Cable-Tec Expo 2009: Comcast's Project Cavalry Priority: Do-It-Yourself DTAs

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The toughest part of Comcast's initiative to deliver all-digital expanded basic cable -- code-named "Project Cavalry" -- was getting the systems in place to let customers order and install their own digital-to-analog devices, said Steve Reynolds, Comcast Cable senior vice president of premises technology.

Reynolds delivered a presentation, "Operationalize Going All-Digital," with Comcast fellow Kevin Taylor here at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo on Thursday.

The need to automate the customer-installation process was critical, given that the MSO was anticipating deploying tens of millions of digital transport adapters (DTAs), which replicate the expanded basic lineup by converting digital signal to analog, Reynolds said.

"Given the number of devices that had to be activated we needed a very scalable way to do that," he said. "It couldn't exist as a business-as-usual process."

It would have been cost-prohibitive for Comcast to rely on technicians to install the DTAs. "We had to rely on consumers to install this device," Reynolds said.

Comcast set a goal of 70% success rate for self-install, and claims that it has beat that in markets where it has undertaken Project Cavalry with self-install rates of 80% or more. The operator first launched DTAs in Portland, Ore., about a year ago and has since rolled them out in other markets, including Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area, New Jersey and Delaware.

The toughest thing about the project was enabling the customer-automation systems, according to Reynolds: "That is the part of it that is going to take the longest and touch the most systems."

The operator set up a section on to let customers place orders; that needed to be integrated into the MSO's back-end order-management database. In addition, Comcast established a dedicated phone number with an automated interactive voice response (IVR) system that steps customers through ordering the DTA kit.

Comcast also wanted to make sure the self-installation kits were as simple as possible, and consistent across all vendors. The MSO is using DTAs from Motorola, Cisco Systems, Pace and Thomson, and the devices from all four of those manufacturers function and are installed in exactly the same way, Reynolds said.

"We didn't want our customer-service people having to ask, ‘Is that the Thomson DTA or the Cisco DTA?'" he said.

Comcast developed an internal slogan for the subscriber-setup process to stress simplicity: "Click or Call, Install, That's All."

To be sure, the operator needed to upgrade many network elements, including just about everything in its headends. Taylor said the operator implemented full IP-video distribution over its backbone network for the digital conversions. All of Comcast's video is carried in IP multicast, and Taylor claimed it now operates the world's largest IP multicast network with 8,000 video multicast groups.

The ultimate goal of Project Cavalry is to eliminate 35-50 analog expanded basic services, which lets Comcast reclaim as much as 300 MHz or more of spectrum.

"When you look at the bandwidth you can reclaim, this is really a big deal," said Taylor. "This is the kind of bandwidth expansion you'd only be able to get from a major rebuild."

To address multidwelling unit (MDU) scenarios, Comcast had to procure another device: the MDU DTA, dubbed "mDTA" internally. Essentially, that device is like a headend packed into a node case, Reynolds said. Comcast contracted with Vecima Networks and Cisco to create the mDTA devices, which measure 16 by 9 by 22 inches.

Initially, Comcast launched the expanded basic digital tier in the clear, meaning the DTAs did not have conditional access enabled. The Federal Communications Commission in the last few months has granted waivers to the so-called integrated set-top ban to multiple DTA vendors, allowing the devices to use encryption. At this point, Taylor said Comcast is in the process of re-encrypting those signals, and that all the DTAs in Cisco and Motorola systems are completely compatible with the CA.

Taylor also noted that public, educational and government (PEG) channels were a challenging part of converting to digital distribution, mainly because of the sheer number of them. In Comcast's largest markets, for example, there are 600 to 800 individual PEG channels.