Thursday, May 3, 2007

Switched Digital does not threaten TelcoTV

I spoke with Mot0rola t0day about their switched digital offering. Switched digital uses the same multicast techniques that TelcoTV users for channel selection for cable digital services. The way it works is that the set-top box sends a channel switch request to the headend when the subscriber requests a new channel. The headend then selects an unused digital slot and uses it to bring the requested channel to the subscriber or ties into the slot that is already being used to bring that channel to other viewers.

This frees up digital channels carrying unwatched channels and increases the number of channels that the cable company can provide. Rather than being limited to the number of slots, an indefinite number of channels can be provided, similar to a TelcoTV service. Only the channels watched will take up actual slots on the cable.

Cable companies are starting to deploy this technology. They will have to decrease the number of homes that they service with a fiber to coax converter called an optical networking unit (ONU). That number varies today but is typical around 500 homes. In order to eliminate blocking, cable companies will have to decrease this to somewhere around 100 homes per ONU.

You can get more information on Motorola's approach to switched digital at

Switched digital helps the cable companies by making better use of the spectrum on its plant. This will help the cable companies to provide more broadcast channels, support more video on demand viewers, and support new DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem services.

Switched digital will be available to only the approximately half of the cable subscribers in the U.S. that subscribe to digital services. It will not be available to the other half that subscribe to only analog services.

The analog cable subscribers will be the most liable to switch to TelcoTV services. Switched digital does not do anything to protect this part of the cable subscriber base.These analog customers will be just as likely to switch to TelcoTV services before switched digital services are introduced as after.

What switched digital will do is make cable digital services more competitive with TelcoTV services. Adding switched digital services will protect this digital cable subscriber base as well as free up spectrum. Of course, the cable companies recognize this and have been migrating analog customers to digital at a steady rate.


Unknown said...

What are the barriers towards migrating all the analog subs to digital subs? Is it simply a question of digital STB or something more complicated?
If it is the main barrier, the best thing MSOs can do is agressively subsidizing of digital STBs packages .
Do you think deploying digital simulcast paid off in retrospect, or perhaps the MSOs could have skipped that phase ?


Bob Larribeau said...


There are two issues here. Outside of the U.S. the caable companies and Europe have been slow to invest in the HFC cable infrastructure required to support digital TV. This has started recently and we are starting to see higher growth of digital TV in these regions.

In the U.S. HFC technology is widely deployed. The cost of the set-top box is clearly a major issue. The cost of upgrading all subscribers to digital set-top boxes is probably three times the investment in HFC technology. Consequently, the U.S. cable companies used digital services to increase ARPUs and regain the their investment.

This strategy allowed the satellite services in the U.S. to take 25% of the market away from them. The cable companies did not believe that satellite was a significant threat until it was already well established.

Today digital services seem to be picking up some momentum. The availablility of set-top boxes with hard disks that provide PVR functions has helped. The biggest factor is the growing popularity of flat panel HDTVs. The popularity and low price of HDTVs will cause more people to subscribe to digital services.

Of course, there is a large group of people that just do not want a set-top box. I think this group is getting smaller based on the desire to have PVR capabilities and to get HD content.

Unknown said...

Thanks Bob

I am just wondering whether the financial benefits from having a fully switched digital network outweigh the costs of a digital STB plus SDV equipment that is estimated around 5-10$ per sub?

This could give cable the ultimate combination. They can fight FiOS in the limited areas it is available plus it can fight the large amount of HD channels DBS operators can offer on a nation wide basis.

The basic idea is being ahead of the telcos in terms of footprint and ahead of the satellite companies in terms of interactivity and upstream.


Bob Larribeau said...


I will respond to your comment one paragraph at a time.

I don't think I understand your first paragraph. The switched digital technology the cable companies is the only choice that cable companies have to better utilize the spectrum that they have allocated to digital TV services.

Of course, the really big win for them is to get rid of analog entirely, but this will require a major investment in digital set-top boxes and will be resisted by many of the remaining analog subscribers.

I see cable switched digital as a defensive rather than offensive technology. It helps the cable companies increase the number of digital channels they offer to achieve parity with satellite or Telco offerings. It does not put them ahead.

About your third paragraph, the cable companies in North America own the lion's share of the market. Satellite has gained about 25% market share. The North American telcos will be doing well if they reach 10% market share by the end of 2011.

The goal of the cable companies in North America is to hold as much of their market share as they can. The total market has reached saturation and will not grow much. The problem for the TelcoTV and satellite companies is to take as many subscribers from the cable companies as they can.

The situation is quite different in most countries outside of North America. With a few exception, there is still pleny of growth left in the pay TV market in other regions.