TV Technology: The Scramble for Bandwidth

Jun 20, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Time Warner and Cablevision are among cable’s multiple system operators now searching for ways to come up with the increased bandwidth they’ll need as consumer demand for services increases and as their telco competitors begin video launches this fall.

Cable operators have already spent $95 billion on network upgrades during the past decade to offer digital channels, high definition and video-on-demand, but they still need to stretch their budgets a little further as the competitive threat looms larger.

Time Warner has been testing what it calls the “sustainable digital network model” it is scheduled to roll out to a few markets later this year. The key to that model is capturing much of the bandwidth in the cable operator’s 750 MHz plant that’s not being used efficiently today. Kevin Leddy, Time Warner’s senior VP of strategy and development, said bandwidth goes unused about 85 percent of the time because consumers watch a few channels heavily and the rest infrequently.

By properly harnessing the unused bandwidth, Time Warner can power many more channels and on-demand services.

This model doesn’t require much additional investment and will allow for greater peak usage of VOD, more premium on-demand, higher data speed rates and the capacity for 50 high-definition channels and possibly as many as 100 without recapturing any analog spectrum from the 80 analog channels today, Mr. Leddy said. “This is a modern, permanent solution to bandwidth so we don’t have to keep layering more capital into the plant. [And we] do so without any disruption to consumers,” he said.

Many cable operators plan to secure more capacity by migrating analog channels to digital and using the analog bandwidth for additional services or increased speeds for broadband services. Cablevision, for instance, recently began to move several premium services from analog to digital to free up that bandwidth. Because Cablevision consumers need a set-top box to view premium movie channels, those customers either have digital boxes or can move to one without an additional fee, making movie services a logical choice to begin the transition.

As recently as the National Cable Show in April, Cablevision Chief Operating Officer Thomas Rutledge explained that data occupies only a small portion of the cable plant. As linear channels migrate from analog to digital, the newly freed analog capacity can be harnessed for broadband. “The high-speed data portion of our 750 MHz upgrade is 6 MHz,” Mr. Rutledge said. “It’s a tiny piece of the capacity. Much of [the capacity] is used for analog TV and is rapidly being recovered in a digital form, so the capacity of these networks to go to 50 Mbps [megabits per second] is there. The question is when the demand sends us there. Every time we open it up, the capacity gets filled.”

On the telco side, Verizon plans to rely on a fiber-to-the-premises network, which will be nearly all digital from the get-go and is roughly the equivalent of an 860 MHz cable plant. That means it will have plenty of room for linear channels, VOD, broadband, VOIP and interactive content.

SBC has said its IP network will enable delivery of many of the high-demand, bandwidth-intensive services consumers want.

That robust capacity is why telcos, most notably Verizon, have been striking deals left and right with content companies to carry their full channel suites, including VOD and HD content.

While telcos have promised a fat amount of bandwidth, cable operators are confident that their networks can handle the bandwidth elongations that will become inevitable as consumer demand increases for the latest services.

The cable companies have other strategies to reclaim bandwidth as well. Centralizing channel delivery and other services in the headend or even further upstream from the customer’s home can save bandwidth, said Dan McCrary, VP of marketing at Path1, which provides IP video transport. “By pushing less information down the pipe, that saves bandwidth,” he said. Operators can also use “super-headends” instead of separate regional headends, he added.

Down the road, operators will also have the ability to transition from MPEG2 as a video format to MPEG4, which takes up about half the bandwidth space, Mr. McCrary said.