Video services

Leading Lights Finalists 2014: Best New Cable Product

As product development cycles keep shrinking, equipment and software suppliers are churning out new products for their customers faster than ever before. The cable industry is no exception to this rule, as cable vendors keep boosting the pace of their product releases to meet surging customer demand for something fresh, new, and better.

As a result, scores, if not hundreds, of new cable products have been introduced since spring 2013. This latest crop of releases has produced a list of nearly a dozen strong entries for best new cable product of the year. These entries cover virtually all parts of the cable technology spectrum, from HDMI streaming sticks and cloud DVR solutions to transparent caching and conditional access systems.

In choosing the following group of seven finalists for best new cable product, we looked for entries that have made strong early headway in the market, earned favorable reviews from cable operators or other third parties, and/or created industry buzz with an innovative approach. We also looked for products from young startups that are bucking the industry's pecking order, although many familiar names also made the list because they introduced particularly exciting offerings.

You can take a look at the entire roster of Leading Lights finalists here. Now here are the seven new cable products that qualified for this year's lineup (presented in alphabetical order).

Alticast Inc. -- HDMI Media Express
With high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) streaming sticks seemingly all the rage these days, Alticast Corp. is seeking to carve out a sizable niche for itself with a cable-friendly version of the small, handy USB adapters.

Alticast, a Korean consumer electronics maker not as well known as some of its bigger counterparts, made some noise at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in early January when it introduced the HDMI Media Express. While similar in size and shape to the Chromecast streaming stick popularized by Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and copied by others, the Alticast model stands out because it uses the Reference Design Kit (RDK) software stack originally developed by Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and now being promoted throughout the cable industry as an IP video standard. As a result, working in tandem with a home video gateway, the Alticast version can deliver cable services hand-in-hand with web-based apps.

In addition to its RDK compatibility, the HDMI Media Express uniquely leverages Android drivers, making it possible to combine cable-driven software with Android apps on one unified platform. Yet, like Chromecast and the other streaming sticks now on the market, the Alticast software-based solution can securely deliver video programming to any TV or other consumer electronics device in the home, as well as work with a cloud-based delivery system for live TV and video-on-demand.

Alticast, which now boasts Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), Bright House Networks , and Videotron Ltd. as its major North American MSO customers, is counting on the HDMI Media Express to make greater inroads in the cable market. Agnostic about the hardware that carries its solution, the company says it is now talking to "multiple manufacturers of the HDMI hardware to give customers maximum choice in selecting their hardware."

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Cisco Systems -- Videoscape Cloud DVR
Looking skyward for new video delivery solutions, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) has elevated its Videoscape TV services platform to the heavens with its new Videoscape Cloud DVR product.

Like Alticast, Cisco introduced its new cloud DVR product at CES in Las Vegas at the start of the year. Along with Virtualized Mobile Internet, it is one of two service modules that are part of Cisco's equally new Evolved Services Platform (ESP). The ESP acts like a virtualized control plane, enabling cable operators and other service providers to manipulate service delivery based on the applications being offered and the user's connection type.

As its name suggests, the Videoscape Cloud DVR offers cloud-based video recording and content storage capabilities. Subscribers can schedule and record programming in the cloud and then watch it on cable set-tops, connected TVs, tablets, or other consumer electronics devices in the home. At CES, Cisco demonstrated how providers could deploy video recording services in several different ways, including through a pay-as-you-go model.

Cisco has not announced any customer wins for the Cloud DVR solution yet. But it's widely believed that Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), which has already tapped into Cisco's Videoscape cloud solutions for NBC Universal 's multiscreen video coverage of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, may be deploying it already.

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Qwilt -- Qwilt Live Stream Cache
Qwilt Inc. is a Silicon Valley startup that is seeking to make a splash with cache.

Specifically, Qwilt has introduced what it claims to be the industry's first transparent caching system for live video streams over the Internet. Known as Live Stream Cache, the new product aims to ease the strains that big bursts of streaming video traffic can place on service provider networks by monitoring the streams, identifying the most popular content, and steering that content to the network's edge for storage and quicker, more efficient delivery to viewers.

Live Stream Cache, introduced at the end of January, represents a software upgrade to Qwilt's flagship QB-Series Video Fabric Controllers, which are special caches designed to capture and store streaming video traffic from the web. Previously, tech vendors served up transparent caching of on-demand content but shied away from live video streams because of the inherent problems of re-directing, storing, retrieving, and delivering fast-moving adaptive bit-rate (ABR) streams in real-time.

Qwilt is targeting Live Stream Cache at cable operators and other pay-TV providers. Although it has not announced any customers for the new product yet, it has signed up a number of providers for its overall transparent caching technology, including Mediacom Communications Corp. in the US.

RGB Networks -- CloudXtream nDVR
Similar to Cisco and numerous other video tech vendors, RGB Networks Inc. clearly sees 2014 as the Year of the Cloud, or at least the Year of the Cloud DVR.

In accordance with this view, RGB highlighted its new CloudXtream nDVR product at both the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention in Las Vegas and the Cable Show in Los Angeles in April. Although actually introduced last October, the network DVR software product is getting big play now because, along with RGB's new CloudXtream Ad Insertion for Multiscreen (AIM) product, it's part of a broader cloud-based solution that RGB is promoting to service providers.

