Clients and Friends
By Steve Rose
Monday, October 21, 2002
For more information about the topics and companies, follow the underlined links.
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There is a new “big picture” emerging in cable television. Each of the startups I’ve been working with over the last few years has a piece of the puzzle. Each can work independently, but there is tremendous synergy in putting them together. The end product is “everything on demand” (EOD), which has some amazing implications are summarized in the article Everything On Demand. I’ve been fortunate to be part of the invention process at each startup, working with some very talented folks who are also great friends. It all started with some consulting work for ATC (which quickly became Time Warner Cable, TWC) back in 1991, when they needed to figure out how to do video on demand (VOD), and gave me Queens as a thought model (1,000,000 subscribers!).
: Video Networks, Inc. (now Pathfire) Atlanta
Pathfire transmits compressed digital video via satellite multicast. Distributing content worldwide in an efficient, economical manner is the first step in EOD. Satellite multicast, with digital transmission and a guaranteed delivery algorithm, is about the fastest, most efficient, least expensive way to do the job. Pathfire has been a pioneer in this area, revolutionizing news clip distribution for NBC, for example. In the past, an engineer had to be present at each NBC affiliate to roll tape to record national and regional news stories received as analog video satellite transmissions. A bad tape, missed schedule, or faulty recorder anywhere meant that the transmission had to be repeated. With Pathfire, all clips are transmitted digitally (about four to ten times more bandwidth efficient), and each station receives them automatically. Only the portions that have been missed due to a sudden local downpour (rain fade) have to be retransmitted. When the director assembles the news, the clips come from a local server, instantly (no tapes need to be mounted). At Pathfire, I helped with an uplink management system devised by Joe Fabiano that may revolutionize the satellite business, and inadvertently designed the server deployed to NBC. Visit Pathfire at Pathfire.com. (Satellite control patent pending.)
: Advent Networks, Inc. Austin
My consulting partner, Dave Pangrac and I started thinking about how we would implement a 50 Mb/s per subscriber data system over a Hybrid Fiber Coax (HFC) architecture. Contemporary cable modem systems shared their 27 to 40 Mb /s of bandwidth among (typically) 4,000 subscribers, and the modems themselves could only pump out 2 to 3 Mb/s at the subscribers premises. Not only was this not enough for commercial quality video, but only ten or so subscribers would consume all of the bandwidth, leaving 3990 subscribers out of luck. We figured out a way to vastly simplify the headend modems, and increase their density, to enable dedicated data channels to each subscriber, offering telephony, Internet, video on demand, home security, utility monitoring and control, and other services. One key to this was figuring out how to handle the massive consolidated bandwidth at the point of distribution in an economical manner. Advent Networks was a result of those discussions when Dave was introduced to Geoff Tudor, a visionary and venture guy who became Advent’s CEO. Advent delivers 5 to 40 Mb/s per subscriber over conventional HFC, and uses native IP transport which simply enables true interactive services. For more information, see "Broadband Misconceptions" or visit Advent at Advent.Net. (Primary Advent patent pending.)
: Pangrac and Associates Aransas, TX
I’ve been affiliated with Dave Pangrac and P & A Consulting since it was formed in 1994. Dave had been on loan to CableLabs that year from TWC, where he was VP of Engineering (and where he and Don Gall, under Jim Chiddix as CTO, had invented HFC). At the end of the year, he decided to become an independent consultant, and asked me to join him, which was a great honor. A lot of our early work was with Andersen Consulting, and later with Charter and TWC in their VOD rollouts. Don eventually joined P & A, and we decided to start a development company to complement the consulting (we had had a lot of good product ideas from our experience). Of the six or so projects we started with, one was the Interactive Content Engine, which enables EOD. I had tried several times to start a server project based on the concepts stemming from the work for TWC in ’91 to ’93, but finally need and technology had converged to make it the right time to do the project. Visit Pangrac at BroadbandFuture.com. Max Morales has integrated all of the concepts discussed here in his IP-Net project.
: Agile TV Menlo Park, CA
With EOD, a subscriber’s programming choices go from “500 channels” to (eventually) hundreds of thousands of choices. How can viewers cope with the resulting complexity? Agile TV has the answer, and ironically, has come up with several other solutions along the way. The most natural way for viewers to interact with their “television” is to talk to it. All voice interaction to this point has been kind of gimmicky, but Agile is changing that with a system that can understand anyone as well as another human. They have also designed a system that people enjoy using. However, to implement this technology, they had to revolutionize the upstream bandwidth of set top boxes already deployed, and built (and tested) the world’s most powerful single box computer (100 times more processing power than the most widely used computer in the same size box)! I can’t be more specific than this, since they are still in stealth mode, but I’ve never had the pleasure of working with a more powerful group of people, who were so much fun! Mark Foster is their CTO, whose last project at Apple was the system architecture of the Titanium Mac (he revolutionized the design and manufacture of several products there). Agile's web site doesn't say much, but you can find it at Agile.TV. (Return bandwidth patent pending -- this is an earlier version, which we extended but the extensions are not yet published. In the meantime, I'm the space between the semicolons. However, here is a peek at my favorite org chart.)
: Interactive Content Engines Maui, HI
ICE is a P&A spinoff to further develop the server project. There is a lot of other information about ICE on this site and via links, so here is a three sentence summary of the implications of the project. First, ICE enables "everything on demand", where channel selection is done in the cable headend rather than at the television tuner, so that the only signals on the cable those that are actively being consumed and the cable operator recovers bandwidth previously wasted by signals that no one was watching. Second, it enables “Network Personal Video Recorder” (NPVR) functionality, similar to a TiVo or VCR: It allows pausing or rewinding any program, fast forwarding through commercials under some circumstances, and having access to a library of programs that will start with the last two weeks, and eventually become all programs, movies, etc. ever produced. Third, it enables “permission based” individually targeted advertising, tremendously increasing the value of ads for the viewer, advertiser, and cable operator. This adds up to a revolution in cable, as the availability of content need no longer be limited to the amount of bandwidth provided by the cable system, but is limited only by the storage space on the server – and for ICE, that is not a limit! This is a link to our company on Maui, where there are links to ICE related articles: Viaduct.TV. (Patent not yet published.)
Each of these companies has a major roll to play in the future of cable, but when their strengths are combined, a small but significant part of the world changes. Entertainment, education, on the job training, security, communication, interactivity, the workplace, the place of work, all change. The implications are fun to think about: When many people work from home, what happens to traffic and the environment? When everyone has video security which inherently gathers evidence off premises, and a thief has close to a 100% chance of being caught and convicted, what happens to crime? On the other hand, as Joan Van Tassel and I say, “Bandwidth equals proximity” (“You sound like you are right next door!”). When there is enough bandwidth to make videoconferencing truly effective, business travel which subsidizes the airlines diminishes, forcing higher travel prices (further favoring videoconferencing). (Unfortunately, this effect has started early with 9/11 and the current economy.) This is one of the reasons I’ve been willing to be on the road most of the time in the last few years – I’m not sure the opportunity to travel will be so common in the future, and I’ve really enjoyed working with my friends and feeling like the whole country is my home town.
Links to friends and family web sites (mostly family pictures):
The Hoopii Brothers
Leonard and Cindy Covington
Maui Rotary Club
Pangrac and Associates
Kapuni Tupua and Family
Nanette and Gundi Dancil
Steve Rose has lived on Maui since 1971, and worked in video, automation, multiuser and networked computers, and cable television. He has two daughters.