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Cox Tests VOD on Legacy Boxes

Cox Communications Inc. and Motorola Broadband Communications Sector are conducting tests in Hampton Roads, Va., to see if video-on-demand works — technically and economically — on legacy DCT-1000 and DCT-1200 digital boxes.

Although there are far more 2000- and 2200-series boxes than 1000s and 1200s in the field today, Cox deployed several hundred thousand of the older boxes during aggressive digital rollouts in 1998 and 1999.

Motorola has shipped roughly 1.5 million DCT-1000 and 1200 set-tops, according to Allied Business Intelligence Inc. senior analyst Joshua Wise.

"We ended up with a lot of DCT-1000s," said Cox vice president of video-product management Lynne Elander. "We've got a lot of capital invested and customers in the home. We're going to see if we can make it [VOD] commercially scalable."

Cox serves 1.1 million digital subscribers and has deployed roughly 1.4 million digital set-tops, since many of those customers have more than one digital box. Cox deployed digital in the Orange County, Calif., Omaha, Neb. and Hampton Roads markets before DCT-2000 and 2200 boxes were available.

Both Motorola and Cox executives said that although the 2000-series boxes offer more processing and stronger graphics capabilities, there is no reason 1000-class set-tops can't display VOD.

"Functionally, it can work," said Motorola Broadband director of strategic marketing Bernadette Vernon. "There is adequate memory in the box. The experience may be slower."

That experience is related to the boxes' QAM (quadrature-amplitude modulation) processing capabilities. The DCT 1200 and DCT 2000 is based on 256-QAM processing that can transmit 38.8 megabits per second of information per 6 megahertz channel, Elander said. The DCT-1000 is based on 64-QAM processing, which tops out at about 27 mbps per 6 MHz channel.

That 30-percent increase in bandwidth usage for 256 QAM translates to about 12 individual user sessions per 6 MHz channel for VOD. At 64 QAM, an operator could get eight user sessions per channel.

Operators with a large base of DCT-1000s could overcome that discrepancy by decreasing node sizes or dedicating more channel space, or bandwidth, to VOD. That may be no different than dealing with usage-pattern based VOD cost/benefit analyses.

"The question is technically, can we make this work, and is this the right thing to do," or "should we be on a migration path" to higher level boxes?" Elander asked.

Although Cox appears to be the first MSO to pursue VOD on 1000-class set-tops, Elander said the exercise isn't about testing the limits of the vintage boxes.

"It's not about the box, it's about the services we can deliver on the box," Elander said.

The 1000-series rollout is "ultimately an interim solution," she added, since the industry is migrating newer boxes. But at $300 a box, an operator that has deployed 200,000 set-tops has made a $60 million investment. Generating VOD revenue from those boxes would help offset those costs.

It's been two years since the cable industry first began exploring doing VOD on 2000-series boxes. Asked why Cox waited until now to explore VOD on 1000s, Elander said, "It's a matter of the maturity of the VOD product.

"There are a number of pieces in the jigsaw puzzle that need to be working simultaneously," she added, such as the interactive program guide, server, user interface and content.