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How Cable & Video Service Providers Can Meet Bandwidth Demands

We explore the current approaches to create new services using the existing spectrum that video and cable operators are using, and explore new options.
April 22, 2021
4-Minute Read
Vice President, Video Strategy

In the US alone, over 72 million homes and businesses rely on a broadband connection to meet their streaming needs. However, the demand for more bandwidth has increased over 35% since the early days of the pandemic and shows no signs of slowing down, making some providers scramble to find scalable solutions.

Working from home, virtual seminars, video conferencing, non-stop streaming, virtual education and activities and other strains on bandwidth is really just the beginning. The time has come for video and cable providers to ensure their services are able to handle the bandwidth-intensive demands as adoption of new digital applications accelerates. 

So, what solutions are operators turning to? One piece in the puzzle is bandwidth optimization thanks to advanced video compression. 

Below, we explore the current approaches to create new services using the existing spectrum that video and cable operators are using, and explore new options: 

  • Content-aware encoding
  • HEVC and HD
  • DOCSIS with Remote PHY
  • DTT UHD 
  • 5G

We’ll also take a look at how Europe and the US are finding solutions along with some insights on how 5G is being utilized. 

Content-Aware Encoding Can Help Any Operator Reclaim Spectrum

An additional option is using content aware encoding (CAE) to reduce the bitrate and therefore the spectrum capacity. 

During COVID-19, many OTT operators were taken by surprise as they had no plan for the traffic surge during the stay-at-home period. In order to accommodate 30-50% increases in traffic, some companies (like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) reduced the video traffic by reducing the video bitrate by 30-50%. This, of course, brought a reduction in video quality. 

Operators with their own network also decided to deploy CAE in order to reduce the bitrate. One Latin American operator has deployed Harmonic’s EyeQ and has measured a 50% reduction of its backbone traffic and 30% of CDN peak usage. With EyeQTM and CAE, combined with Harmonic’s PURE compression engineTM the operators could reclaim spectrum capacity and still deliver a better Quality of Experience (QoE), without changing anything in the network. 

Another example is a cable MSO in Europe that deployed EyeQ on the full line-up of its QAM cable network, allowing them to save five QAM channels. The transition from an existing VBR system was able to save 50 % bitrate, conserving the same quality. 

CAE is most commonly used in the OTT video streaming space, although it can also be effectively used for QAM applications.  Combine CAE with a vCMTS and R-PHY solution with DOCSIS 3.1, and you’ll be ready to deliver faster broadband and unrivaled video quality to subscribers on every screen.


Adopting HEVC and HD

Another option to reclaim video bandwidth is by using a more modern codec like HEVC and outfitting subscribers with UHD set-top-boxes that natively support HEVC. Yet, providing new set-top-boxes can be costly. 

However, it must be noted that after Apple announced that it would support the HEVC video compression standard across all of its platforms in June 2017, it quickly brought awareness to the fact that iOS traffic counts for roughly half of all video streaming and that the UHD set-top boxes might be a worthwhile investment.

Today, we estimate that HEVC subscriber share is around 13% and still has large growth potential. 

Cable Operators Leverage DOCSIS 3.1 and vCMTS with Remote PHY to Reclaim Spectrum

Cable Operators, faced with tough competition from incumbents using Fibre to the Home technologies and soon also 5G Wireless, are increasingly looking for ways to provide more of their valuable spectrum for Data services.

One option is to utilize a fully virtualized Cable Modem Termination System (vCMTS) such as Harmonic’s CableOS® software. This option provides the flexibility to introduce Remote-PHY Technology.  Remote-PHY will allow cable operators to move the Radio components of a Cable System deeper into their network, improving signal quality. This improvement in signal quality enables the use of higher-order modulation schemes supporting higher data rates in the same amount of spectrum that was utilized previously. Higher-order modulation schemes, therefore, allow more video channels to be accommodated in less spectrum, allowing an optimization of the spectrum specifically dedicated to video services. The resulting liberation of spectrum previously allocated to video allows more spectrum to be allocated to data, enabling higher service levels to be offered to customers.

The other benefit of this vCMTS technology is that it can significantly reduce operating costs while enhancing today’s service and create flexibility to further scale bandwidth and customer footprint as its business grows.

How Operators in Europe and U.S. Are Using DTT UHD 

Terrestrial operators are forced to pack their current service in order to enable the introduction of a new UHD multiplex. In France, for example, the plan is to have five multiplexes.

In order to enable such transition, providers need to save 15-20% bitrate per HD AVC DVB-T mux, which would create enough spectrum for a UHD DVB-T2 of say 34M/s that will carry sever UHD and HD services in VBR using HEVC codec. As the HD AVC mux is already encoded in VBR, only AI technology can bring an additional 15-20% on top of the already optimized VR encoding. 

Note that similar repack activity also took place in the US for ATSC 3.0 where the existing MPEG-2 SD/HD channels were repacked in order to free bandwidth used for the UHD HEVC deployment. The major difference between US and France is that in the US some broadcasters decided to merge or sell their license, while in France the migration will keep all “legacy” HD AVC channels. 

5G Spectrum Demands and Essential Services

In the US, the FCC recently mandated the C-Band to users to give roughly half of its spectrum to the 5G network, for the so-called mid-band of 3.45-3.55 GHz. This was, until recently, used by Head End In The Sky (HITS) providers to feed nationwide Cable MSOs with the signal encoded in MPEG-2 provided by content providers. 

With the MPEG-4 AC codec, it is now possible to reduce the bitrate by a factor of 2. Although, at the Cable headend you’ll need to re-encode to MPEG-2 in order to ensure compatibility with any already-deployed set-top-boxes (STBs) that don’t have MPEG-4 AVC capability.

To help roll out this transition of C-Band, SES and Harmonic have partnered to provide technology upgrades. This partnership will help to free up spectrum for 5G while simultaneously enabling SES’s C-band customers to maintain the quality and resilience of their critical video services.

Multiple Options to Reclaim Spectrum

The above examples of leveraging compression enable creation of new services on the existing spectrum using DOCSIS 3.1, DTT UHD and CAE. Efficient video delivery is a key success factor for content providers in the cable and video space. You have options when deciding how to best meet the changing demands that impact your video delivery business. Contact Harmonic to learn more about how our cloud-native platforms for video and cable access that can help you optimize and scale with unprecedented agility.

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