moved beyond some beta trials. Two likely deployment candidates are Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) -- MSOs that have deployed SDV relatively broadly and are on Mixed Signals' customer roster. Other MSOs that already use the vendor's monitoring gear include Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Cox Communications Inc. , Bright House Networks , and Canada-based Rogers Communications Inc. (NYSE: RG; Toronto: RCI).

Mixed Signals will not be alone on the vendor side of this market. Symmetricom Inc. (Nasdaq: SYMM) has also jumped into VOD and SDV monitoring. (See Symmetricom Expands Cable Play.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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