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VOD Vendors Reach Out and Get Personal

With personal-video-recording services such as those offered by TiVo Inc. and ReplayTV Inc. capturing more and more mind share, supporting time-shifted programming is beginning to show up on the future service lists of video-on-demand vendors.

At its most basic level, the concept is simple: Record all programming and make it available on-demand, at any time, with pause, rewind and fast-forward functions.

The idea-believed to have first been touted by Oracle Corp. chairman and CEO Larry Ellison-would take full advantage of the of the powerful storage and video-streaming capabilities offered by VOD providers.

It also presents dramatic technical and legal challenges. But the idea is part of a wider trend by VOD providers to move beyond the straight movies-on-demand model and into other areas of interactive-TV content.

As these companies begin to forge relationships with interactive-TV-application makers, the traditional lines separating VOD from other flavors of interactive TV are beginning to blur.

For example, WorldGate Communications Inc. and SeaChange International Inc. said last month they plan to integrate SeaChange's VOD services with WorldGate's Internet-over-TV application.

Combined, the pair can offer operators that use Motorola Broadband Communications Sector's "DCT-series" set-tops Web browsing, e-mail services, embedded Web hyperlinks in programming and VOD services.

WorldGate also forged similar relationships with Concurrent Computer Corp., Diva Systems Corp. and nCUBE.

But it's enabling PVR for all TV programming that has the VOD sector excited. "We are tremendous believers in this," nCUBE senior vice president Dan Sheeran said.

At the Chicago Beach Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, nCUBE has deployed a four-channel PVR service where live analog-video feeds are streamed live to TVs and written to disc for access at a later time.

The analog video, Sheeran said, is encoded in real-time to MPEG-2 formatted video and streamed to set-top boxes. A viewer can rewind up to two hours of programming and pause and forward the video.

The Dubai deployment pales in comparison to what Sheeran ultimately envisions, with dozens of cable channels recorded and stored and made available to subscribers at their discretion.

Sheeran explained that one week's worth of programming would comprise 6,700 hours of video content. Together with 1,000 to 2,000 movie-on-demand titles, the storage requirements for such a service would be astronomical.

Those storage requirements would jeopardize the distributed-server model that's been advocated for VOD deployments. Such a scheme calls for storage to be placed down the hybrid fiber-coaxial network at the hub to store frequently accessed movie titles, while storing niche titles at the headend. That replication of PVR content would surely be prohibitive.

Consequently, Sheeran advocates serving all VOD and PVR content from a "superheadend" facility. By utilizing advanced optical-transmission technologies, such as dense-wave-division multiplexing, Sheeran believes on-demand content can be economically sent downstream, although he conceded that the digital-video-transmission and bandwidth-management technology may be a few years away.

Despite the huge technical obstacles, Sheeran believes that PVR over a VOD platform is ultimately a better solution for cable operators than incurring the cost of putting hard drives in set-top boxes for PVR use.

Many new advanced digital set-tops, such as those made by Pace Micro Technology plc and Philips Consumer Electronics Co., contain hard drives. Motorola's "DCT-5000" contains an IDE (integrated drive electronics) hard-drive interface.

In addition to the network issues involved with delivering PVR services on a cable system, Sheeran noted that resolving programming-rights issues and developing program-guide software to give customers a selection of what to buy loom as challenges.

Also sensing an opportunity for VOD providers is Diva executive vice president Ray McDevitt, who put an interesting spin on the programming-rights and rebroadcast issues.

McDevitt noted that archiving favorite programming is a major use of PVR applications, such as recording multiple Seinfeld episodes. Thus, he speculated that consumers can opt to store the programming locally, or theoretically, the cable operator could store the content.

If it was clearly the consumer's own archive that the operator was storing, and the consumer controlled it, McDevitt said, this arrangement may adequately alleviate rights fears.

He added that Diva can overcome programmers' fears that viewers will fast-forward through commercials.

Diva will be testing a PVR-type system in the next six months to one year. "Clearly, there's interest in this," he said.

SeaChange is also hearing interest from its customers about PVR. "We're working through licensing issues to be able to experiment in that space," vice president of marketing Ed Delaney said, adding that the company is working closely with an unnamed cable operator.

Last December, Concurrent-which recently scored VOD-service deals with Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications Inc.-announced development of a "personal-video-channel" feature for its video servers.

The feature allows viewers to "make appointments" with selected programming, which is recorded on a video server and stored for future playback.

Still another believer in cable's future as a PVR provider is Bill Wall, technical director for subscriber networks at Scientific-Atlanta Inc., who wrote a white paper on the subject. Wall cited the major engineering challenge of a "total VOD" scheme as reducing the cost and size of quadrature amplitude modulation to handle what would be an exponential increase in the number of video streams sent down the network from the headend.

With storage and memory costs dropping, he added, "It won't be very long when the economics [for a network PVR model] start to work." With cable networks now being designed with 500- to 1,000-home nodes, he said, there's easily enough bandwidth to handle PVR delivery.

While it's clear that PVR services are futuristic, VOD providers are seeking to add elements of personalized content to current offerings.

In a move to offer more program personalization, Diva is offering a program in Insight Communications Co. Inc. systems that have rolled out VOD services to deliver on-demand Discovery Channel and Turner Broadcasting System Inc. network content in niche or genre packages.