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The HD Investment: Through the Complexities and the Chaos

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March 01, 2012
Television Technology
Steve Berrey - steve@ihomesatlanta.com

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One of the lessons I have learned in life is that if you go to a specialist, you are very likely to be diagnosed with whatever that physician specializes in. If you go to a pulmonologist and you have asthma; you take the same symptom to an internist, and bam, you have reflux. HD television and its issues and complexities are like this as well.  As a consultant with more than 20 years in network design and infrastructure deployments, you should not be overly surprised to hear that while HD woes can be complex, with lots of potential pitfalls, at the end of the day, check the plumbing.

Once a hotelier starts the transition to HD, he will quickly learn that it is often a complicated and somewhat daunting process. The number of new technologies and the pace of change over the past five years in the hospitality industry can be confusing to even the most tech-savvy hotelier. The abundance of terms alone can cause one’s head to spin: MPEG2, MPEG4, h.264, 720p, 1080i, 1080p, encryption, PrIdiom®, transcoders and the list goes on and on. All of this confusion has left hoteliers wondering whether their current televisions will work with HD content, and, if not, what televisions and additional equipment is necessary?

First, let’s look at a recent case brought to us by Carol Beggs, the vice president of technology at The Sonesta Collection. The story starts with a 500-room hotel, containing flat panel TVs ranging in age from one to four years old, some are MPEG2, some are MPEG4, and they all are what we consider commercial TVs, supporting PrIdiom®. The initial issue that presented itself was one where individual HD channels were dropping. The hotel had no way of knowing until the guests called and complained. Encryption was suspected as an issue, so the encryption was switched to a different solution, which resulted in near complete loss of HD across the property. A few more switches later and after rekeying the entire hotel's television collection, HD channels as a whole were stabilized. However, now there were individual rooms, to about five a day, losing HD (again with no warning until the guest called and complained). This problem went on for weeks with no progress. Finally, all of the vendors involved were called for an onsite three-day meeting; during which time, two or three different but similar problems were identified, and a final solution was agreed upon, which did solve the issue.  Suspects along the way ranged from cable infrastructure, TV differences, FTG signals and encryption devices. However, from initial onset of the issue to final resolution, there were nine months of headache.  At the end of the day, even though a sole vendor is the one who ultimately made an adjustment within his equipment, the elements of free-to-guest (FTG) provider, encryption device provider and the television manufacturer all were connected and not one of them had total responsibility for the root cause.

A second case involves Enseo and La Quinta Inns & Suites®, on an HD conversion in 50,000 rooms nationwide. Prior to the upgrade, analog programming was shown on CRT televisions in guestrooms. La Quinta needed a new technology platform to accommodate HD programming. Essential to HD in hospitality is a commercial-grade HDTV, as well as the ability to decrypt PrIdiom encrypted content. LaQuinta selected Samsung displays and Enseo HD3000 set-top boxes as its in-room technology. Video processing and content decryption occurs in the Enseo set-top box. HD content is delivered over the existing coax infrastructure. With the new system, La Quinta guests have access to 30 HD channels. In addition, a fully interactive program guide is available so that guests can scroll through the program schedule and select their favorite shows. With integration partner Guest-tek™, La Quinta also has a hotel-branded welcome page that guests see each time the TV is powered on. While a massive undertaking, the conversion to HD occurred fairly seamlessly for La Quinta. The brand now has a reliable in-room entertainment platform and incorporated the necessary technology updates to make the HD switch. La Quinta and Blackstone are actually ahead of the curve.

What we can glean from these stories is fourfold: encryption, such as PrIdiom, has to be understood and planned, televisions need to be understood or replaced, the content sources themselves must be coordinated, and, ultimately, the wires to get all these things connected must be taken into consideration. LodgeNet Interactive's Eric Aasen said that PrIdiom and the loss of the keys was a major problem in the past, and various EdgeQAM devices, re-stamping packets within the PID range that PrIdiom used to send key updates, generally caused the issue.  LodgeNet works closely with manufacturers to eliminate these issues and keep the QAM from restamping within the protected ranges. The general feeling now is that while people blame PrIdiom and key loss for problems, with proper planning and hardware selection, those problems are eliminated.  Several cable providers also offer free-to-guest programming using a dedicated PrIdiom head end, in a regional approach. 

If planning and proper hardware selection can reduce or eliminate the potential PrIdiom issues, what are the other gotcha items? Let’s look at televisions next. The television choice can ultimately dictate what your solution looks like. For instance, there are monitor class commercial televisions, sold as a companion to set-back boxes that still have TV control but allow the box to provide the intelligence, decryption and tuning. But like anything else, there are also poor quality televisions, with tuning, channel map and PrIdiom issues.?The lesson with televisions is to treat them as part of your entire solution, map that out first, and then create a strategy to acquire them.  There are sets out there that never have issues, if you plan your system out completely. 

Television issues avoided, you have worked with your providers to agree on an encryption scheme, and hardware that is vetted to support such, you have your architecture planned for head-end based or SBB or cloud architecture, now what? Can your infrastructure support your property’s HD plans?  We have seen what an issue one-way content delivery can cause, with guest complaining to an unaware front desk.  Can your existing coax support two-way communication?  If you are thinking IP over coax then depending on its age or topology maybe not. Many IP over coax solutions need to get far higher in spectrum than older cables were designed to handle.  It is important to work with your vendor to define this level of communication, where there are emerging options in wireless mesh, IP over coax and similar.  These two-way solutions allow for proactive problem notification and speed resolution times. HD signals are a great way to expose all sorts of issues in the cable plant, due to their higher bitrates and lower tolerances for signal degradation.  It is best to find these out before going live with a new system.  Some FTG providers will also repair or replace cable infrastructure in exchange for longer contracts.  The VP of Product Development for Enseo David Straitiff said, “If hoteliers are looking for a workaround, they are avoiding the inevitable.  In most cases an investment in updating the coax plant is the most cost-effective option.”

What about Cat5, IPTV and TV over DSL?  As a Cisco certified design engineer, I would love nothing more than to convert the whole industry over tomorrow.  The promise of true high-speed, two-way interactivity, video chat, micro-niche marketing and customer individualization is heady stuff, but beyond the first step, which is getting everyone converted to high definition first.

Beggs said, “From a best practices standpoint, getting the right people from each vendor on the same call, not allowing any one vendor to pinpoint the responsibility for the issue on someone else without being able to prove their case, and, most of all, getting everyone on site for a multiple day period all were key in getting to a much better place.” 

It is crucial for hotels to choose a technology platform that is compatible with a variety of integrators, displays, content sources and decryption methods so that they can keep their preferred vendors and have flexibility to adopt new technologies and/or vendors as they emerge.

Steve Berrey is an IP technology and infrastructure consultant at i-Homes, where he heads the U.S. operation. He can be reached at steve@ihomesatlanta.com.

Credit to: Carol Beggs (Sonesta), Dave Straitiff and James Miller (Enseo), Eric Aasen (LodgeNet Interactive), and James Bina (Millennium).

©2012 Hospitality Upgrade
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