Hosted SDV Solution Puts Tech In Play for Tier 2, 3 Cable Ops

Joseph Nucara, co-founder & CEO, Adara

Joseph Nucara, co-founder & CEO, Adara

June 3, 2011 – Smaller cable operators may soon find it’s easier than once seemed possible to escape the capacity and technology constraints that have put them at a competitive disadvantage over the past few years.

Canadian operator Cable Cable, an Ontario based rural provider with 4,200 subscribers, says it has been able to cost effectively deploy a uniquely hosted and managed switched digital video (SDV) platform to support a 100-channel HDTV lineup, with the result that its digital subscriber base has expanded four fold over the past two years. The new, low-cost approach to SDV is offered as a service by Toronto-based Adara Technologies utilizing a comprehensive SDV solution supplied by Cisco Systems that can run on legacy Motorola-equipped cable systems as well as Cisco/Scientific-Atlanta systems.

Cable Cable executives credit Adara for their “phenomenal success” at building the business on a network which two years ago could only accommodate 25 HD channels. “Prior to launching with Adara, we had no way of making the critical improvements to our service offering,” says Tony Fiorini, president and owner of Cable Cable. “Our video service now rivals that of the largest Tier 1 operators in metro areas in North America, and we easily have the best product available in our area.”

As Cable Cable general manager Michael Fiorini notes, “Normally, SDV is a complicated technology to deploy and operate for a small operator.” Consequently, many smaller operators looking to expand capacity to meet the HD competition from satellite and other providers often turn to the analog reclamation strategy made popular by Comcast. This eliminates most of the capacity-consuming analog channels on the network while utilizing digital terminal adaptors (DTAs) to translate digital signals to analog for subscribers who want to remain on an analog service.

“We are so glad that we didn’t pursue analog reclamation using DTAs,” Michael Fiorini says. “That alone would have cost us millions of dollars with a lot of pain and customer disruption over, at least, a two-year rollout.” In contrast, he adds, the Adara SDV solution “cost us a small fraction of that, and we were live in four months.”

Other operators appear to be picking up on the Cable Cable success story. Adara co-founder and CEO Joseph Nucara says the company is in discussions with about 100 cable companies across North America, ranging from very small operators with as few as 1,000 customers to fairly big ones with hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

As described by Nucara, the Adara solution addresses two major pain points for operators: capacity limitations on delivering enough HD content to compete with satellite and technical barriers to getting premium content to all types of Internet-connected devices. “The HD challenge is what’s on people’s minds right now,” Nucara says. “The IP question is on the horizon.”

There’s another issue that the hosted approach addresses as well, which is a cost-effective way to provide VOD service. Adara employs Cisco’s Content Delivery System and Ericsson’s OpenStream back office to provide a highly scalable and efficient distributed architecture to support both traditional and IP-based on-demand services, Nucara notes.

“Several of our customers haven’t deployed VOD,” he says. “We provide a very full solution that breaks with the historical cost paradigm. We drop a Cisco integrated streamer vault in at the headend and the whole system can be managed by our backend.”

In all the use cases supported by Adara, the core advantage is the engineering and operations savings that accrue from a centrally managed hosted approach to service migration, he adds. “We’ve assembled an engineering and operations team with deep experience in all aspects of digital video,” he says. “By centralizing and sharing that talent across our customer base we’re providing the Tier 1-level support that’s been the missing piece for Tier 2, 3 and 4 operators.”

Depending on specific requirements, Adara develops, installs, integrates and provides long-term network management services for advanced SDV, VOD and IP solutions. At the same time, by centralizing as many of the technology components as possible, the company lowers the capital cost burdens of implementing these solutions locally.

In the case of SDV Adara provides the digital control system and applications servers that run the locally installed universal session resource managers, SDV QAMs (quadrature amplitude modulators) and SDV client software on Cisco 4600 and 8600 set-tops. “What we have provided on a hosted basis is capable of handling millions of subscribers across hundreds or thousands of cable systems,” Nucara says.

