Delivering Quadruple-Play Services

By: Col K K Sharma


Charles Dickens once wrote, "Change begets change. Nothing propagates so fast... and what rock was before becomes but sand and dust." Although Dickens could never have imagined what the world would look like 150 years after he wrote those words, the sentiment must ring especially true to the present-day service providers who are seeing their industry transform virtually before their eyes.

Today's providers of voice and data services, wireless services, and television built hugely successful business models around delivering one or two services extremely well. However, service providers now recognize that the days of delivering voice, video, data, and wireless services as distinct offerings, with each delivered over its own network, accessed using its own device, and billed as a single subscription, are rapidly fading away.

To succeed in the future, service providers will need to deliver all types of rich media to all subscribers. Even more important, they must develop the capacity to deliver media to a wide range of fixed and mobile devices and be able to provide a consistent, high-quality experience across all environments. Ultimately, they must transform from traditional providers of access based services to"allinclusive experience providers" that can offer the full quadruple play of voice, video, data, and mobile media to subscribers anywhere, anytime, on any device. Although traditional wire line service providers have well-developed strategies for delivering voice and Internet/data services successfully, video represents an entirely new challenge and more complex proposition. However, it is ultimately the video experience that will promote and differentiate the offering in tomorrow's quadruple-play marketplace. Although today's cable operators currently have a head start in video services, the reality is that the changing media landscape will present new challenges to the'm as well, as subscribers demand new types of rich media experiences that go beyond the capabilities of today's cable video infrastructures. Cisco envisions a future in which subscribers use service providers' media networks in the same way they use the Internet today as a fully interactive environment. In this paradigm, passive (and even basic on-demand) viewing of video entertainment will be supplanted by myriad next generation CT applications that the service provider will have to support. Indeed, in tomorrow's media landscape, video will be the prevalent type of content used in a broad range of interactive, user-generated, and community-oriented applications that subscribers will expect their service providers to support.

What do service providers need to understand in order to create a differentiated media experience and build a robust, highly scalable foundation for delivering the applications of tomorrow? From a top-level, end-to-end system standpoint, the answer can be broken down into the following distinct but complementary domains:

Service providers need tools to effectively define the media experience in the headend and content-on-demand system (CDS).

Then, the service providers have to preserve that experience as it is delivered to the subscriber over the intelligent Internet protocol (IP) network.

Finally, the service providers have to realize that experience exactly as intended in the customer home. Each of these domain requirements present-its own unique challenges. However, at Cisco, we believe the way to address all of them lies in building an intelligent, media-aware service network that can integrate many types of content and services into a single, comprehensive, end-to-end system based on the intelligent IP network infrastructure.

Defining the Media Experience

The media experience initiates and ultimately is defined in the service provider's headend and CDS. The video headend is the defining factor for the visual aspects of media experience that is complemented and enhanced with the "interactivity" aspect of CDS. In the define domain, service providers need the following proven technologies and strategies for media content:

Acquisition

Processing

Encoding

Content Delivery

Management

Service providers have to use broad expertise to help ensure that analog, digital, and IP technologies closely interoperate to produce.the desired quality of experience (QoE) end result. Achieving this is no small task, especially for wireline carriers embarking on video services for the first time. Video headends encompass a wide range of technologies and formats and demand a wide range of skill sets spanning the whole spectrum from the latest Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) encoding to radio frequency (RF) technologies.

Acquisition

Video acquisition alone can encompass satellite, off-air, and fiber sources, each using its own format and encryption protocols. The acquired heterogeneous media content must be decrypted, converted, and multiplexed into a single video service, which is a complex challenge that requiresmany components to work together. Since every service provider offers its own menu of channels and services, with each requiring a unique mix of technologies, the video acquisition component of the headend must be built from the beginning as a customized solution. For the most part, the headend must be designed, tested, and assembled as a customized solution for each service provider, depending on the specific mix of content and services that will be delivered.

