By Matthew Kelly  |  Posted 2005-04-25 Print this article Print

Pillai wouldnt specify how much Charter spends on VOD equipment. He did say that an open-source platform allowed Charter to cut its spending on new VOD hardware by 50 percent last year, and he estimates a 30 percent reduction of the new total this year. "The savings is in the millions," he said.

While Pillai was working with C-Cor to design one open-platform system, he was also working with another vendor to design a second system "to make sure we arent putting all our eggs into one basket," he said. For that project, Charter last year turned to N2Broadband (acquired by Atlanta-based Tandberg Television Inc. last month).

Much like its work with C-Cor, Charter focused on N2Broadbands business management software and API flexibility to tie front-end servers to the platform. "The pump is the most expensive part, but its also the dumbest," said Braxton Jarratt, Tandbergs vice president of marketing. "Its really just a bunch of drives and RAM sitting there."

Charters open-platform systems now fall into two broad categories. First is the C-Cor architecture, as seen in Malibu. C-Cor provides its nAble platform for the business management system and the session-resource manager. nAble then interfaces with a MediaBase video server from Kasenna Inc., and the stream is sent to the users Scientific-Atlanta set-top box.

Second is the Tandberg architecture, demonstrated in Allendale. N2Broadbands OpenStream platform manages the business system and session-resource manager. OpenStream interfaces with pumps from Concurrent Technologies Corp., a supplier for Charters earlier VOD efforts, and streams are sent to Motorola set-top boxes. The system also operates a catalog of VOD choices through Gemster-TV Guide International Inc.

Currently, more than half of all Charters digital-cable subscribers have access to VOD services, Pillai said. Once he, nCube and Tandberg perfected the basic open-platform architectures, the challenge was simply to solve integration problems with equipment in various markets.

"I wouldnt call it rocket science," Pillai said. "Its an art, yeah, but once you master the art, its pretty easy."

Matarese agreed that "at the level of laying out integration specifications, it can be very much a cookie-cutter approach." He expects the real chore for open-platform systems to be integration, as ever-more-sophisticated video services evolve. "Thats where the bulk of the work happens—proofing out these components," he said.

Ramping up for the future

Pillai said he believes an open-platform VOD system will not only save Charter money but also generate new revenue. Charters back-end systems already feed VOD subscriber data to analytics software, which helps the company scrutinize market demands and determine the VOD services people want.

"You cant just go and deploy VOD everywhere," Pillai said.

Deployments depend on the upfront cost of installation and the likely adoption rate by consumers; smaller, affluent communities might use VOD more fully than larger, lower-income markets.

Charters analytics software studies factors such as billing data and the percentage of free VOD offerings versus paid offerings. (The company has agreed to a one-year trial with Rentrak Corp., of Portland, Ore.) Already, Pillai said, usage data indicates that premium-channel VOD (for example, free on-demand Showtime for people who buy Showtime) prompts people to subscribe to premium channels.

Ultimately, Pillai said, Charter wants to see how VOD can reduce customer churn or boost subscriptions to premium channels such as Showtime and HBO. Hes also eyeing new services such as local VOD, high-definition offerings and even interactive advertising. "Were doing a lot more this year, actually," he said.

Matt Kelly is a free-lance writer in Somerville, Mass. He can be reached at

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