In the typical implementation of the hosted SDV model an operator might have a 550 MHz plant offering a combination of analog and digital SD channels, where the SD channels are delivered through 256 QAMs controlled by a legacy digital Motorola or Cisco headend video processing and conditional access system. All it takes to simulcast the entire lineup in HD is to free up eight 6 MHz channels for installation of the Cisco SDV QAMs, Nucara says.

This architecture supports a seamless viewing experience, notwithstanding the distance between the hosted and local operating component, he adds. “When the subscriber tunes into an SDV channel, all the components are talking to each other, so that, even if the channel isn’t there on the QAM, the acquisition occurs in milliseconds,” he says. “To the subscriber, there’s no difference between switching channels on broadcast and SDV.”

There’s no need to change out any elements of the legacy system, because the hosted SDV system operates independently with its own encryption, QAMs and set-tops. Owing to the long-standing cable tradition that says once you’re with a given supplier you’re locked in to that supplier’s solutions, operators sometimes have a hard time accepting they can implement the Cisco SDV solution on a Motorola plant, Nucara notes.

“Even after we’ve presented our strategy they’ll sometimes come back to us and say, ‘I like the idea, but we’re a Motorola shop,’” he says. Often, he adds, smaller operators don’t have access to the SDV solution offered by their legacy suppliers simply because neither Cisco nor Motorola is willing to allocate support and integration service resources to small systems.

Nucara argues that the hosted SDV solution has multiple advantages over analog reclamation as a means of freeing up capacity for HDTV, starting with the costs. On a non-recurring cap ex basis, the expenditure to equip a 4,000-subscriber plant with the Adara SDV solution comes to about $186,000, whereas the whole DTA-based solution, counting the boxes, installation costs and headend gear, would cost about $1.25 million.

Of course, with the SDV solution, the initial costs don’t include the set-tops, but those are installed on a pay-as-you-go basis as subscribers opt for the HD service tier, Nucara notes. “With SDV you’re getting an immediate 500 percent capacity gain on whatever segment of the service you’re simulcasting for HDTV, which allows you to begin offering a full HD channel lineup from the start,” he says.

“With analog reclamation you have to wait until you’ve installed all the DTAs before you get the capacity boost, and then you’re only getting a capacity increase of 50 to 125 percent, depending on how many analog channels you’ve reclaimed,” he adds. “So you can be paying ten times as much for one tenth the capacity gain compared to SDV.”

One of the capacity-expanding strategies operators contemplate is use of MPEG-4 compression, but, as a standalone solution, it has not been widely adopted owing to costs and the fact that capacity gains are limited by the number of channels that can be allocated to whatever tier is created to drive MPEG-4 set-top penetration. For example, if eight channels are allocated to MPEG-4, the capacity gain on those channels is about two fold, which is a small percentage of overall channel capacity in comparison to what can be accomplished via SDV simulcasting.

However, MPEG-4 is an important tool for increasing the capacity gains on the Cisco SDV system deployed by Adara. “The system is codec aware so that if it recognizes an MPEG-4 set-top is tuning to a channel that is available in MPEG-4, it will deliver that channel,” Nucara says. On the other hand, he adds, if the MPEG-4 set-top is tuning into a channel that’s already in play that happens to be running over MPEG-2 it will tune to that channel even if the same program is available in MPEG-4 so as to avoid activating a new bandwidth-consuming stream.

The fact that the Cisco set-tops are IP-enabled means that operators installing the 4600 or 8600 to support the SDV-delivered HDTV service are also creating a footprint for IP service delivery. This is facilitated by the fact that Cisco’s RTM middleware supports a next-generation navigation system that provides users access to all service categories whether delivered in IP over DOCSIS or via legacy MPEG transport streams, Nucara notes. “The middleware is downloadable to the set-tops,” he says.

The Java-based middleware provides a developer-friendly applications environment that Adara is now exploiting to foster implementation of IP services by its customers. “We’re beginning to leverage the DOCSIS 2.0 connections in the set-tops for incremental apps like widgets and a special over-the-top button on the user interface,” Nucara says. Initial implementations of Web-based services on the Adara system will be announced this fall, he adds.