Monthly Archives: June 2012
Your Tax Dollars at Work: EAS, CAP, CALM, & More!
by Leslie Ellis // June 25 2012
As a general rule, I avoid the tech-regulatory scene, because it is gets so bogged down with gibberish that typically boils down to the words “no you cannot.” Yet, a passel of deadlines are looming, which seemed a good time for a summertime regulatory round-up. In deadline order:
Emergency Alert System and “CAP.” Regulators: FEMA, FCC, National Weather Service, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Deadline: June 30, 2012. What it is: Here in Colorado, we’re already getting the afternoon tornado warnings, which turn the TV into a bleeping, black-screen, with white text advising us to take immediate shelter, and accompanying audio, saying the same thing. EAS and the common alerting protocol (CAP) extends that type of work nationally, so that the President (of the U.S.) could theoretically interrupt TV programming to tell us something really important. At an MSO level, the work of it is software changes to the gear that currently handles local EAS.
Video Descriptive Services. Regulator: FCC. Deadline: July 1, 2012. What It is: This has lots to do with a little button on your TV remote labeled “SAP,” for “Secondary Audio Program.” Right now, and depending on where you are, pushing that button invokes a monaural mix-down of the sound track, with all of the speaking done in Spanish.
With VDS, however, pressing SAP would also mix the audio channel down to monaural, but instead of Spanish, you’d hear the original feed, plus a description of what’s going on visually. Not so much “suddenly, the phone rang,” because the viewer could hear it ringing. More “she put the phone to her ear anxiously.” The work of this is more on program networks than MSOs, but if you’re bigger than 50,000 subscribers, you’re on the hook to pass through 50 hours of VDS-augmented programming every quarter.
Closed Captioning for IP Video. Regulator: FCC. Deadline: September 30, 2012 for program networks; January 14, 2013 for device manufacturers (which in and of itself is an inscrutable bifurcation.) What it is: Rules that require program networks to put closed captions on full-length video content that’s made available in Internet Protocol (think HBO Go, Xfinity, etc.)
This one is riddled with complexities that will make you want to poke your own eyes out. The Report and Order details “VPOs” (Video Programming Owners), “VPPs,” (Video Programming Providers, and 112 deliriously entertaining (not!) pages of accompanying regulatory-speak. Stretch and hydrate before you dive in.
Commercial Audio Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM). Regulator: FCC. Deadline: Dec. 13, 2012. What It is: Ways to not get blasted out of your chair when commercials play at way higher volumes than program material. By year-end, MSOs need to begin periodic testing of networks that don’t “self certify” that they’re CALM compliant. Big halleluiah on this one.
Matcha vs. Fanhattan, or, A Plea for Content Discovery Apps on the Main Screen
The most challenging thing about moving out of reach of the cable cord, for me, is content discovery. These days, there’s a lot of over-the-top content you can view on your TV through Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. — but most devices don’t allow you to browse all of that content from a single app. Instead, you have to go into each video streaming app, one by one, to see what’s on.
Rummaging around for content in several different apps requires significantly more effort than channel surfing on a cable box (I like to call this the “silo effect”, because the content is segregated into separate services, like silos. And also possibly because I live on a farm). And this “silo effect,” in my lab tester’s opinion, is the biggest problem facing cord-cutters right now. (Though some might argue it’s the inability to stream Game of Thrones).
Google TV comes pretty close with its TV & Movies app, which I’ve ranted about at length in another post. In short, it would work better if there were more content to discover on the Google TV.
Boxee also does a decent job of unifying content in one place, but like Google TV it lacks in paid streaming apps (for example, Hulu Plus and Amazon aren’t available). But unlike Google TV, Boxee’s browser isn’t blocked from every service provider website, and now can access selected titles on the Xfinity website (which are available without a pay TV login, surprisingly.) So it offers a pretty good selection of ad-supported web content.
But other players, like Roku and NeoTV, which do access most of the major streaming video services, don’t yet unify it — so you can’t search or browse in one place.
