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Finally I get some information on SKY Q from a the point-of-view of how it effects satellite/TV installers and ultimately CI’s (customer installers) such as myself.

I attended a quick seminar this morning hosted by primary supplier of Satellite and TV distribution infrastructure equipment needed for Satellite and TV signal infrastructure for all markets, from a small studio flat, to a high-rise hotel or block of flats. The gist of the seminar was to primarily discuss the impact and implications of SKY Q on TV/Satellite installers and what could now be viewed as being their ‘legacy’ TV and satellite distribution installations.

The seminar unfortunately did not show an actual SKY Q installation, so I did not get to see it in action, however the seminar did give me a number of valuable insights from a technical perspective of how the system works, and what is required to get new SKY Q customers up and running. I must state off the bat, no matter how compelling the offering from SKY, it does have a number of very negative implications for both the end-user and the installer alike.

So this post will give only a cursory overview of what SKY Q is from a end-user’s point of view, and will focus more on my thoughts of what I like and don’t like about it.

SKY Q Overview

SKY Q will be have two main ‘hubs’, being SKY Q Silver and SKY Q. The Silver offering has a larger hard disk for recording, has more tuners and will be capable of displaying 4K UHD content, which SKY have indicated they will starting broadcasting limited content sometime in summer 2016, this moved up from the end of 2016. Both of these set-top boxes act as both the primary set-top box for you TV, as well as a media server for streaming content to tablet PC’s (they mention iPad, so I do not know if Android is supported) and their SKY Q mini set-top boxes.

SKY Q product line-up

The real change here is that the typical home will only require one set-top box with a connection to the satellite dish, and the rest of the screens in your home will only need a SKY Q mini and a wireless network in order to view SKY content, by virtue that the primary SKY Q box has a lot of tuners (16 on the silver and 8 on the standard box), it is capable of recording and streaming a number of different channels (or on-demand content) simultaneously, and serving the needs of the other screens in your home.

SKY have a number of accessories to help boost Wi-Fi coverage and speeds throughout a home, as wireless network coverage and speed is an essential component in ensuring SKY Q works correctly.

On the surface this does seem to simplify installations considerably, you only need a couple of cables going into one SKY box and in theory, this would make coaxial cables distributed elsewhere in the home fairly redundant. Additionally you need not worry on which SKY HD box you recorded your show, as the one device will now store the home’s recordings on one device rather than across several sky boxes in a multi-room installation.

The streaming to a tablet PC is a definite modern twist that is both worthwhile and something I am sure consumers have been wanting for quite sometime. In addition to this, SKY Q Synch will allow you to copy or synchronise recording onto your tablet device, so you can view your recordings away from home, away from the SKY Q hub.

With 4K content, a consolidated set of TV recordings and the ability to potentially watch SKY on 7 or 8 devices simultaneously from one central hub is clearly a revolutionary and much welcome set of developments that are perhaps long overdue, but finally arrived.

Sky own the equipment

The equipment will always remain the property of SKY, the end user does not purchase or own any of the SKY Q equipment, instead it is rented or leased to the customer, very much in the same manner that Virgin does with their equipment. This is not a bad thing at all, because this means that SKY is ultimately responsible for the equipment, and has to ensure that equipment is either repaired or replaced should it ever become faulty. In the past, if your SKY HD box packed up, it was your responsibility to pay for a replacement (unless the unit was still under warranty), and this has been a bugbear of a lot of SKY customers who have been on the sharp-end of situation such as this. Imagine all of that money spent on the subscription and then you have to pay for a replacement product where you as the consumer have no absolutely no alternative choices to choose from; so if the product is of shoddy quality, and it conveniently packs up outside of warranty, it becomes your problem, and not that of the manufacturer or service provider. So, yes, this is a very good thing – if SKY has a range of products that are reliable, that is good for everyone, and if not, they will have to bear the costs of maintaining said equipment.

SKY will handle SKY Q installations in homes

All home installations, or rather homes that do not make use of commercial or communal TV/Satellite systems (IRS) will be undertaken by SKY’s own appointed installers. You really do not have a choice in the matter. It makes sense that they have adopted this policy, as there is a number of key changes they have to apply, one of which is replacing your satellite dish’s LNB (the pod found on satellite dishes), plus they need to setup a wireless network in order for the SKY services to stream to the various mini and ipad devices. Installations will cost between £100-£300.

