Startup Conjures Up Channel-Boosting Gear

LOS ANGELES -- Startup Imagine Communications this week is set to take the wraps off its first product: a system it claims will let operators stuff 50% more HD or standard-definition channels into the same amount of bandwidth, without hurting the quality of the video.

The ICE Broadcast System, to be shown at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers’ Conference on Emerging Technologies here, optimizes MPEG-2 video streams, using Imagine’s proprietary processing algorithms to reencode the video at a lower bit rate while supposedly preserving image quality. The system then statistically multiplexes the streams to allow up to three HD or 15 SD channels to fit into a 6-Megahertz quadrature amplitude modulation carrier.

San Diego-based Imagine, founded in 2005, originally began developing a way to improve the efficiency of constant bit-rate video-on-demand streams.

But with competitors like DirecTV and Verizon Communications targeting 100-plus HD channel lineups in 2008, cable customers had a more urgent need to maximize linear broadcast programming encoded at variable bit rates, said Marc Tayer, Imagine’s senior vice president of marketing and business development.

Imagine would not disclose pricing for ICE Broadcast. But Tayer claimed it would be less expensive, on a per-subscriber basis, than any alternative technique for expanding or optimizing bandwidth. That includes switched digital video, node splits, spectrum overlay, upgrading to 1-Gigahertz or migrating to MPEG-4, he said.

Operators will use multiple approaches to maximize bandwidth, Tayer acknowledged. But, he said, “if you look at all of those, using ICE Broadcast is by far the most cost-effective and least disruptive option.”

For one thing, according to Imagine, its system requires no changes outside of the headend -- because the video is delivered in standard MPEG-2 format -- whereas switched video, MPEG-4 and plant upgrades each require some modification at a set-top level.

In Imagine’s calculations, the potential bandwidth efficiencies are considerable.

Using the startup’s video reprocessing and multiplexing technologies for broadcast, switched digital video and VOD programming, a cable operator could reclaim more than 100 MHz of spectrum, or 18 QAMs, Imagine claims.

The assumption is that an operator is broadcasting more than 100 SD and up to 75 HD channels, as well as optimizing VOD streams.

But because Imagine won’t publicly discuss pricing, it’s not clear how much such a solution would cost. In addition, the company won’t say how many servers are required in a cable headend to reclaim that amount of spectrum, except that “multiple” one-rack-unit-high ICE Broadcast Processor servers would be needed per QAM to process video in real-time.

Imagine said ICE Broadcast currently is being deployed by three cable operators, which it has not identified. According to industry executives, Comcast Media Center is already using the system to deliver HD programming to customers of its HITS Quantum service.

Operators plan to use ICE Broadcast in different ways, Tayer said. Some will use it for programming that is distributed nationally, while others take a regional or even headend-by-headend approach. “It’s not one-size-fits-all,” Tayer said.

Meanwhile, Imagine’s products for switched digital video and video-on-demand are still in the works.

The SDV staging processor, which takes an incoming MPEG-2 stream and outputs it at a fixed bit rate, will be available in early 2008, Tayer said. For example, it can clamp SD video into standard 3.75-megabits-per-second streams for delivery over a switched digital video system. “It’s basically higher quality constant bit-rate video,” he said.

A second switched video product from Imagine, due later in the year, will statistically multiplex variable bit-rate streams delivered via an SDV system, theoretically achieving similar bandwidth savings as the ICE Broadcast system. In addition, the company expects to introduce a separate VOD product for preprocessing on-demand video libraries in the second half of 2008.

Imagine was founded by two former BigBand Networks executives. Last year the startup was sued by BigBand, which alleged Imagine infringes on three patents related to video-processing and bandwidth-management technologies.

In response, Imagine denied the allegations and said it was considering suing BigBand for damages caused “by BigBand trying to disrupt [Imagine's] financing and its commercial market entry.”