Cable Show 2009: Drake Takes On HITS

Complete Cable Show 2009 coverage from Multichannel News

R.L. Drake is laying out a soup-to-nuts digital-TV buffet for small operators, which the company is positioning squarely as a cheaper alternative to Comcast Media Center’s HITS service.

Drake’s Digital Freedom solution — based on the MPEG-4 video standard — comprises an HD-capable set-top box, headend video system, satellite programming transport and a downloadable-security system.

“It has to be end-to-end, because it’s all-MPEG-4 from uplink to the set-tops,” said Jeff Huppertz, Drake’s CEO.

The turnkey setup uses the conditional-access system developed by Beyond Broadband Technology, a consortium of three small cable operators. Avail Media will provide the satellite-transport relationship with programmers, with a lineup of 25 HD and 270 standard-definition channels, and the headend can be configured to deliver local channels.

Target customers for Digital Freedom are independent systems with between 1,000 and 2,000 subscribers, whose only option until now for digital TV has been CMC’s HITS, Huppertz said.

“A surprising number of small operators haven’t rolled out digital yet, primarily because of the cost of the headend,” he said.

The Digital Freedom headend, which combines transcoding, modulator and passive-combiner devices, networked with an InterTech headend controller, comes in “well under $50,000,” Huppertz said. Pricing depends on the number of channels and transponders a customer uses.

Drake’s solution has other key advantages over CMC’s HITS, Huppertz claimed. First, HITS uses the widely supported MPEG-2 standard, but that format is less efficient than MPEG-4, which uses roughly half the bandwidth. The Drake system also gives local systems flexibility to repackage channels into QAMs and provides local controls for configuration changes, such as channel remapping.

On the set-top front, Drake’s HDDS24 box (pictured, left) uses STMicroelectronics chip sets, including a secure microprocessor that is an element of the BBT downloadable security. BBT is providing the electronic program guide and TV-listing information for the set-top, which is able to receive analog signals.

The price of the Drake HD boxes won’t be in the $35-a-pop ballpark that BBT’s founders once envisioned for their design. Huppertz declined to provide pricing details, but said the units would be around 20% less expensive than an equivalent set-top.

“This is not a low-end or DTA [digital-to-analog] sort of box,” he said.

But there’s no DVR model of the set-top available currently. Furthermore, the Drake Digital Freedom solution will lack two-way features, such as video on demand, though it will support conventional pay-per-view. “Initially, this a will be one-way platform,” Huppertz said.

By contrast, CMC provides a “VOD-in-a-box” solution, and is testing HITS AxIS, a hosted service to let operators deploy interactive applications and services.

There’s also the fact that BBT’s CA system has never been commercially deployed. Huppertz said the BBT downloadable-security system has “received the blessing” of the Federal Communications Commission, whose rules mandate cable operators make their programming accessible via third-party consumer-electronics devices.

Today, BBT does not offer a CableCard solution for its conditional-access system, but is developing one, according to BBT partner Steve Effros. He noted that the FCC has affirmed in several statements that “open” downloadable security is an acceptable alternate approach to the separable-security rules. As such, an operator “does not need to have a CableCard capability as well,” he said.

Drake, based in Franklin, Ohio, sells communications systems and video-engineering components to cable operators, government and the hospitality industry.