Mobile devices, on the other hand, are progressing a little faster in terms of content discovery. Because I’ve been watching a lot more TV on my iPad lately, I’ve been trying out various apps in the hopes that we’ll soon be seeing some of them on other devices.
So this week, we bring you a comparison of two of the most popular content discovery apps for the iPad: Matcha and Fanhattan.
Matcha is an iPad app that allows you to search and browse content from iTunes, Amazon Prime and Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus and Xfinity. You can also connect to your Facebook account, if you’d like to see what your friends are watching and do a little oversharing of your own.
Matcha’s user interface (UI) is pretty slick, with a row of buttons you can toggle on and off to include different sources, so the search results display only what you can authenticate into / access. (Meaning if you don’t do Hulu Plus, you can filter it out.) The main screen includes rows for recently watched titles and queue, which combine results from all the services you select.
Once you tap the link to watch a video on Netflix or Hulu, you don’t need to confirm your selection again before it starts playing – the ease of use is pretty stellar compared to similar apps I’ve tried.
Unfortunately, Matcha’s robust search capabilities outshine the iPad’s selection of video apps. Because there’s currently no way to watch Amazon video content on the iPad, for instance, those results are marked “web only.”
But even though you can’t click right through to watch Amazon content, it’s still very useful to be able to search so many sources at once – for example, Leslie recently asked me to find out which services could be used to stream Doctor Who. Traditionally, such a request would involve about 15 minutes of searching, one by one, on the various service provider websites. This time, it took maybe 15 seconds to get an answer (and it’s on both Netflix and Amazon Prime, in case you were wondering).
Fanhattan is an app for iPhone and iPad, which will be coming soon to web AND TV according to the company website. (But is it coming to an OTT set-top box? A smart TV platform? We don’t yet know.)
Fanhattan combines results from Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes, and the ABC Player app, and it has useful browsing categories like “Hottest,” “New on Hulu Plus” and “Netflix Marathon.” And like Matcha, you can connect Fanhattan to your Facebook account .
There are several things I like about the UI and the app in general — for instance the “Smart Browse” feature which allows you to narrow the selection to include certain genres, ratings, air dates, etc.
But while I really want to like Fanhattan, I’m sorry to say it’s just not ready for primetime yet. For one, Fanhattan seems to have a few issues with the way it redirects and opens the video. If you left off watching something within the Netflix app, that will launch instead of what you selected to play through Fanhattan. And about 90% of the time in our tests, the Hulu Plus app got hung up, crashing both the Hulu Plus and Fanhattan apps in the process.
And while I’m on the subject of Fanhattan and Hulu Plus, I noticed that many shows had limited availability on Fanhattan – for example, recent episodes from Fox and Comedy Central are on Hulu at least a week before they can be accessed via Fanhattan. I’m not sure why this is the case on Fanhattan and not Matcha (which allows you to access Hulu content the day after air), but I do know that I’m unlikely to use a content discovery app that further limits what I’m able to access.
Ultimately, the work of outfits like Matcha and Fanhattan can be categorized as “aggregation.” They aggregate the video aggregators, essentially, as it relates to the presentation of the metadata associated with “what’s on.” It’s progress, but I want more. (More on that another time.)
IPv6 Is Launched (Yawn, Stretch)
by Leslie Ellis // June 18 2012
In case you missed it, last Wednesday (June 6) was World IPv6 Launch Day. The fact that it was pretty much a non-event was simultaneously manna and anti-climax to the men and women who spent the last several years working on it.
Why: When you get the bad guy before the bad guy gets you, the taste of success is … nuanced, at best.
In this case, of course, the “bad guy” is the nearing and very real exhaustion of the pool of IP addresses used by our computers, tablets, “connected” devices and phones, to get to the Internet. The existing pool, based on a numbering schema known as IPv4, is like water in the American West: It’s running out for sure, but nobody really knows exactly when.
