BigBand’s Edge Platform Gains Traction in Cable & Telco Sectors

John Reister, VP for advanced technology, BigBand Networks

John Reister, VP for advanced technology, BigBand Networks

July 29, 2011 – The multi-functionality of the edge-based network intelligence developed by BigBand Networks is proving its appeal as network service providers wrestle with the need to activate ever more capabilities in support of advanced service opportunities.
The latest manifestation of how the firm’s Media Services Platform (MSP) is resonating with NSPs is AT&T’s decision to use the technology in conjunction with a new local advertising sales effort tied to programming delivered over the carrier’s U-verse TV service. “This is another affirmation that MSP has the flexibility to address new requirements for traditional cable delivery, cable IP multi-screen services and telco-style IPTV,” says John Reister, vice president for advanced technology at BigBand.

Different NSPs will have different needs for the platform, which in and of themselves justify its use. But once they have the module in place to run the immediate application they also have the underlying intelligence foundation for adding additional modules to cover other requirements as they arise, Reister explains. “Once service providers gain familiarity with the operations of the platform for their specific application, the monitoring, troubleshooting and spares and all the things they have to do operationally, they can easily expand into new directions,” he says.

AT&T is the first telco customer to put MSP into play. On the cable side, one of the early drivers to deployments of the core IP intelligence MSP offers has been demand for an efficient way to scale delivery of TV programming over IP streams, which began with Korean operator LG Power’s implementation of BigBand’s vIP PASS solution in 2009. Another announced customer, Buckeye Cablevision, began using the vIP PASS component of MSP last year.

Other MSOs are coming on board. Lab trials of MSP are now underway at three companies and a “major converged service trial is schedule this summer,” says Jay Chambers, chief architect for cable products at BigBand.

Convergence Efficiencies

Deploying the full capabilities for service delivery embodied in the MSP allows operators to bring together the IP service delivery support embodied in the vIP PASS component with the widely used switched digital video (SDV) edge system MSOs have been deploying for several years as a means of conserving bandwidth on the MPEG-2 digital TV side, Chambers notes.

“What we’d like to communicate with the benefits offered by vIP PASS is that the way we’ve architected the IP video delivery and SDV systems is so similar, let’s unify how these things are done to where we can manage all the SDV and DOCSIS video channels on one platform,” Chambers says. “You can achieve maximum distribution efficiency to all devices from the MSP 2800.”

BigBand executives, by stressing the multiple application benefits flowing with use of the MSP platform to support the vIP PASS IP distribution architecture, SDV and dynamic cross-platform advertising, are offering a response to competitors who say vIP PASS imposes unnecessary capital expenses and a separate operational environment on operators because it avoids using the CMTS (cable modem termination system) to deliver managed IP video services. These suppliers argue that big leaps in processing densities, advances in software and the decoupling of downstream from upstream line cards to support cost-effective expansion of downstream capacity for IP delivery have made the Integrated-CMTS architecture highly viable for delivering multi-device premium services in IP mode.

But Reister and Chambers say the edge architecture employed with vIP PASS and, more generally, MSP, offers the best way forward for converging all functionalities essential to supporting legacy and IP services with dynamic advertising across all devices. ”vIP PASS is analogous to adding Wi-Fi to your home network, because it works cooperatively with what’s already there,” Reister says. “You don’t throw out your home router when you want to do Wi-Fi.”

In fact, he notes, “The upstream with vIP PASS still goes through the CMTS. If we were telling customers they had to throw out CMTSs, we wouldn’t be in the room very long.”

By combining SDV and IP distribution management at the edge, operators not only achieve immediate efficiencies for converging legacy and IP video operations; they create a platform well suited to migrating to all-IP service over time, Reister adds. “The real question is how do we take an IP network architected around delivering Web pages and emails and make it serviceable for delivering sustained video streams that have high-quality demands on them in a cost-effective way that’s going to support rapid migration to IP,” he says.

“Some people think that loading home gateways with thick applications is the way to support convergence between legacy and IP-based video services,” Chambers says. “We think it makes more sense to put the intelligence in the network to benefit both types of subscribers – legacy and IP. With vIP PASS we’re not re-inventing the wheel. We’re making the network smarter.”

vIP PASS is tightly integrated with the DOCSIS infrastructure as an extended app utilizing the mechanism known as eSAFE (embedded Service/Application Functional Entities), explains. eSAFE provides a means by which devices equipped with additional functionalities beyond the capabilities supported by DOCSIS 3.0 can interoperate with the existing DOCSIS domain. “Essentially vIP PASS is an app in the extensible DOCSIS app environment,” he says.

New Advances

Last fall BigBand raised the ante in the architecture debate with addition of an “ultra-dense” QAM (quadrature amplitude modulator) to the MSP product suite. The QAM, offering dynamic bandwidth agility on the entire 50 MHz to 1 GHz RF spectrum, resonated immediately with Comcast, the inventor of the next-generation migration strategy known as CMAP (Converged Multimedia Access Platform), which is designed to provide operators the flexibility to dynamically change bandwidth allocations from MPEG-2 to IP access streams on a single chipset.

Having high-density QAMs capable of handling the output from the CMAP across all channels is vital to the strategy, notes Jorge Salinger, vice president of access architecture at Comcast. “With the advent of more narrowcast services, CMAP-class platforms will be needed to increase QAM-per-port density without using additional powering or rack space,” Salinger says. “BigBand is addressing the demanding access requirements facing MSOs to enable an easier migration towards next-generation converged service delivery at the edge.”

