In the quest to prepare for DOCSIS 3.0 without undertaking the necessary step of replacing aging coax with fiber, Comcast has been playing around with several solutions designed to postpone the inevitable and squeeze more bandwidth from their copper turnip. The end result? Freeing up anywhere from 25% to 50% of their available bandwidth on the coax last mile.
One of the peskier problems with their bandwidth crunch is the FCC mandate to carry analog signals until 2012, well past the cutoff date for over-the-air analog signals. Analog signals, despite being lower quality, take up significantly more space than their digital counterparts and require transmitting a channel at least twice. RCN has already started a move towards 100% digital transmission by handing out digital-to-analog converter boxes to the hold-outs. Now Comcast is also getting in on it in a move to free up at at least 250MHz of bandwidth or about a quarter of what's available. It's a much better strategy than moving channels to digital tiers to try and force customers to upgrade.
They're also looking at expanding trials of switched digital video or SDV. The current ages-old method is to broadcast all available channels at the same time, an inefficient way to do things when only a handful of cutomers (if any) are watching ESPN 473. SDV helps solve some bandwidth crunch by only transmitting the channels being watched. Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of CableCARD users out in the cold as promised upgrades to support SDV (particularly on TiVos) have failed to materialize. Don't go claiming any conspiracy theories just yet; it's probably just a sign of CableCARD's poor acceptance in the marketplace. Sony is trying to rectify that by working on a new two-way standard from CableLabs.
Comcast is also working hard to transition the back end from MPEG-2 to the significantly more efficient MPEG-4. This also benefits customers of Comcast Media Center which reportedly includes Mstar. The biggest roadblock will be upgrading legions of older MPEG-2 capable STBs to the newer CODEC, many of which aren't flash-upgradable. While the focus is going to be on VOD and premium channels, more widespread adoption of MPEG-4 could cut the bandwidth footprint of video in half.
Comcast can't get these bandwidth savers in place fast enough. The competition for HD channels is fierce with Dish planning on hitting 100 HD channels by the end of next month. Both CableVision and Verizon are aggressively pursuing new HD channels to stay competitive with satellite providers and Comcast won't be sitting still either. With so many HD sets now in place and the digital cutoff rapidly approaching, the demand for HD content is exploding.
It's also worth noting that Comcast needs to clear the way for DOCSIS 3.0 deployments. SDV is being rolled out first in markets most likely to see DOCSIS 3.0 first such as the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. DSL Reports notes that as storage gets cheaper, demand for bandwidth to access that storage anywhere will only grow. Now is the time to get ahead of the curve.