Meeting VOD demand

Blueprints for scalable video-on-demand deployment by cable operators are finally being transformed into actual VOD systems in several cities.

Since February, for example, Oceanic Cable, a division of Time Warner Cable in Oahu, Hawaii, has been operating a VOD platform using Concurrent Computer's MediaHawk VOD system. The system currently uses 15 hubs to reach more than 40,000 subscribers.

Besides Concurrent, other vendors of VOD systems such as SeaChange, Diva, and nCube are hooking up customers for clients in both North America and overseas.

While movies remain the primary VOD service offering, other services are quickly materializing. For example, Oceanic subscribers will have access to karaoke and pizza-on-demand applications via their Scientific-Atlanta Explorer 2000 set-top boxes. Subscription VOD, and even so-called personal video channels with pause and rewind capabilities are future options as well.

At Time Warner Cable in Austin, Texas, SeaChange International has installed its SeaChange ITV System driving MediaCluster VOD servers. SeaChange recently announced that it was teaming up with Microsoft on a single server to provide for both MPEG and IP streaming.

"You can justify the capital investment in a VOD system on movies-on-demand alone, although a VOD system can support many more services and applications," says Ed Delaney, VP of marketing and business development for SeaChange International. "The ability to automate every aspect of VOD by using robust software, including usage-based propagation enhancements, is making VOD more acceptable from a cost standpoint as well as easier to operate."

"It is not the technology that is holding VOD back. It was being held back on the basis that VOD was cost-prohibitive. Now that the cost of implementing VOD has dropped dramatically, VOD can be justified," says Scott Wilcox, senior vice president for technology at Orlando, Fla.-based Prasara Technologies, whose client- and business-management software is being used by Concurrent Computer, nCUBE and Unisys.

Jonathan Taplin, president and co-CEO of Los Angeles-based Intertainer, believes cable operators are ready to take advantage of any efficiencies the video-server vendors can offer. Intertainer will be providing interfaces, applications and content to cable subscribers with digital legacy set-top boxes via Concurrent Computer's and SeaChange International's VOD platforms.

Beyond VOD lies fully enabled interactive TV. Of course, media servers are essential to both of these rapidly growing markets.

Foster City, Calif.-based nCUBE is a good example of a company that is active in both the cable and interactive (ITV) arenas. Cable operators like Telewest Communications in the UK and Shaw Communications in Canada are using nCube for the delivery of VOD and NVOD (near-VOD) services.

At the same time, nCUBE is partnered with NBTel's iMagicTV, which began its large-scale ITV trials in New Brunswick, Canada. Its MediaCube 4 servers and iMagicTV are deployed at Kingston Communications in the UK and at Eircom in Ireland as well.

"We are doing simultaneous MPEG-2 and IP video delivery on our MediaCUBE 4. For the IP video at 400 kb/s, we are using RTP with QuickTime, while the MPEG-2 VOD stream is done at 4 Mb/s," says Dan Sheeran, nCUBE's senior vice president of product management, who lists Bell Atlantic among his customers. "We deliver MPEG-4 over IP or over the MPEG-2 transport stream."

Sheeran sees the DSL environment moving quickly to Fast (100 Mb/s) and Gigabit Ethernet in addition to ATM, and nCube is adding telco interface capabilities to its servers to tackle that market.

"Right now, we have added an OC-12 capability to our ATM interface, along with Gigabit IP video. This enables us to deliver a half-gigabit of video out of a single ATM port on the MediaCUBE 4," Sheeran says. "A good reason for pursuing ITV aggressively on the telco side is that too many people are already losing money in the off-air server space."

nCUBE uses the Oracle Video Server (OVS) as the MPEG-2 pump software running on MediaCube. (Oracle chairman and CEO Larry Ellison happens to be a major shareholder in nCube.) Sheeran says that Ameritech New Media uses the MediaCUBE running OVS for its PPV/NVOD services offered on its HFC cable systems. nCube also announced a caching and streaming deal with Entera.