When consumers hear the words “cable company,” the first thing that comes to their minds is probably a nationwide giant like Comcast or Charter. But most of the operators in the industry are smaller local and regional providers, many of which are still trying to make the transition from legacy architectures built on analog coax and protocols such as Time Division Multiplexing, to more modern digital networks optimized for the Internet Protocol suite.
Challenges in the IP transition
The challenges of making the big – and ultimately beneficial – move to IP distribution are significant. A few of the most prominent ones include:
Supporting two technology stacks at the same time
A car doesn’t instantly go from 0 to 60 miles per hour, but ramps up gradually over the course of several seconds. Something similar applies to cable infrastructures, which are being moved to IP bit by bit, instead of all at once or overnight. Although correct, this approach means a slow rate of change as well as a need to juggle different pieces of tech across the network.
“The transition phase to IP must be handled carefully.”
For example, think of your typical legacy set-top box (STB). The user interface might be fairly simplistic and harder to look at, due to the fact that it was designed to accommodate analog or digital linear channels and each software update – the product of a long development cycle – has to support many older models in addition to the newer ones.
Moreover, operators may find themselves with separate silos for various compression technologies. Yaron Raz described this situation in greater technical detail in a 2015 article for CED Magazine. Basically, there’s going to be a transition phase that must be properly managed in order to put a lid on the associated costs and various technical support issues.
Running up other high costs during your upgrade
If you regularly buy a new iPhone or laptop, then you know the costs of an upgrade. With cable providers, such expenses can take the form of new encoders, middleware software, content management systems, expensive set-top boxes plus the specific fees that come with things like new and more capable versions of DOCSIS. These charges may be higher than what you paid when relying solely on previous standards and protocols such as QAM.
At the same time, the seemingly insatiable consumer demand for over-the-top video puts plenty of pressure on IP networks while also competing with traditional cable for eyeballs. According to a Sandvine study, OTT services rose from 14 percent to 62 percent of all U.S. Internet traffic just between 2008 and 2013. When a bunch of viewers all tune into the same service or to a live channel delivered over the Internet, extra bandwidth and other network resources are necessary for ensuring adequate service.
These extras are not free, of course. Overall, DOCSIS services in addition to the rest of the vast and complicated IP ecosystem can take a toll on both your technical and financial teams. The benefits of having an IP-oriented architecture in place are numerous – e.g., a better user experience, easier STB updates, etc. – but the journey to obtain them is not always quick or easy in lieu of the right solution.
A high-functionality, low-cost solution to the cable IP transition
Staring down the obstacles lying in the way of a successful move from legacy systems to IP, cable operators may feel that they have no option but to shell out a high sum for new equipment and services. However, high functionality does not have to come a high cost.
Solutions such as the Evolution Digital Hybrid IP STB enable an efficient and cost-effective transition to IP. The low-cost Evolution STB includes a QAM tuner that tunes to existing linear content, and an IP port to enable transition and growth of IP services like deeper VOD catalogs, OTT and IoT. Combined with its integrated IP video and VOD service called eVUE-TV, cable operators can now kick off a natural progression of services from legacy transport to IP, while immediately adding value to their products via IP apps.
The cable industry is currently undergoing a major transition, and it will be a while before legacy STBs and protocols are completely or even mostly phased out. The shift doesn’t have to be an overly expensive one.Thanks to hybrid solutions that bundle many advanced capabilities into an affordable package, cable operators can transition to IP distribution over time and fully leverage their existing infrastructures while delivering new IP services demanded by their customers.