SKY will not necessarily be able to handle installations in commercial or communal settings, as a SKY Q installation might require a serious overhaul or changes to some very expensive equipment in multiple-dwelling units (MDU). Working out who is responsible for this equipment, getting landlord’s permission and ensuring that other users in the MDU are not affected by a new SKY Q installation is territory that SKY would rather avoid, thus this is where the tradition Satellite/TV installer has to get involved with a SKY Q installation.

So what are my concerns?

Well my concerns are thus:

  • It is not a true multi-room video distribution system, and I fear consumers might interpret this system as being one. Thus, you would still need a traditional video distribution system if you want other video sources to be distributed around your home, and if you have invested in this infrastructure, then there is really little point in going for SKY Q other than the increased storage space, 4K content (which has yet to appear, and we do not have any details of what this content will be and how much of it there will be) and being able to view on your iPad – although viewing live broadcasts on a tablet PC is possible with devices that the price of a month’s subscription on SKY Q
  • The changes applied to your SKY dish could render other other set-top boxes/receivers useless – for example FreeSAT. You might very well need to install separate infrastructure to support the reception of FreeSAT and potentially you terrestrial TV signal too – so you could potentially have two dishes outside your home, or you will need to invest in new switching hardware. This issue obviously does not faze SKY in the least as this effectively wipes out their competing off-air services quite conveniently. This is not impossible to fix, but it has definite repercussions on end-users who use their satellite dish and TV/Satellite distribution systems for something other than SKY only.
  • This system is seemingly dependant on wireless networking, i.e. Wi-Fi. SKY says that if you use their HUB product, then all of the SKY Q boxes will act as wireless access points, thus boosting the wi-fi coverage in your home – this is a good thing right? On the surface yes, but when you dig deeper you find out that the SKY Hub implies that you need to be a SKY broadband subscriber… so if you want to use a different ISP, you lose this feature – i.e. only the SKY Q box itself will be an access point, with no range extension possible. So here is the first sign of, well, how do I put this delicately, bullying from SKY. It would be possible for you to install a range extender regardless of the broadband provider you user, but SKY have opted to ensure that this is not an option, or rather if you want to use their wireless network system, you have to commit to their Internet service too. I’m afraid this sort of bullying I have seen before, where SKY fight hard to disallow you using your own network router equipment (their modem/routers are rubbish), so they can retain 100% complete control over your network traffic over their internet line. This is not something anyone should be comfortable with – both as a SKY customer being told what network equipment you can and can’t use, and as a non-broadband customer being told that your SKY Q service’s performance will be inferior because you want a better or cheaper broadband service from someone else. I am sure this will be challenged by someone, and OFCOM can then take several years to think about these business practices are truly in the best interests of the public after SKY have taken them to lunch several times whilst they deliberate over the matter. I can’t help but be sceptical (or is it cynically) in thinking that if you do not use SKY’s networking equipment whether SKY Q will deliberately under perform to give end-users an incentive to change their provider?
  • Staying on the subject of Wi-Fi networking, I am someone who firmly believes that if a device is to remain in a static position, such as a TV, then it should exist on a wired rather than a wireless network. It is here where I was given the most perplexing information of all – and that is that SKY wants you to run SKY Q wirelessly, but possibly it can be run over a HomePlug (Ethernet-over-Power), but you can’t run it on a switched Ethernet using high-quality structured cabling. Technically this does not make sense at all, other than to simplify the installation for themselves at the cost of the client. Further it is bonkers to suggest that it will work fine on a HomePlug system, but not a proper network. The sorts of ‘VIP’ customer they are aiming this product at typically have excellent structured cabling systems in their homes, so it beggars belief as to why they are seemingly deliberately designing their system not to take advantage of the best possible method of networking a media streaming product. Does anyone disagree with this point of view?
  • My penultimate thought on SKY Q’s ‘wireless only’ approach means that SKY Q could effectively hog your wireless bandwidth. All bandwidth is finite, especially wireless bandwidth. Further, wireless networking is susceptible to interference from a number of sources, including your neighbours. Interference, SKY Q’s wireless bandwidth requirements and your own collectively could result in you getting less than optimal performance out of your wireless network.
  • The last though, and it is one that is pedantic, the term ‘wireless mesh’ has been used in the marketing literature of the SKY Q. They are implying that mesh network will exist if all of the various SKY Q boxes and the SKY hub are used as wireless access points. As a network engineer, I am a little annoyed that this term is being used, as I doubt very much that it will be a true mesh network, then again, the technical information has been thin on all aspects of the SKY Q system.
  • The new SKY remote control uses bluetooth, which means that there might be range issues if the box is installed some distance away from your screen.The good news however is the SKY Q set-top boxes still do accept infra-red commands.
  • This is a minor issue, but Magic eye, TV link and other IR systems will no longer work