Luckily for us, this is not news to the forefathers of the Internet, who realized as far back as the early ‘90s that the way they’d numbered the things that need a connection wasn’t a big enough way of numbering. Those of us who grew up with smaller telephone numbers than now will get this immediately; I grew up with a single seven-digit telephone number (348-9619!) and now use several 10-digit numbers.
Just as there exists a community of people around the technologies of ad sales, and DOCSIS modems, and cellular backhaul, and on and on, there exists a community of very bright network engineers who spent the last five or more years making sure the rest of us still get connected, after the address pool depletes.
This community of people, after the launch of IPv6 last week, seemed in limbo. More than one related disappointment at the volume (or lack thereof, to be precise) of IPv6-plumbed devices that identified themselves to the Big Internet as such. “Super smooth, super boring,” grumbled one v6 engineer. “I was hoping for a bigger party.”
What happened? Some bandwidth-watchers, like Sandvine, noted the surge in V6 traffic going to and from Netflix and YouTube; others, like the MSOs who turned up IPv6 in their networks, note YouTube as the biggest v6 gainer last year, and Facebook this year.
Missing from the party, so far, are consumer electronics manufacturers – as a rule of thumb, your smart phone, laptop and PC are more likely to be plumbed with an IPv6 address than your connected TV, game console or Wi-Fi router. (Learning this through discussions with Best Buy employees is all the more entertaining. “What’s an IPv6?”)
Plus, some Internet things – browsers, like Safari, come to mind – default to IPv4, as a vestige of the oddly named “Happy Eyeballs” algorithm, which aimed to keep bits moving (and therefore any connected clients “happy.”) In essence, if IPv6 got gunked up anywhere, the algorithm defaulted back to IPv4.
Note: Just because World IPv6 Launch Day happened, doesn’t mean anyone’s work is done. What happens now? For operators, upgrades to IPv6 will continue, CMTS-by-CMTS, then upgrading firmware in cable modems, gateways, and related in-home gear.
Ultimately, from now on, the IPv6 scene is less of a race against depletion, and more a series of maneuvers to segue more devices and services onto the newer, bigger address pool.
An Update on How I’m Watching TV
As you hopefully know by now, because I can’t get cable service in my rural neighborhood, I rely on streaming video for virtually all of my TV and movie watching interests. I can get some free broadcast channels thanks to Boxee’s live TV dongle, but that often varies depending on which way the wind is blowing. (Seriously.)
Anyway, I got out of the habit of watching live TV during the years that I had a Comcast DVR box in my living room. If there’s breaking news, I’ll tune in – otherwise, I tend to watch TV at least a day after it airs.
During my time without the cord, I’ve noticed another shift in my viewing habits. These days, when I’m watching TV I’m often not actually in front of the TV.
Instead, I watch (more like listen) while tackling boring household projects, like cleaning up after myself in the kitchen and folding laundry. This works out to be a pretty good deal for me, because I end up with clean clothes and dishes in addition to NOT spending that time sitting on the couch.
I started out playing video on my laptop, which is inconvenient to haul around but allows me to access any conceivable source of OTT content. Over the past few months, I’ve switched over to primarily using my iPad to catch up on TV.
The iPad is almost an ideal portable OTT device, but for just a few problems: its built-in speaker can barely be heard over a dishwasher, it has no access to Amazon Prime, and it doesn’t have Flash support for playing web video.
The first problem is easily remedied with a portable speaker – I’m a big fan of the Jawbone Jambox, a sturdy little speaker that connects via Bluetooth, and is in near-constant use in my house. (And it works as a speakerphone, too.)
As for the lack of a Flash player and Amazon content, for me it’s just not worth the difference in counter space between my laptop and an iPad. Between Netflix and Hulu Plus, I usually find plenty to watch.
Plus, collect3’s Video Stream app ($1.99 in the iTunes app store) gives the iPad (or your iPhone) file support that rivals Boxee’s, so it can play virtually any video file you own that isn’t DRM-protected (you will need to install the server app on your computer first, though.)