As previously reported (March, p. 17), BigBand is developing a number of new approaches to minimizing the bandwidth impact of IP video streams, including one that could also minimize quality-of-service problems that can occur on IP streams over the home network. These techniques leverage the MPS intelligence to support new ways to add efficiencies to multicast and unicast IP streams and to enable statistical multiplexing of MPEG transport streams with IP streams over QAM channels.

Chambers says these advances, which could net bandwidth savings of 30 percent or more, are still works in progress that can be implemented over the existing vIP PASS platform. He also suggests the new functionalities could address key issues operators face in using adaptive streaming (AS) as a bandwidth-saving mechanism and with installing media home gateways to manage distribution of MPEG and IP content to multiple devices.

With regard to the AS QoS problem, Chamber explains that because devices compete for bandwidth used for AS by taking as much as is available at any moment in time, there can be instances when devices such as smartphones or tablets are consuming more bandwidth than they need. This can leave IP connected TVs to operate off less than optimal amounts of bandwidth, especially in situations where noise impediments are squeezing bandwidth availability over the home network, resulting in low-resolution pictures or worse.

“If the MPS platform is managing adaptive streaming it can distinguish between an iPad and an iPhone to ensure those devices receive the level of resolution and encoding appropriate to their requirements,” Chambers says. “By prioritizing devices and adapting bandwidth accordingly, we help ensure the highest quality of experience is maintained over available bandwidth in the home for all devices.”

He also points out that the current generation of DOCSIS cable modems can be leveraged to minimize the costs of implementing managed IP video services compared to the costs that might be incurred with use of new gateways that handle both MPEG-2 and IP streams. By using multicasting rather than unicasting to deliver all the linear broadcast programming in IP to the cable modem, operators can save bandwidth over the outside network and then apply the available cable modem processing power to create unicast streams to deliver content to individual devices, he says.

Chambers acknowledges that, when these concepts were first discussed, he didn’t think cable modems would have enough processing capacity to support them. “But I quickly learned there’s an immense amount of untapped horsepower available on these devices,” he says. “With everything we’ve tried using vIP PASS, the modems still haven’t run out of gas.”

Advanced Advertising

Cable operators like telcos, of course, have a great interest in bringing dynamic advertising placement into the multi-device domain to enable zone-level and more granular levels of targeting. But on the telco side where, as in the case with AT&T’s U-verse, TV is already operating in IP mode, the advertising capabilities are the most immediate driver behind use of MSP technology. “I characterize advertising as the lead app going into the telco space,” Reister says.

BigBand has been working with AT&T for the better part of four years through complex testing, validation and trial phases leading up to commercial deployments, Reister says. “I think the fact that we went through a pretty rigorous selection and evaluation process for reliability and all the NEBS (Network Equipment Building System) stuff in making sure the quality was there is a real validation of our platform,” he adds.

AT&T’s Advanced Ad Solutions group, which oversees advertising across its mobile, broadband and IPTV outlets, has been laying groundwork for local ad sales in contracts with Comcast Sportlight and Time Warner Cable Media’s sales operations. The Spotlight team will sell local advertising on U-verse on up to 50 ad-supported cable programming networks in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, San Francisco and many other cities, the companies said. TWC Media will sell ads on those networks in Los Angeles, Dallas, Cleveland, San Antonio, Milwaukee and other cities.

Installing the BigBand MSP platform at regional central offices will allow the telco to insert ads targeted to those regions without having to de-encrypt and re-encrypt protected IPTV content at the points of insertion, Reister says. “IPTV works differently from cable in that content is encrypted centrally rather than at local headends,” he notes. “If you have to decrypt, splice and re-encrypt at the regional level, you create security vulnerabilities that potentially break the licensing agreements with content owners.”

BigBand announced its ability to insert ads into encrypted content some time ago but didn’t mentioned this was done in conjunction with its work with AT&T and Microsoft’s Mediaroom middleware, he adds. The effort took great care owing to the need to avoid any disruptions in the IPTV stream that might be caused by interference with Mediaroom coding. “Mediaroom has a lot of unique and special capabilities that Microsoft and AT&T have talked about, so we have to take special care that we don’t break anything in Mediaroom and that we work in a very friendly way,” he says.

This work gives BigBand a big leg up in its pursuit of business with other telcos as they move into local advertising, he says. “Mediaroom has pretty good traction worldwide,” he notes, adding that the integration process may be less arduous with other IPTV middleware platforms.

The entire process operates in the MPEG4 AVC (Advanced Video Coding) environment, which also represents a new direction that will be important to cable operators as well as telcos, Reister says. “This is a first in terms of anything approaching this scale for AVC-based advertising,” he adds. “Obviously cable operators will be using MPEG4 when they go to multi-screen advertising.”

While no plans have been announced for further use of the MSP in AT&T’s advertising strategy, Reister makes clear the way is open for the telco to move into deeper targeting as well as cross-platform placements at the local level. “The solution is very extensible,” he says. “We can bring zoned advertising into the multi-screen environment and extend that into targeting. Having the consistent ability to coordinate ad delivery across multiple screens is an enormous benefit.”

Targeting of placements from a regionally positioned dynamic insertion system into an IPTV multicast or digital TV broadcast stream based on zones, demographics or other user characteristics represents a big challenge. “We have some really cool innovations for how to deliver targeting from that point,” Reister says. “We gave a paper at CableLabs last October where we talked about our virtual zoning technology. We didn’t announce a product that does this, but we made it clear that this is feasible.”