Cisco Systems Eyes Move Into Broadband Content, Digital TV

With its pending acquisition of Internet media-distribution company SightPath Inc. and the launch of a new digital-TV infrastructure, Cisco Systems Inc. is ramping up to be a core player in the deployment of next-generation broadband content.

The company announced an open-standards digital-TV headend initiative at the National Show in New Orleans on the heels of its acquisition of SightPath, a two-year-old company devoted to broadband backbone distribution of rich media.

These moves come in conjunction with a broadening alliance with cable companies, set-top manufacturers, content suppliers and other players that Cisco hopes to parlay into a major new market for its core products, officials said.

"By simplifying deployments via a single powerful network infrastructure for the integrated delivery of multiple services, Cisco helps cable-service providers to deploy value-added, cost-effective services," said Paul Bosco, vice president and general manager of Cisco's cable-business unit.

Key new elements include an interactive network adapter that controls two-way broadband-data communications from the headend or primary hubs, managing both in-band and out-of-band data communications; and a cable-access router, which is a customer-premises device that enables operators to deploy audio and video streaming, interactive entertainment, voice over Internet protocol, local-area network-to-LAN connections and other advanced services.

The integrated system supports multiple protocols designed to serve the needs of both the domestic and overseas markets, Bosco said.

Cisco's support of these protocols includes options that are fully compliant with the emerging OpenCable set-top standards under development at Cable Television Laboratories Inc., said Troy Wendt, director of marketing for cable products and solutions at Cisco.

One vendor Cisco is working with is Pace Micro Technology plc, the supplier of some 200,000 set-tops for rollout of interactive-TV services by Cable & Wireless Communications plc in the United Kingdom, Wendt noted.

"We worked with Pace on the technology transfer from Broadcom [Corp. chips] and the implementation of Liberate [Technologies] middleware," he added.

Another is Sony Corp., in conjunction with that company's support for the interactive-TV services under development at Cablevision Systems Corp.

For the U.S. market, Cisco's options include "OpenCable Basic" and "OpenCable Advanced."

OC Basic is analogous to Time Warner Cable's use of Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s "Explorer 2000" set-top with out-of-band signaling based on DVS-167 (digital-video systems) to support electronic programming guides, ordering of on-demand services and other data-based applications.

OC Advanced uses both out-of-band signaling for TV applications and Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification for delivery of high-speed Internet access to the set-top.

In Europe, many operators are pursuing use of the DVB (Digital Video Broadcast)/ DAVIC (Digital Audio/Video Interoperability Council) signaling in-band as a support system for combining high-speed Internet access and advanced TV services, while others are using "Euro-DOCSIS," which is an 8-megahertz channel adaptation of the U.S. standard.

Cisco's goal is to make the open-standards options available for operators no matter what set-tops they use, Wendt said. For example, he added, while Motorola Inc.'s proprietary out-of-band data-signaling system is included under the OpenCable umbrella and is intrinsic to that manufacturer's "DCT-5000" set-tops, Cisco also has a DCT-5000 running on its in-house network using DVS-167 out of band.

What all of this adds up to is a digital-TV-service architecture that is tightly integrated with the data-centric master headend components Cisco is supplying to the cable industry.

In a big metro region, the key headend equipment supplied by Cisco includes the "GSR 12000" class router; network-monitoring and management elements; the cache engine; and the manager for the "INA2320," the interactive-network adapter that provides the in-band and out-of-band set-top signaling elements.

These pieces support the routing components at the regional hubs, including the uBR (universal broadband router) series of CMTS (cable-modem-termination system) products, the INA and the new statistical remultiplexing solution for digital-video management developed by V-Bits Inc., which was acquired by Cisco late last year.

Together, all of these components add up to a next-generation distributed headend that puts the company in direct competition with a number of traditional cable vendors, including Motorola Broadband Communications Sector (formerly General Instrument Corp.) and S-A.

At the same time, Cisco's agreement to acquire SightPath will let it compete directly with the suppliers of distribution platforms for delivering broadband IP content to network edges, but in a way that offers such capabilities as a product to service providers, including cable, and to enterprise customers, rather than as a special service.

"There are some differences between our technology and other players' technologies, but the key distinction is that we're offering a product that service providers can use, rather than providing a service ourselves," SightPath vice president of marketing Jim Melvin said.

Rather than contracting with content suppliers to deliver their Web content to data-caching platforms at the points of presence of local service providers, SightPath offers its technology to service providers and big corporations to use however they like, Melvin explained.

The platform includes an edge appliance that is both a server and a network manager, and comes in versions suited to carrier-class operations or for sitting at the premises of a big company.

"The system ties all of the boxes together so that each unit knows what content is residing on every other unit, which means the box closest to the end-user is going to find the most rapid means of getting content to the user if that content isn't already cached locally," Melvin said.

In addition, the unit comes with software that automatically reads the local service provider's or enterprise's network-management system and adopts to it, avoiding the need to manually interface the SightPath distribution system with local firewalls and other components, he added.

The Cisco/SightPath system obviates the need to establish multiple streaming paths between individual end-users and content sources, which means service providers and enterprises can make use of high-bandwidth-consuming applications without clogging networks, Melvin said.

"If you're a big company with 100 remote sites and 100 employees in each, there's no way you can provide Web-based video for sales and other training from a central location if each of those employees is accessing the content over a separate 1-megabit-per-second stream," he noted.

SightPath's model also provides a means by which on-demand content such as movies or time-shifted cable or broadcast programming can be stored and managed from a central point for nationwide distribution, Melvin said.

"This is a model that we think will compete with the traditional mode of VOD [video-on-demand] distribution, where everything has to be stored in multiple localities," he said.

"Providing a scalable caching solution for cable operators was one of the key reasons why we decided to acquire SightPath," Wendt said. "This is a very important step forward for us in supporting delivery of VOD and Web-based content to the cable industry."