Charting a Tech Transformation

Charter Communications’ metamorphosis from a mid-sized bankrupt company to an industry leader has direct links to a technology strategy that promises to future-proof the operator’s platform and give it huge flexibility in the years ahead.

Much of Charter’s strategy hinges upon an aggressive all-digital transition that is freeing up valuable bandwidth and reapplying it toward a massive HDTV lineup and faster broadband speeds; it’s also laying the groundwork for a new cloud-based interface that will be offered uniformly on set-tops old and new.

Charter is already 60% of the way there and expects to complete its all-digital transition by the end of 2014. As Charter has polished off those analog-reclamation projects, it has celebrated them by launching its new “Charter Spectrum” brand, which comprises an expanded lineup of more than 200 HD channels that outpaces its video competitors and minimum downstream broadband speeds of 60 Megabits per second (except in St. Louis, where the entry-level tier is now a lofty 100 Mbps).

Also in the works is a completely revamped, rewritten Web portal. In testing now, and set to launch in the fourth quarter, the portal will feature a new front end and backend that enable customers to manage their email, voice mail (including a new “visual voice mail” component) and their Charter accounts (including bill payments). It will also support a new set of TV Everywhere authentications with programmers that will enable the MSO to serve up more than 150 channels of live-TV streaming in the home, with more out-ofhome support on the near-term roadmap.

Rich DiGeronimo, Charter’s senior vice president, product and strategy, estimated that Charter is reclaiming about 60 analog channels upon completion of the all-digital transition. On the high-speed data end, that gives Charter plenty of headroom to exceed 100% of the advertised peak speeds with its new baselevel broadband tiers.

“For us, the most important thing is to have a superior product set in the market,” DiGeronimo said, holding that it is now giving Charter an edge over its broadband competitors. In many cases, he noted, “Our minimum is faster than their fastest.”

Tuned to the Cloud

Charter is also developing a next-gen video product featuring its new cloud-based Spectrum Guide that will be offered on all set-top boxes — including those that don’t speak IP — using ActiveVideo’s network-based processing platform.

“Our intent is to have a state-of- the-art interface on all set-top boxes,” DiGeronimo said.

The operator has introduced the Spectrum Guide to a subset of customers in Fort Worth, Texas, initially on HD boxes . Di- Geronimo said Charter “identified and quickly fixed some initial deployment glitches,” but now feels confident the approach will work on a broad basis as Charter aims for a big rollout in 2015.

For older QAM-locked boxes, the approach with ActiveVideo essentially stitches the UI to the video content and sends both to the set-top as an MPEG stream.

“It’s technically performing very well, and as intended,” Di- Geronimo said. “We’ve had no issues with scalability [and] we’ve had no concerns over concurrent use.”

While older boxes factor into that plan, Charter is also developing a “World Box” that will support a new downloadable security system. But what makes the World Box so … worldly?

“‘World’ means we can source the set-top box from any vendor across the globe … because it’s not tied to any proprietary or legacy conditional-access system,” Di Geronimo said.

Charter hasn’t unveiled the device or revealed its initial manufaturers, but the Charter exec said he thinks it will blow away customers. The box will have “state-of-the-art industrial design … a beautiful UI and very competitive pricing,” he said.

Testing of the World Box is underway, and Charter intends to roll it out commercially next year. Di Geronimo said the box will support multiple video tuners and pack a “very competitively-sized [DVR] hard drive.”

Waxing Wireless

When it comes to metro WiFi, Charter has been watching from the sidelines as MSO members of the “Cable- WiFi” roaming alliance — Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Bright House Networks — deploy hotspots at an impressive rate.

Charter is getting into the game as well, testing a system that will allow it to launch and control a metro WiFi service to be deployed wide in 2015. That will start with hotspot deployments in small- and mid-sized businesses that broadcast the MSO’s new “SpectrumWiFi” SSID.

“WiFi is absolutely core to our long-term strategy,” DiGeronimo said, confirming that Charter plans to contribute its deployment and join the cross-MSO Cable WiFi roaming alliance.