The Video Stream app has a pretty slick user interface, and with a long-press of your finger on any video thumbnail you can download and convert video on the fly. But if you’re converting videos for iTunes so you can stream them to your AppleTV via AirPlay, don’t bother – Video Stream does that too, and does it quite well from what we’ve seen. My sole complaint about Video Stream on the iPad is that the app crashes on occasion, and when it does it’s not able to resume the video you were watching.
I lost access to the cord by moving to the farm at about the same time cable operators began rolling out iPad apps as part of the TV Everywhere initiative. My experience during this time was more like “TV everywhere but on the TV, because I don’t feel like hooking the laptop up to it.”
Before long I discovered OTT streaming players like Roku and Google TV, which brought the living room experience back to the TV. But my short immersion with my makeshift version of TV Everywhere got me hooked on watching TV in other rooms, and now I can’t imagine cleaning out my closet without being able to simultaneously marathon-watch episodes of the reality show Hoarders.
We have Comcast service in the lab, so I’m still able to stay up on the latest cord-related technology even if I can’t get it at my house. A few months ago we got the AnyPlay service, which gives us access to the full range of live channels on the iPad (only within range of the Wi-Fi router, connected to the AnyPlay box, of course) in addition to the usual Xfinity On Demand content.
A few issues are cropping up with AnyPlay – no one is immune — but after spending some time with tech support over the last few days, it appears that the culprit is the WiFi, which in this case sources from an Apple Time Capsule.
The symptom: Constant notifications that the iPad is too far from Wi-Fi, with a suggestion to please move closer. We put the dang thing right on top of the Time Capsule – same result. Time for a new WiFi router, and yes, it will be IPv6. (Will keep you posted on that.)
And although I always have more than enough content to watch, I think it bears repeating that the cord-cutting experience is still a long ways off from pay TV in terms of just being able to tune in and watch, and I sometimes miss having cable. With all the content spread out across different services, finding something to watch can be a chore – especially when you just feel like sitting slack-jawed in front of the TV for a while.
NCTA Tech Papers, Part 2
by Leslie Ellis // June 11 2012
Last week we took the short route through the longest-ever NCTA Tech Paper, a whale of a thing, at 182 pages.
This week, the bigger trends arising from this year’s engineering scribes, starting with the colorful analogies: “The prisoner’s dilemma” and “the ships passing in the night problem,” used in different papers to illustrate that adaptive bit rate streaming clients inside PCs, tablets, and other screens playing IP video usually work in isolation of each other.
So that multi-megabit-per-second pipe into the house might pour a fat stream to the smallest screen, and a skinny stream to the HDTV – because the two screens don’t know of each other’s existence, under the same roof.
It’s a “prisoner’s dilemma” (handily abbreviated “PDIL” by Arris authors Carol Ansley, Jim Allen and Tom Cloonan) because “clients are faced with electing to optimize (bandwidth) for their own benefit, or they can optimize for the common good of all clients on the network, including their own.”
In a prison sense, then, eat all the food or share it; either way, face the consequences.
The “ships passing in the night problem,” described by Ericsson’s Michael Adams in a lunch meeting prior to the show, and co-written with Chris Phillips, references a classic networking problem, akin to Schrodinger’s cat for mathematicians. It goes like this: Networks work in seven independent layers, known as the “OSI stack.” (People tend to identify themselves by which “stack” their work represents – “I’m a layer 3 guy,” and so on.)
So, by design, what’s transpiring on, say, layer 2, cannot fathom what’s happening up on layer three, or four, and so on, up through layer 7. Like ships passing in darkness.
Weirdest pronounceable acronym: “CAPWAP,” for “Control and Provisioning of Wireless Access Points,” about MSOs and WiFi backhaul. (Authors: Cisco’s Rajiv Asati, Rajesh Pazhyannur, and Sangeeta Ramakrishnan.)
