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Cable Tweaks VOD Pipe

As video-on-demand becomes more popular, cable infrastructure suppliers are fine-tuning their products to help cable operators better deliver content. Tech giants like Motorola, Scientific-Atlanta (S-A) and Harmonic are but a handful of the players taking significant steps to improve on-demand delivery.

Motorola made a splash last month, announcing that it's entering the VOD-server market by acquiring Broadbus Technologies Inc., a Boxborough, Mass.-based provider of video-on-demand systems. Broadbus uses a solid-state server architecture and dynamic random-access memory (DRAM), as opposed to traditional hard-disk technology, to store and deliver on-demand video. The company has more than 60 video-on-demand deployments with service providers worldwide, including Comcast, Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable. Terms of the transaction, which is expected to close in the third quarter, were not disclosed.

The acquisition is consistent with Motorola's strategy of supplying “seamless mobility” to consumers, says spokesman Paul Alfieri. The company is also focusing on new opportunities in mobile-video and network-DVR applications, while continuing to support interfaces between its headend equipment and third-party VOD servers. “Broadbus gives us content-management capability,” Alfieri says, “so we can store multiple resolutions of a program and send multiple versions to different devices.”

S-A, for its part, is focused on using switched-broadcast technology as a way to conserve cable operators' bandwidth. This allows S-A to launch more on-demand programming, offer more HD content and provide faster data services. Instead of simultaneously delivering hundreds of channels to a home, cable operators would use switched-broadcast technology to deliver only one channel to a digital set-top box at a time.

“From an MSO perspective, when they're trying to launch more HD channels and thinking about potential competition from telcos,” says Lorenzo Bombelli, director of product strategy and management for S-A, “a switched-video solution can give them an infinite program lineup.”

Another alternative to reclaiming bandwidth is using a higher rate of compression. But Bombelli notes that most S-A customers have already compressed their video as much as they can with MPEG-2 technology. To further reduce bandwidth, some are looking at employing MPEG-4, while others are experimenting with MPEG-2 “closed-loop” encoding, or connecting multiple encoders to a single statistical multiplexer to better balance bits between channels with different types of content.

Harmonic also is devoting substantial energy to freeing up bandwidth. It makes the “edge-QAM” devices that deliver VOD from the IP-based on-demand network to the hybrid fiber-coax cable architecture. Through its video-compression business, the company is also heavily involved with ingesting VOD content. Harmonic is now upgrading current deployments of edge-QAM devices with Privacy-Mode conditional access to allow VOD content to be encrypted on the fly, which is more efficient.

Encryption becomes a much bigger priority to suppliers offering HDTV content on-demand, says Gil Katz, Harmonic director of cable solutions and strategy, because the higher-quality video is that much more valuable to pirates: Suppliers “are simply not going to provide it unless it's encrypted.