High-speed internet is no longer a luxury. It’s a requirement as services like Ultra-High Definition (UHD) or 4K broadcast, ultra-High-Speed Data (HSD), high definition (HD) video, and countless connected devices add more pressure to the network.
For cable operators, the pressure is valid – for much is at stake thanks to what can be described as an “Over-The-Top (OTT) double-edged sword” of increased cord-cutting and competitive streaming services. Oddly enough, growth in fast and reliable internet service availability is what led to the decline of cable operator’s video revenue stream as it paved the way for OTT service providers such as Netflix, Hulu, and most recently Disney.
With 70 percent of adult TV viewers streaming at least some of their video content, OTT has transformed the cable and video industry, and with high-speed service the new norm – cable operators need to enhance their existing infrastructure. High-speed users will not tolerate service disruptions or quality issues, yet aging coaxial plant, analog repeaters, and dependence on the power grid make meeting customer demand for fast and reliable service a challenge. So, what steps can cable operators take to provide a greater level of service?
To begin with, the adoption of virtualization technologies and trends like Head Ends Re-Architected as a Data Center (HERD), which is the version of the telco Central Office Re-architected as a Data Center (CORD) initiative for the cable operator market, will be important. Another key differentiator will be extending fiber closer to subscribers with what is described as a Fiber Deep evolution.
Perhaps most importantly, however, cable operators need to prepare networks to support a better experience today, allowing companies to offer differentiating features in the future.
Highly Responsive Internet Services Are Key
As user demand for high-speed internet and connectivity continue to increase, so too will cable operators’ need to focus on network responsiveness and Quality of Experience (QoE). For example, storing content locally can improve performance and provide access to the content that users want, when they want it.
Locally stored or “cached” content can be easily exploited by cable operators because they already have a “last-mile” presence, owning a coaxial cable to the home and with HERD have the ability to free up rack or floor space. Being in the neighborhood – rather than far away in a large data center – has an impact on network responsiveness and, especially during peak hours, Quality of Service (QoS). The cable headend has for many years served up on-demand content but will need to make one more transformation to bring content even closer to consumers.
Streaming content from an out-of-state data center can result in poor performance, reducing customers QoE. Instead, leveraging the HERD approach and utilizing data center technologies like virtualization, caching and Software-Defined Networking (SDN) in the headend, operators can keep customers satisfied, lower the abandonment rate and ensure the advertisers get compensated.
Reimagining Content Distribution
Let’s examine Netflix as the poster child for OTT – a prime example of a company that has innovated its networks out of necessity, providing a glimpse into the future of internet-based streaming. The company realized that legacy internet was not robust enough for the new mobile generation. Originally, Netflix used the cloud for internet-based streaming. As a cloud based service, content was often delivered from a distant data center, users frequently became dissatisfied with the poor QoE, and many canceled their service. Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) helped partially solve the problem but they still lacked the ability to scale with demand and would lag, hindering performance.
To overcome this challenge, Netflix reimagined content distribution and placed servers close to the internet’s edge, resulting in near real-time responsiveness. Netflix is only one example and many other traditional broadcasters have created plans or are already offering OTT and “To Go” offers. Cable is a catalyst for these innovations fueled by their high-speed data services and video pedigree. They pioneered On-Demand and have the infrastructure and know-how for future trends in social networking, lifestyle, and media consumption.
The headend is already an aggregation point for video, internet, and mobility and is poised to perform even better with virtualization technologies like SDN and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). By moving and virtualizing the network, cable operators can make all content responsive to the end user, improving latency and providing a platform for content aggregation that can support virtual, augmented or live/real-time events such as the Super Bowl or a heavyweight boxing match.
And by driving fiber deeper, operators can further improve performance, capacity and operations. Fiber deep architecture pushes data center technology closer to subscribers, eliminating asymmetric connections and the need for costly power-hungry Radio Frequency (RF) amplifiers. It also increases bandwidth to the subscriber – allowing for support of higher speeds for newer and more numerous services – and reduces both operational and capital expenses regarding power, troubleshooting, and maintenance.
Merging Storage, Compute, & Transport – the Self-Driving Network
Today’s ability to easily interact with content and with 70 percent of US consumers binge-watching television regularly, it is essential for cable operators to provide a differentiated user experience for users. To do so, they will continue to rely on a combination of compression, caching, and CDN technologies but will require a network that in the future will adapt to effectively tune the right resources like augmenting storage, balancing compute and dialing up bandwidth as the network automates to adapt to new and emerging trends.
One-size-fits-all cable networks are no longer sustainable. Evolving the network to a dynamic, agile, and autonomous network as an engine for innovation is key to their success. By offering the right mix of bandwidth and orchestration, cable operators will be able to take their businesses to the next level, keeping OTT consumers and existing customers content, while making cable operators’ value chain impossible to resist for new users.