If you saw the “surfaces” exhibit at the show, and wondered how to turn that man-cave wall into a giant TV screen without projectors, check out “Surfaces: A New Way of Looking at TV,” by Kevin Murray and James Walker.
And, go figure, MPEG-4/AVC/H.264 digital video compression turns 10 this year (seems like yesterday). Its successor: “H.265” and/or “HEVC,” for High Efficiency Video Coding.” Just as MPEG-4 did for MPEG-2, H.265 offers 50% coding efficiencies over H.264, explain Motorola’s Robert Howald and Sean McCarthy in “Bits, Big Screens, and Biology.”
What this means, practically: An HDTV stream compressed to 16 Mbps, using MPEG-2, squishes down to 4 Mbps, using H.265. Which seems a good thing for the commercial plausibility of 4K video. The efficiency gains come from “context-adaptive binary arithmetic entropy coding,” or “CABAC.” (Uh-huh.)
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
NCTA Tech Papers Part 1: The Whale
by Leslie Ellis // June 04 2012
My stash of printed NCTA Tech Papers dates back to 1988, and most of the recent editions are on CD-ROM, not paper, but still: The fattest one I can find dates back to 1997. Page count: 442.
In this year’s 687-page techfest, the whale: A 182 page monster, replete with 83 figures, 42 tables, 10 recommendations, and seven areas of further study. Title: “Mission is Possible: An Evolutionary Approach to Gigabit-Class DOCSIS.”
Another reason to lift an eyebrow: Three competing vendor companies and a giant, household-name chip company co-wrote it: Arris (Mike Emmendorfer), Cisco (John Chapman), and Motorola Mobility (Robert Howald). The chip biggie: Intel (Shaul Shulman.)
What on earth could foster such a surfeit of collaborative (digital) ink? As a self-professed junkie for the subject of cable’s skinny upstream signal path, imagine my delight when reading this line, early on page 1: “Cable operators are facing a rising thread associated with the limitations of today’s 5-42 MHz reverse path. “
Here’s how the whale breaks down. If you’ve wondered about the trade-offs about going “higher,” spectrally – widening the upstream path – go no further. The first third of the piece details the three main choices, with pros/cons of each. Also what’s sitting there, spectrally, that would need to be moved or mitigated.
Short version: The spectral ranges go by “sub-split,” which is where things sit now: Between 5-42 MHz. After that, the “mid-split,” which inches the upper boundary of the upstream to 85 MHz. Today’s DOCSIS 3.0-based gear already goes there; it’s not been activated anywhere yet.
Then there’s the “high-split,” which stretches the upstream to 200 MHz, and the “top split,” which piles upstream bandwidth up on top of today’s downstream spectrum, above 1 GHz.
The “pro” of a mid-, top- or high-split is the extra bandwidth; the “cons” always start with some variation of “this touches the plant in a rather big way.”
Then there’s the matter of what’s already sitting between 42 MHz and 85 MHz, 200 MHz, and above 1 GHz. In the lower regions, it’s things like analog channels, which will go digital anyway. And there’s the FM band, which sits between 88-108 MHz. Potential issue: Interference.
Then there’s Aeronautical Mobile and Radio Navigation, between 108-137 MHz. Potential issue: Signal leakage. And don’t forget legacy out-of-band signaling, used by today’s set-tops and modems to move things like guide data, and command-and-control information.
Other ways to “manufacture” upstream bandwidth, without touching the plant in a rather big way, involve going to a different form of advanced modulation, called “OFDMA,” for the impressively nerdy “Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access.”
Then there’s talk of improving how transit errors are corrected. More tech talk: “LDPC,” for Low Density Parity Check code. Turns out that using LDPC with OFDM creates a 20% improvement over the tried-and-true, installed method of FEC, known as Reed-Solomon.
And that’s all that can be wedged from a 182-page whale into a 450-word column. We will revisit this topic…I promise.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.