Processing

Processing media for distribution has become a particularly complex challenge. In the past, when all subscribers accessed similar types of media on the same type of device, the process was relatively straightforward. Today, the situation has changed significantly, and in emerging quadplay environments, subscribers might be just as likely to access content from a three-inch wireless phone display as from a 100-inch high-definition television. Service providers need state-of-the art capabilities for transrating and transcoding capabilities to optimize content for any format or screen size and provide a consistent high-quality experience regardless of the way media is accessed. To create a more profitable offering, most service providers also want to build capabilities for targeted, even personalized, ad insertion, which might require real-time muxing and remuxing of thousands of simultaneous streams from a variety of sources, further increasing the complexity of media processing.

Encoding

Using the right tools to encode media especially video is the most important part of the "define" domain. More than any other factors, it is the video-encoding technology, especially the implementation of that technology, that determines the quality of the media experience. As demand for high-bandwidth content, especially high-definition video, continues to increase rapidly, many service providers are turning to MPEG-4 advanced video compression (AVC) encoding, which requires approximately half the bandwidth of the MPEG-2 technology long used in the existing networks. However, MPEG-4 AVC encoding is an extremely complex process encompassing a much larger set of variables than MPEG-2 algorithms. In addition, MPEG-4 high definition is extremely sensitive to high motion, noise, and rapid luminance changes. Two providers might use the MPEG-4 AVC format to encode the same media source, but depending on the brand of the encoder, the end results subscribers see might be sharply different.

Content Delivery

As subscriber expectations for accessing and interacting with media evolve, service providers are turning to new media distribution platforms that deliver more personalization, localization, and on-demand access. However, modern media services such as time-shifted television, personalized ad insertion, and network-based digital video recorders (DVRs) place huge demand on media networks. Service providers need distribution systems that can ingest, store, manage, personalize, and stream vast amounts of content from anywhere on the network and help ensure that all content is available instantly to any subscriber, anywhere. Many service providers currently have video-on-demand (VoD) distribution systems in place that actually function effectively as large, centralized video servers. These systems can provide a good solution for basic VoD applications, but they have inherent limitations that prevent them from being ideal distribution platforms for tomorrow's quad-play services. Most notably, they are difficult to scale as the subscriber base and content library grow.

Management

Because of the broad mix of technologies and applications in the headend, service providers will also want to make sure they have management tools that allow them to monitor and control all heterogeneous components from a single system and, ultimately, from a single screen. Since many video hubs do not have on-site staff, carriers must be able to manage all solutions across the service network-including third-party devices remotely.

Preserving the Media Experience

The quality of the media experience is defined in the video headend and CDS, but service providers need a quadruple-play network capable of preserving and sustaining that experience and delivering it to subscribers exactly as intended. To do that, the network needs to possess "application-aware" intelligence to distinguish content types and handle each accordingly. The network also must be simple to operate, scale to millions of subscribers, and provide a range of video-specific capabilities, including rapid channel change times, end-to-end video quality experience (VQE), and robust security.

Realizing the Media Experience

The final component in delivering a compelling media experience is the most important because here the content directly interacts with the subscriber and the experience is re-created though the ears and eyes of the consumer, and a set-top box or mobile video device must deliver an undistorted high-fidelity rich-media experience. If subscribers' in-home and mobile devices do not provide the quality and features needed to fully realize the experience, the "define" and "preserve" segments of the quad-play system will be irrelevant.

Building a Media Platform

Clearly, the processes of defining, preserving, and realizing the media experience will draw on very different strategies, each requiring unique technologies and approaches to deliver optimal results. The media networks of the future will require a holistic approach to the end-to-end system and will need to provide many types of content and services to all subscribers. With these types of requirements, using a loose-fitting assortment of technologies from multiple providers is naturally going to produce a media platform that is less efficient and more costly to own and operate. The ideal quadruple-play platform should be a true end-to-end system that provides built-in intelligence, flexibility, and scalability to support a large and continuously expanding suite of media applications. With the ability to integrate and manage all types of content and services with a single converged infrastructure, service providers have more flexibility to extend the capabilities and scale of that network over time.

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Col Sharma is a telecom engineer and a law graduate who has been the Chief Editor of Cable Quest Magazine for the last 15 years. India's leading magazine for Satellite TV Broadcasting, Digital Broadcasting, Digital TV, Cable TV, Direct TV, Satellite TV, Satellite Television, Cable Operators Industries.

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