ClearBand Pitches IP Video Multicasting

Have you ever wanted to catch some NBC Olympics coverage or baseball playoff highlights on your work PC? Or maybe you'd like to catch up on e-mails at night in your home office, but don't want to miss

Clearband has an answer. The new, privately held firm is offering cable operators an Internet-protocol multicasting service that can deliver cable network programming, in real-time, to cable-modem users on their personal computers.

"We serve as a value add to broadband operators," said Jeff Huppertz, vice president of marketing. "Clearband is a software-based solution for multitasking video channels in real time over broadband networks. Our technology is streaming video to the PC through an IP format."

Here's Clearband's pitch to operators: Bringing the traditional video signal of popular cable networks to a PC provides a strong video enhancement to broadband service. For programmers, it opens another way to capture eyeballs, with all commercials intact, Huppertz said.

Here's how Clearband works. The company installs an encoder at a cable operator's headend. A cable network's video signal would be encoded in MPEG-2 (Moving Picture Expert Group) format, then sent to the cable modem termination system, like other broadband data, to a consumer's cable mode.

A viewer would hit a button on the PC to request, say, the Cable News Network feed. That signal is relayed to the CMTS, which sends down a 200-kilobit tuner to the PC. Since it's a broadband connection, the tuner download takes less than 5 seconds.

Video is sent through the system in real time, Huppertz said, between 500 kilobits and 8 megabits.

"It's full-screen, full-motion video at 30 frames per second," he said. The PC's Intel Corp. "Pentium" processor decodes the video stream for display.

The system uses one 6-megahertz cable channel from the node to the home. At 27 megabits, Huppertz said, one Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification channel could carry 54 video channels.

"The capacity is fixed once there is a dedicated DOCISIS channel," he said.

In addition to live IP multicasting, Clearband can encode and store content at the headend for later viewing. All transmissions are secure and reach only those PCs that request the video, Huppertz said. Because tuner software is sent down with each request, consumers don't have to worry if they have the latest version of player software, a dilemma for some Real Networks and Microsoft Media Player users.

Clearband tested the service with Chello in Vienna, Austria, last year with National Football League games. Several NFL games were streamed to broadband PC users. Clearband will conduct another trial in the Netherlands this fall, where NFL games aren't seen over the air.

Clearband also tested the service with digital-subscriber-line provider NorthPoint, but it considers cable operators to be its core target audience.

The Clearband technology is also in several Cisco Systems Inc. executive briefing centers and could be installed at NBC headquarters in New York. That latter deployment would allow NBC employees to view NBC's broadcast and cable networks on their PC while at work.

Operators and programmers recognize that consumers with broadband Internet access are watching less TV, Huppertz said. "This is a way for operators and programmers to keep those eyeballs with ads intact."

There are also an increasing number of TV programs that offer a Web component.

The National Football League, National Hockey League, Playboy Enterprises Inc. and CNBC are all testing the service.

The Clearband pitch means that operators and programmers would meet again at the negotiating table. "We don't want to be an unnecessary middleman," he said.

For Clearband, one business model is to sell the encoders to operators, license the software and provide the tuner for free, Huppertz said. But that would cost the operator tens of thousands of dollars for the encoders, Huppertz said. A second model would discount the infrastructure and charge for the tuner software, he said.

Comedy Central, which has been briefed on the Clearband business, likes the technology, but is unsure of the business model.

"It's a great technology," said Ken Locker, the network's senior vice president, enterprises and new media. "But I don't understand the business model. I'm trying to work out the return on investment."