MADISON, Wis.—We all know that cable TV is no longer the only destination for consumers to find video they want to watch. In fact, the proliferation of Internet Protocol-enabled devices—tablets, smartphones, notebook computers and game consoles—is already making a pricey subscription to cable TVs almost unacceptable, if not irrelevant, especially to younger audiences.
A big question is how soon cable operators—currently stuck with MPEG-2/QAM-based head-ends and set-tops–will migrate to an IP-based infrastructure.
The bad news is that it will be “at least 10-15 years before the MPEG-2 digital video switch-off,” estimates Stephen Froehlich, principal analyst at IHS Electronics & Media. If so, cable guys need to find new ways to stay relevant and competitive in the meantime--until they can deliver IP packetized video (instead of MPEG) to any device.
The good news is that several [technology] options—although each with some pros and cons—are available for cable operators to implement IP TV delivery over a hybrid fiber-coaxial plant. More than a few technology companies stand to gain from the transition.
Among them is Zenverge, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based fabless chip company founded by ex-Conexant engineers. The company is raising its profile on the market by offering cable/telco operators a chip capable of quad-stream HD transcoding with what the company claims as the world’s smallest memory footprint. Its quad stream HD transcoder not only “transcode” different audio and video compression formats, but also “transrate” to different bitrates, “transcale” to lower resolution, “transcript” different digital rights management.
Actually, there are a few North American cable companies already offering live broadcast channels and on-demand content via IP connection to devices connected to the DOCSIS network. In what is typically known as an “overlay network,” operators simulcast linear programming over IP and manage video processing separately from content delivered for traditional viewing. The problem with this approach is that none of the cable guys has unlimited amount of unicast bandwidth.
Zenverge comes in under two other scenarios: The first is where content is delivered over the traditional MPEG-2 transport infrastructure and is then encapsulated in IP packets for distribution—wired or wireless—to all devices within the home. The second is a hybrid distribution network, through which most content is delivered over MPEG-2 and encapsulated in IP at the home gateway, while some content, possibly VOD and new high-tier services, is delivered as managed service over DOCSIS.
In either case, Zenverge’s chip offers the ability to “transcode in real time and stream video in a resolution and bitrate each IP-enabled device can support,” explained Amir Mobini, CEO, president and co-founder of Zenverge in an interview with EE Times.
"the simple and elegant solution is to eliminate those broadcast QAM/MPEG-2 channels entirely."
Simple and elegeant yes, but also expensive. Replace all the edge QAMs in every neighborhood as well as replace every subscriber's STB. That's billions of dollars worth of simple & elegant.
What they need is an econmically viable transition plan that shifts the network allocation to less QAM/MPEG2 and more DOCSIS/IP without bankrupting the company. Perhaps Zenverge's transcoding strategy can be part of such a plan. If so, I expect it will happen more in the headless gateway realm rather than in the STB realm.
Cable companies don't need anything they don't already have, Junko, other than reconfiguring their existing infrastructure to more IP and less one-way streams. That's my point. (Also DrQuine's point.)
If you're going to have to install new STBs anyway, to make use of this Zenverge scheme, why not instead install STBs in which most or all of the 6 MHz channels on the cable can be allocated to Internet broadband access? That being done, now the cable company can offer more Internet bandwidth to their customers, and more, or even all, of their TV content over IP. Which they are already doing anyway, for access to tablets and smartphones.
In other words, nothing new needs to be invented. Just reapportion what you already have.
It seems to me that Zenverge would have more appeal to the satellite TV companies, where the two-way Internet pipes are far more difficult to provide.
There are many paths cable companies can take to eventually get to all IP infrastructure. I think a "transcoding" at home option Zenverge is offering is an interesting one.
Actually, a real story is how Zenverge managed to sneak into the STB market -- traditionally a stronghold of Broadcom and STMicroelectronics.
If things are transitioning to "headless" media home gateway architecture as Zenverge claims, what cable guys will need is not an overly complicated STB, but just a thin client and a MHG integrated with a residential gateway. That transition, in my opinion, is interesting to watch.
Since most cable providers are already offering broadcast and Internet to consumers along the same residential coax, shifting the balance between them would seem to be a very manageable task. It would be much more of a problem if the two could not coexist in the same wire or if devices didn't already exist to split the feeds at the residential end.
I'm sure that Zenverge wants to appeal to the traditional cable company architecture and cost structure, making the existing cableco broadcast channel(cable broadcast, that is) QAM/MPEG-2 streams relevant to IP devices. But honestly, the simple and elegant solution is to eliminate those broadcast QAM/MPEG-2 channels entirely, and convert the cableco PON networks to two-way IP pipes more effectively and completely.
For instance, instead of retaining the vast majority of the PON's 6 MHz channels for one-way broadcast QAM/MPEG-2 TV streams, you distribute these 6 MHz channels to individual households in each PON neighborhood, as their IP broadband link. Making much more efficient use of the PON's capacity to provide two-way IP pipes.
Having done that, each household would have enough capacity to watch two, three, maybe more, HDTV streams that are IP encapsulated. For those live events that "everyone" wants to watch simultaneously, the cableco can deliver the streams as IP multicast, within the confines of their network, to save on unicast sessions.
The Zenverge solution could be a short-term transitional solution maybe, although I'm not even sure how necessary it is today. I thought a lot of cable companies were already providing IP streams for their customers "anywhere/anytime." Seems to me that there are no show-stopper technical obstacles anymore, in this regard. The only obstacles are that the cablecos want to retain their tiered bundles and pricing structure. And even there, ultimately they could do this over an all-IP network anyway.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.