RGB claims that its CloudXtream platform is the "only turnkey approach" that enables service providers to deploy "an end-to-end AIM or DVR solution" in a provider's own data center or a hosted private cloud. To speed service rollouts, the company offers an Openstack framework that enables deployments of "up to hundreds of application instances in a matter of minutes."

No deployments of the CloudXtream nDVR have been announced yet. But RGB says that it's now in discussions with "several large cable operators" and expects to begin customer trials of CloudXtream shortly. The company also expects that "production deployments" of CloudXtream could begin by the end of the year.

This Technology -- VEX
Besides being the Year of the Cloud DVR, 2014 finally appears to be the Year of Targeted Advertising, after many false starts over the past decade. And This Technology LLC believes it has just the right technologies for this breakout year.

This Technology, a Denver-based startup that focuses on dynamic ad insertion and alternate content delivery platforms, is particularly jazzed about its new VEX product. As the company explains it, VEX is a "manifest manipulation" solution designed to foster the dynamic insertion of targeted ads and other "alternate content" (such as blackout replacement programming) in video programming on a growing scale, "even in the most demanding IP deployments."

More specifically, the manifest manipulation software is a cloud-based approach for dynamically changing adaptive bit-rate (ABR) video streams for such key applications as advertising and sports blackouts. Due to these features, This Technology says VEX can spur the growth of the multiscreen video business by facilitating the hyper-addressable splicing of ABR streams delivered to tablets, connected TVs, smartphones, IP set-tops, and other IP-enabled devices.

This technology has not announced any cable deployments of VEX yet. But the company says the product, which it launched last October at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo show in Atlanta, is now shipping to customers.

VeEX Inc. -- VePAL CX380S-D3
Equipment vendors are not the only ones seeking to benefit from the cable industry's steady upgrades of its broadband, video, and related tech specs and equipment. Testing and measurement specialists like VeEX Inc. are looking to capitalize on the upgrades as well.

VeEX is a northern California firm that has come out with a new installation and maintenance tool with a wide range of features for next-gen cable networks supporting high-speed data, VoIP, and WiFi services. The flexible testing product, which sports the very geeky moniker of CX380S-D3, combines a 1GHz spectrum analyzer with 60dB dynamic range, a forward and return path Digital QAM analyzer, and an MPEG analyzer in a single hand-held instrument.

Introduced last October, the CX390S-D3 offers a wide array of advanced digital measurements, addressing nearly a dozen testing aspects of standard digital cable and HDTV signals. It also integrates a certified DOCSIS 3.0 modem, with the advanced spectrum analyzer, enabling it to identify ingress sources with greater dynamic range and perform comprehensive channel bonding.

VeEX, which competes against JDSU (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU) and Trilithic in the cable testing and measurement space, has not announced any MSO customers for the new testing instrument yet. But the company says the unit is now in production.

Verimatrix -- VCAS for Broadcast Hybrid
Verimatrix Inc. has made a name for itself in the content security market over the past few years, churning out software-based conditional access and digital rights management (DRM) systems for IPTV operators, OTT providers, broadcasters, and other video service providers. As a result, the San Diego-based company has signed up scores of broadcasters and pay-TV providers around the world for its content protection solutions.

In mid-March, Verimatrix extended its flagship Video Content Authority System (VCAS) solution to the cable market, introducing its VCAS for Broadcast Hybrid product. Draws on the strengths of VCAS for IPTV and VCAS for Internet TV, VCAS Hybrid for Broadcast aims to make it easier for operators to combine RF and multicast linear delivery with ABR streaming video services, while ensuring harmonized rights management for subscribers both inside and outside the home.

Among other things, VCAS Hybrid for Broadcast leverages enhanced HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) security for delivering catch-up, on-demand, and unicast linear services to hybrid IP video set-tops, connected TVs, and mobile devices. So it enables cable operators to deliver their budding TV Everywhere service services to multiple screens without having to worry about prying eyes gaining unauthorized access.

Verimatrix is far from alone in the lucrative pay-TV content security market, competing against the likes of Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Conax AS , Irdeto Access B.V. , and the Kudelski Group 's Nagra division. Yet it's already off to a promising start with its latest version of VCAS, with initial deployments by a number of cable and IPTV operators around the world, including MTC-Vodafone in New Zealand, com hem AB in Sweden, and Cablemás in Mexico.

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Let me know what you think of these most innovative video service finalists. Feel free to weigh in on the message boards below, suggest alternatives, and make your case for your personal favorites. We welcome your comments (especially if they're somewhat profound and not too profane).

The Leading Lights winners and latest Hall of Fame inductees will be revealed at the Leading Lights awards dinner, which will be held the evening of Tuesday, June 17 at the space-happy Adler Planetarium just off Lake Michigan. (For more details, see Bumper Year for the Leading Lights Awards.)

After the big night out, we'll stagger our way over the next morning for the second day of the Big Telecom Event , which takes place at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers on June 17-18. (Details and the agenda are on our show site, Big Telecom Event.)

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— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

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