Unanswered questions

There are so many unanswered, but I thought I would put a few down, which I hope in time will be answered:

  • Will 4K only be available on SKY Q silver?Meaning will there be other 4K receivers/set-top boxes in the future?
  • Does SKY Q Silver also imply that there will be a Gold and Platinum product coming sometime soon?
  • Will the traditional SKY HD+ be phased out, and SKY Q will become its replacement?
  • Will SKY make an API available, or IP command set to custom installers and app developers for better integrated control of this system? It is claimed that SKY have never refused to do so, but then again they have never agreed either. As a custom installer and Smarthome programmer I hope to see this change, this one act alone will change my view on SKY and how they conduct business in a big way. I hope that they will be more open with control in the future, if not immediately now.
  • What impact does SKY Q have on Internet and wireless bandwidth? Both for on-demand content streaming as well as usage data and other reporting these devices are likely to feedback to SKY

Time will tell as to what impact SKY Q will have on the TV viewing habits of the UK public, or, indeed, how many people will migrate to this service. One thing is for certain, for good or bad, SKY Q will definitely have an impact on those who choose to subscribe to it, and I am keen to learn from their experiences in choosing to do so.

 


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Being involved with the IT industry for over the past two decades, I pondered over what great technologies are now rendered obsolete, even though were superior to competing technologies. Their demise was usually brought about through the mass adoption of an inferior alternative which is, more often than not, less expensive.

So this article is perhaps a way of me saying a last goodbye to these technologies:

Plasma displays

Large Plasma DisplayWhen Panasonic announced in October 2013 that it was exiting the Plasma market, it was the end of an era. I am sure some manufacturers may continue to produce Plasma displays over the next few years, however Panasonic was the leader and champion of Plasma display technologies. Their focus is now on LED and OLED display technology, where OLED technology will eventually be superior to Plasma.

Plasma displays are superior to LCD/LED displays. LCD displays have being playing a game of ‘catch-up’ for quite some time. Usually the specifications of an LCD display would describe by how much the inherent issues with the technology had been corrected rather than describe how good the product is. I am sure we all remember early flat panel TV’s ghosting as players run up and down a pitch during a football broadcast?

For reasons unknown to me I found that the majority of my customers had a perception that LCD/LED TV’s were better than Plasma. I would give them at least 4 reasons why Plasma displays are better:

  • It does pure black as a ‘colour’. No light comes off of true black areas on a Plasma. An LCD/LED display always have a light source turned on behind the LCD panel, and thus it is impossible for it to generate a pure black. This might not sound like a big deal, but there are several shades of grey leading up to black, in the case of an LCD display black would be a shade of grey which would effect the overall picture quality.
  • The contrast ratio on Plasma displays is measured in millions, on LCD’s it is measured in 10’s of thousands.
  • The response time on a Plasma is measured in 100th’s of a millisecond, on LCD’s it is measured in millseconds.
  • The operational life span of an LCD/LED display is often a quarter that of a Plasma display

Plasma had a reputation for screen burn-in, this in reality is a problem for all displays, regardless of their technology (except OLED).

Plasma also had a reputation of being less energy efficient, this is possibly true, but only very recently. Plasma’s energy consumption is highly variable depending on the content being viewed, and thus could potentially consume less energy than a similar sized LCD/LED display. Plasma displays use more energy when display bright imagery, and use less when displaying darker imagery. LCD/LED displays consume energy at a constant rate regardless of the content being displayed.

The rise of LED/LCD displays has resulted in development of thinner and lighter displays, which is one significant factor that has brought about the demise of the Plasma display.

You can still purchase a Plasma monitor or TV, but when they are gone, they are gone forever. I suspect that Panasonic will stock their flagship professional monitors for select customers such as broadcasters, but as they have just mothballed their last Plasma factory in March 2014, this really is an end of an era.

