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Cisco opens new video gateways

The networking giant develops gateways designed to make it easier for cable companies to provide video-on-demand services.

Cisco Systems has developed video gateways it says will make it easier for cable companies to provide digital video services.

The new products act as an intermediary between the hybrid coaxial cable network that runs to set-top boxes in homes and the fiber network that connects content distribution hubs. The coax environment uses a video compression technology called quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) to transmit the video streams, while the fiber side uses gigabit Ethernet to transport traffic.

Cisco claims that its new products more efficiently make this connection between the QAM-based network and the Ethernet network, allowing cable operators to better use their bandwidth.

"There are other QAM gateways that support gigabit Ethernet," said David Lively, senior manager of marketing for video networking at Cisco. "But they?re not optimized to combine them very efficiently, so cable operators end up paying more for the network."

The products include the stand-alone Cisco uMG9820 QAM Gateway and the Cisco uMG9850 QAM Module. The gateway is optimized for smaller deployments, while the module fits into the Catalyst 4500 Ethernet switch for larger deployments or mixed architectures. Both are installed between the gigabit Ethernet transport network and the hybrid fiber-coaxial cable network, where they serve as IP-to-MPEG-2 gateways.

With the new hardware, which is set to ship in February, cable operators can send up to 240 video streams per device.

The announcement marks the second phase of Cisco's video-on-demand (VOD) strategy. In May 2003, the company officially announced its next-generation Digital Video Network solution. The product portfolio consists of its Catalyst gigabit Ethernet switches, its ONS multiservice switching platform and its QAM gateways.

Cable operators and telephone companies are focusing more attention on VOD services, which allow subscribers to order movies from a set menu and control the video as if it were a recording. Unlike pay-per-view services, subscribers can pause, rewind or fast-forward scenes from the movies and TV shows they order.

Industry observers have been saying for years that the technology could be a significant revenue generator, but the technology has been plagued with problems.

Cisco's QAM gateways should help solve at least one technical issue. Because delivering high-quality video is bandwidth-intensive, it can cripple an operator's network. Devices that can more efficiently utilize bandwidth should help alleviate this problem.

"This announcement shows that Cisco is using its expertise in Ethernet switching to solve real problems in the cable environment," said Michael Howard, an analyst at Infonetics Research.

But analysts say there are other problems with VOD that still need to be addressed. Most operators need to upgrade their access networks to support digital downloads. There are also content-licensing issues. In addition, service providers that offer VOD will have to compete with other distribution channels, such as VCRs, DVDs, personal video recorders like TiVo, and standard cable and satellite programming.