Getting Ready for VOD? Start with Those ‘Non-Responders’
by Leslie Ellis // February 24 2003
And there it sits, a plastic lump. Maybe it hears the queries, but doesn’t answer. Maybe it doesn’t hear the queries, so it can’t answer. You don’t really know.
Month after month, billing cycle after billing cycle, the taciturn lump inside your customers’ homes just sits there. Stubbornly, it refuses to say whether it holds any data worth retrieving.
In the language of machine misbehavior, that unsociable slab of plastic is known as a “non-responder.” In the lore of unspoken industrial patterns, non-responder boxes typically represent around 10% of the installed base of two-way set-tops, both analog and digital.
Put another way: Say you run a system with 100,000 digital video customers. Right now, as you read this, 10,000 of those customers could be using boxes that seem like they’re as deaf as doorknobs.
Up until now, non-responders haven’t really mattered. They’ve been a pest, not a panic: More like the check that doesn’t clear, statement after statement.
Historically, non-responders weren’t even important enough to roll a truck. The primary downstream video service still worked, and the lost-revenue risk was fixed. That’s because set-tops are usually installed with a pay-per-view maximum. Let’s say it’s 20 events. If the billing system still hasn’t been able to retrieve event purchase information after the 20th event, no more events. (The customer then becomes the mechanism to report the non-responder.)
These days, though, the upsurge in services that lean on the upstream part of the signal path is equating non-responders with outages. The logic: A revenue-bearing service that isn’t working, for whatever reason, is an outage. In the world of two-way, there are now upstream outages, and downstream outages.
It follows that what was once a niggling issue – finding and fixing non-responders — is now a readiness criterion in most U.S. VOD deployments.
Most MSOs — or at least those active with VOD and SVOD – now strongly encourage single-digit percentages, in the 3-5% range, for non-responder boxes. Finding and fixing non-responders becomes part of the get-ready list for VOD, just like buying equipment and training staff.
Can You Hear Me Now?
In general, a box is considered a non-responder if it hasn’t heeded a series of two or three “ping tests” a day, for a few weeks. Queries happen at least monthly, and are sequential: Each box is polled for information, one by one, in a big circle. The best results come at night and on weekends, when more people are watching TV.
There are lots of reasons why boxes become non-responders. Most of the reasons – north of 90%, by some engineering estimates – start inside the house. The set-top plugged into the electrical outlet that’s wired to the wall switch, for example, becomes a non-responder each time a hand flips off the light switch.
Or, consider the fix-it type, who outfits the house with an elaborate maze of splitters and house amplifiers, probably purchased from the corner store, probably not of a grade that a professional installer would use. Cheap or loose fittings, as well as connectors clamped on with whatever hand tool is closest, instead of a specific crimping tool, can make a box into a non-responder real fast.
In other cases, the problem is a filter (also known as a “trap.”) In the 1990s, when the last, big plant upgrades began, some MSOs decided to take a shortcut to the two-way finish-line. They did so by installing “band-stop” filters on the houses of customers who didn’t subscribe to a two-way service. That way, any electrical noise from those homes wouldn’t gunk up the already noisy upstream path.
A box operating inside a house with a bandstop filter is automatically a non-responder: The filter blunts the upstream transmission.
Or, in some cases, the box may have been a non-responder since it began its working life. Ask any installer how long it takes to get a “ping” to a freshly installed set-top, once the customer care department has been contacted to initiate the order. In a perfect world, the care agent instructs the billing system to “ping” the box, which happens immediately. In reality, there’s sometimes so much other stuff going on that it takes longer than even a patient installer wants to wait, to get that first, confirming ping.
When you ask engineers if they have the diagnostic tools they need to wipe out non-responders, the resultant smile registers somewhere between “you’re kidding, right?” and “may I speak freely?”
Most say the situation is much better than it was a year ago, and that diagnostic tools continue to evolve to meet the tighter non-responder rules. Most also say there’s more to be done — like a hand-held ping generator that sidesteps the need for the installer to phone the customer care agent, who interlaces the ping with whatever else the provisioning system is doing.
