Charter Cracks through Barriers To Efficient Use of Data Resources

Marwan Fawaz, CTO, Charter Communications

Marwan Fawaz, CTO, Charter Communications

March 24, 2010 – Charter Communications has overcome a major barrier to getting next-generation advertising and service convergence off the ground by creating an end-to-end data aggregation and management system that aims to meet advertisers’ demands for coherency across all programming categories.

Charter has done a lot of experimenting with advanced advertising, including a landmark VOD dynamic ad placement trial in St. Louis three years ago and telescoping on VOD, but the primary focus lately has been to get the data and interactive support infrastructure in place with EBIF (Enhanced Television Binary Interchange Format) middleware running on set-tops along with a more uniform approach to data management, says Marwan Fawaz, CTO at Charter. “Once we have a handle around managing data that’s dissected and presented to advertisers, I think [advanced advertising] becomes a lot more effective,” Fawaz says.

After discussions with vendors and much consideration of the architectural approaches to be taken Charter has tapped Concurrent to deliver an end-to-end interactive television and cross-platform data management system. FourthWall Media is supplying the EBIF user agent that will compile and feed data from the set-top side.

By pulling data from multiple sources and formatting it into a consistent base of usable information from all its cable systems Charter has an opportunity to derive real revenue benefits with its deployment of EBIF across its set-top base, Fawaz says. “Today we have a number of deals with companies out there where we present data and they have to do a lot of data processing on their end,” he notes. “I think we could monetize it better if we get a lot more sophisticated in the data management piece.”

The new data management platform is, indeed, a sophisticated advance over the norm in cable, says Paul Haddad vice president and general manager of media data and advertising solutions at Concurrent. “This is very well-organized thought-through business plan from Charter,” Haddad says.

In Haddad’s eyes it’s a major breakthrough for an industry that has long talked about leveraging its data resources to drive new revenues in advertising. “The data is there in different systems, and has been for a long while,” he notes. “The art of collecting and making sense of it is what’s lacking in the industry.”

Haddad likens the situation to an oil-rich country that hasn’t figured out to get the resource to refineries. “It’s about how you drill and when and at what density and how you put it in the warehouse so refineries can go in and benefit from it,” he says. “Everybody talks about interactivity and the need to adequately organize data management and support advertising related to that. But no one was able to figure out how to bring it altogether in a very organized way where everything is based on the same processes and infrastructure that can scale across the entire operator footprint.”

Charter figured out how to create the processes and bring the components together, he says, adding, “This is unique, and the industry can learn from it.”

Concurrent’s role is to interface with every source of data that’s pertinent to supporting ad management and measurements on linear, VOD and even DVR-stored content and to the proper functioning of interactive applications as well. “These are all different services with different data structures and processes which have to be addressed independently,” Haddad says. “Advertisers or contract providers of applications are looking for specific information for linear content, which is different from the information they’re looking for from VOD content.”

Concurrent provides what amounts to a collection service that delivers the data to Charter. “How they analyze it and what they do with it is their business,” he says. “We’re not privy to the data other than its structure, size and the timing of collection.”

The most complex challenge associated with this data collection process is building the collection points, he adds. “To get the data requirements completed every day you may have to pull information from 14 different sources,” he explains. “Often we have the interfaces to those sources already built, but if we’re missing something we’ll purchase a solution that gets us to that source.”

That’s what Concurrent did with respect to one particular, unspecified collection point which it was unable to connect into. “In this case FourthWall had figured out a way to build it better and faster than we could starting from scratch,” he says. “For this connection Concurrent is using FourthWall’s Event Stream Collection solution.

The data collection and warehouse system relies on the FourthWall user agent to mine all set-tops for EBIF-related data, including Cisco, Motorola and Moxi boxes deployed in the Charter system. It also draws on data collected through the operations maintenance system feed utilizing SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol), data collected through DOCSIS CMTS (cable modem termination system), VOD servers, policy servers, advertising infrastructure components and much else.

Implementing a centralized point of data collection for distribution to key business partners, including advertisers, is a huge step, but to draw maximum benefits from the system requires that the cable industry define exactly what information and what formats it wants to present to advertisers so as to streamline the advanced advertising process on a national scale. “There are a lot of discussions going on about coming up with open interfaces in consistent ways,” Fawaz says. “Advertisers want to see uniformity in terms of how information is presented back to them. That’s happening through Canoe Ventures. It’s slower than we want it to be, but we expect to see significant progress in the months ahead.”

Having all the data centralized and consistently formatted will also serve a longer term goal as Charter leverages DOCSIS 3.0 to drive ever more on-demand content into the IP domain. For now the company is using DOCSIS 3.0 to maintain its lead in broadband data services, Fawaz says, but, eventually, it will be a key migration path for video content.

Charter, like other MSOs, wants to be able to manage all services on a converged, seamlessly integrated basis at the operations level. “We want to converge to where our asset management solutions give us the ability to manage content whether its on demand or linear from all different sources, including streamed content that’s available online,” Fawaz says. Being able to work from a single data repository that has drawn information from whatever sources are essential to a holistic management process is a big step in that direction.