Managed ETV Service Could Speed Programmers Rollouts of ITV Apps

Gary Traver, SVP & COO, Comcast Media Center

Gary Traver, SVP & COO, Comcast Media Center

May 7, 2010 – New developments underway at the Comcast Media Center point to the possibility that the cable industry may be able to accelerate rollouts of interactive advertising and applications through a more collective approach to working with programmers.

Some of these efforts have to do with various tests, including compliance testing with applications developers and a series of test runs with programmers. On a more formal commercial level CMC has for the past year positioned itself as a centralized ASP (applications service provider) resource to support development, delivery and management of advanced interactive applications delivered directly to cable headends through its HITS Advanced Interactive Services (AxIS).

Now, in a programmer-facing expansion of these efforts, the HITS business unit has launched a managed approach to delivering enhanced television (ETV) to multiple MSOs that cuts back on process duplications and smoothes out some of the lesser known operational idiosyncrasies in this complex new arena. The HITS AxIS ETV program also allows programming networks to deliver ETV applications terrestrially without integrating them into their linear satellite-delivered programming, thereby avoiding incremental transponder costs and potential falloffs in video quality, says CMC senior vice president and COO Gary Traver.

“Our content distribution and interactive video management capabilities allow us to provide programming networks with cost-effective options for delivering their ETV applications across a network’s entire footprint, or for delivering individual applications to specific cable markets,” Traver says. “HITS AxIS ETV Solutions also take advantage of ample terrestrial bandwidth with a comprehensive approach toward quality assurance, which is essential for delivering a high-quality experience to digital cable customers.”

This last point refers to CMC’s ability to leverage the Comcast national fiber backbone and its interconnection with regional MSO networks to deliver applications independently without consuming satellite transponder space. As noted by Ed Humphrey, president of Softel, a supplier of application server technology in the ETV and tru2way spaces, the small text and graphics components engaged through the duration of a given app or advertisement add just enough throughput to the digital TV stream to potentially outstrip leased transponder capacity, which can result in higher costs to programmers.

“A single channel transmitting EBIF (Enhanced TV Binary Interface Format) apps may only require an additional increment of 100-200 kilobits per second at any one time,” Humphrey says. “But even at that level you’re going to have to pay more or find a place to put that stream. And if you have several channels, it can add up pretty fast.”

There are other situations that argue against reliance on satellite distribution for all but basic single channel point-to-multipoint applications. For example, where different packet identifiers (PIDs) are required to communicate with different types of equipment, as would be the case in communicating telescoping commands to various vendors’ VOD servers, a single app might require transmission of several PIDs over a single channel at any one time, far outstripping whatever headroom may be available on a given transponder.

A few hundred kilobits of extra bandwidth over 10 gigabit Ethernet fiber links costs far less than adding transponder capacity on satellites. Moreover, terrestrial distribution provides a far more granular approach to delivering apps, enabling programmers to target different versions to different geographic locations or to fit different demographic profiles.

But it’s the management and monitoring of app performance across multiple headends that represents perhaps the strongest argument for the managed service approach offered by CMC. The Denver-based facility has people working around the clock to monitor performance at individual headends, representing a level of confirmation of on-screen presentations that monitoring equipment can’t match.

The managed service affords programming networks access to remote management capabilities and applications testing using cable headend architecture. Programmers can define intervals for app monitoring, choose from a series of customized reporting options and opt for tier 1 and tier 2 levels of customer service escalation support.

CMC has been working with many technology firms, including Softel, to ensure smooth interoperability of all the required functionalities and to perform test runs with programmers to gauge whether all the standardized interfaces are operating in sync with each other on different vendors’ platforms. “CMC is playing a central role in helping the industry get ETV off the ground,” Humphrey says.

“In terms of what we’re doing to grease the wheels, it reassures programmers if we can put up a test channel to make sure everything is working on the downlinks,” Humphrey notes. “If a PID isn’t being passed through a regional headend somewhere in the distribution chain, the test run will allow the participating parties to identify and fix the problem.”

One major factor helping the industry expedite rollout of ETV is the “pipe cleaning” process now underway among MSOs, which entails each operator making sure on a system-by-system basis that multiplexers, cherry pickers, splicers and other components are handling the traffic load imposed by applications without adding jitter or dropping apps. “This pipe-cleaning exercise has exposed many issues,” Humphrey says. “I’m really impressed at the rate of progress. It takes a lot of extra work and is a real indication of the commitment operators have to making this work.”

A great benefit from the early programming forays into ETV by HSN, Starz, Showtime and others is that these pioneers are flagging where problems lie, ensuring that the issues are taken care of not only for themselves but for everyone that follows. “As operators figure all this out it gets a lot easier for the next guy,” Humphrey says.

Industry sources say that, in addition to the capacity and targeting issues associated with satellite distribution, there have been problems with PID filtering when PIDs are delivered via satellite. “MSOs have to know the PID exists and to ignore or accept it based on the terms of their agreements with programmers,” says an industry engineer, speaking on background. “We’ve also seen instances where a piece of gear processes a PID and causes a detrimental effect to programming that wasn’t set up to run the application.”