Regardless, it’s probably time to revisit your non-responder elimination plans, especially if you’re getting ready to launch VOD.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
Wireless Eight-Oh-Two-Dot-Eleven What?
by Leslie Ellis // February 10 2003
The week containing Valentine’s Day seems a good time for a break from the translatables of “the digital TV transition,” which even the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission recently acknowledged as a “tortured path.”
Happily, the “current events” list for technology always contains something worth examining. Wireless, for example. If my e-mailbox is any indication, wireless is stirring the curiosities of lots of people. WiFi, the 802.11x, Bluetooth – and that’s the short-list.
Wireless matters because it’s on an innovation streak. It is unmistakably winding its way into consumer gadgetry. Manufacturers hope it gets as crazy as digital cameras and DVD players.
On the other side of the equation, wireless access points, where you can “plug in” to bandwidth with an antenna card for the laptop, seem to be cropping up everywhere. (Is it just me, or is it half-tempting to look down at your jacket when passing these places — to see if any bits are piling up on the fabric, like invisible digital lint?)
Wireless shouldered comfortably against HDTV headlines at the two events that open every new technology year: The Consumer Electronics Show, and, a week later, the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers’ annual Conference on Emerging Technologies. (Best tech groaner joke from ET: The description of wireless as “unshielded twisted air.”)
At CES, wireless gadgetry included a portable, color TV display, with noticeably rich picture quality. It didn’t take much to imagine how great it would be to dump a few episodes of The Charlie Rose Show onto such a device, to watch on the plane.
Technical dissertations on wireless techniques easily filled a half day of ET’s two-day treasure trove this year. One presentation discussed a chip that lets your cell phone act as your home phone — like when somebody misplaces the cordless, which is ringing, but you can’t find it.
Or, downloading remote control commands into a Bluetooth-equipped phone, so the phone could act as a backup remote control — like when it gets wedged between the magazines and the cushions. (This evokes memories of “GI Joey,” an unrealized General Instrument Corp. demo of a combination remote control/phone, a decade ago.)
The dynamic duo of high-bandwidth wireless, and tighter compression for digital video, are mostly what’s driving the hopes (and fears) about wireless.
In general, wireless talk has two benchmarks: Speed and distance. It follows that tradeoffs exist: Speed eats distance.
It helps to enter wireless discussions knowing the linkages between bandwidth, throughput speeds, and compression rates. Compressed digital video pictures generally chew up about 3.75 Mbps, for “standard definition” TV, like what’s sold in a digital cable package. Advanced compression techniques on the near horizon pinch that to 1 Mbps.
And now, the wireless types. There’s Bluetooth, which does about 1 Mbps in the 2.4 GHz spectrum, and is strong against interference from the microwave or the cordless phone (which use the same spectral area) because it slices itself up into little pieces that can hop around 1,600 times per second, on 79 different channels. It was designed for short-range use – around 33 feet, tops. (For now.)
“WiFi” refers to the variations on the IEEE 802.11 standard, which carries nearly as many one-letter suffixes (a, b, and g) as “on-demand” has one-letter prefixes. There’s 802.11a, which runs between 6-54 Mbps on eight to 12 channels in the 5 GHz zone, and can reach about 66 feet.
And there’s 802.11b, which runs between 2-11 Mbps on three channels in the 2.4 GHz range, with around a 330-foot max; technologists submit that it’s maybe not so good at ignoring the interruptions from the microwave. 802.11g offers speeds up to 54 Mbps, also in the 2.4 GHz zone, but with assorted types of modulation to fend off interference.
The cable angle in all of this is the notion of a “residential gateway,” outfitted with high bandwidth wireless spigots. Cable’s bandwidth gusher connected to a wireless gusher, which slakes the thirstier and thirstier fleet of consumer gizmos.
If you’ve walked into a gym lately, it’s easier to muse about where wireless is going. Going to the gym these days often means entering a room full of sweaty people — yet the room is strangely silent, absent the whirring of the equipment. (For those a little late on the New Year’s resolutions, it’s because their ears are plugged into their MP3 players.)
Adding more ways to containerize entertainment just gives us more places to retreat into our own geekospheres – our own digital stuff. That’s probably fine, if balanced with being a contributing human. And if nothing else, it means we’re all about to see a lot more of the tops of each other’s heads, bent over wireless devices.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section ofMultichannel News.