Firewire

FirewireFirewire is an ultra-fast data port used mainly for connecting storage devices to computers. It was streaks ahead of USB in terms of transfer speeds, and on some ports it was able to deliver more power than USB.

USB has pretty much wiped out the need for Firewire, despite the fact that USB has been playing catch up with the transfer speeds possible over Firewire. Recently USB 3.0 has started appearing on PC’s and laptops, pretty much ending the transfer speed arguments against USB. USB, despite its inferiority, has become ubiquitous it features on all manner devices including mobile phones, TV sets, audio devices and printers.

There is still hardware being manufactured with Firewire ports, but this is purely to support those who have invested heavily in Firewire technology over the past 2 decades.

I remember, not too fondly, when USB first arrived and Windows 95 promised us the arrival of ‘Plug ‘n Play’. Oh the joys of watching Windows crash when you plug in a printer, or unplug it for that matter. I remember cursing HP when they started releasing printers with a USB port and no Centronics parallel printer port. As USB began to feature on more and more devices and the software supporting it became more stable, my hang-ups over the technology began to fade. By the time USB 2.0 arrived, it had matured in to a stable and widely supported standard.

Apple adopted Intel x86 CPU’s, the fate of Firewire was pretty much sealed, although Apple still do feature Firewire on some of their products, but it is likely it will phased out completely as they update their iMac and Macbook offerings.

SCSI

SCSI RAIDSCSI, pronounced ‘scuzzy’, what’s not to like about a technology called that?

SCSI was primarily used as a means for connecting hard disks to computer systems, but it also supported other devices such as scanners. SCSI featured in file servers and as standard in early Macintosh computers.

For a long time SCSI had much higher transfer speeds compared to other data buses, such as the PC standard IDE. I had the further advantage of being able to support more devices on a single bus. When SCSI started, you could connect up to 7 devices, usually hard disks, on one cable, whereas IDE would only support two devices. The support for multiple drives on a single controller made SCSI the natural choice for server disk RAIDs, and later for Storage Area Networks (SAN).

With the launch SATA and the rise in popularity of USB, the advantages SCSI offered slowly became eclipsed by the lower costs associated with SATA. SCSI was (and still is) quite expensive and SATA isn’t, thus hardware manufacturers started making NAS and other storage technologies based on SATA, bringing about the demise of SCSI, at least for the layman. Nowadays the average PC motherboard will support at least 4 SATA drives, and will have RAID capabilities.

Variations of SCSI is still in use in very large data storage installations, known as Fibre Channel, which is based on SCSI principles, but this technology is really for the realm of the large Enterprise, and even then, I would say that its days are numbered as it is incredibly expensive, whereas the SATA based alternatives are not.

 

Token ring

Token Ring NetworkThis is a network technology adopted by IBM and was used almost exclusively in organisations that built their IT divisions on IBM kit. It was fast, but more importantly, it was able to handle very high volumes of traffic without becoming congested or latent.

Ethernet, which is used practically by everyone nowadays, isn’t as adept at handling or managing large volumes of network traffic. Without going into the technical differences between Token Ring and Ethernet, the best analogy I can give on how the two differ is to imagine driving your car in two very different countries. Imagine Token Ring is a Western European country, whilst there is congestion on the roads, traffic does move, because there are road signs and traffic signals to ease congestion and prevent accidents – most people on the road understand the rules and there are strong disincentives for not driving properly. In comparison, Ethernet is somewhere like India, where there are few road rules and everyone drives pretty much the way they want to, because they take a fatalistic approach to driving – if it is your time to die, it is predestined, thus you don’t really need to pay due car and attention to the traffic around you; the result is lots of collisions.

Ethernet has become ubiquitous purely because it is substantially less expensive than Token ring, and in certain instances is less complicated. Over time network hardware has become cheaper and cheaper, and now a significant proportion of us have home networks built on Ethernet technology. Development on Token Ring ceased a long time ago, and thus, despite the chaos in how Ethernet manages network traffic, it has become increasingly faster and network hardware has become better at managing or preventing collisions.


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Nexans CAT7A 1200MHz network cableThis short article is our summation of Nexans‘ 40Gb/s (40G) standardisation update bulletin, which reports on the progress of the standardisation of 40Gb/s network speeds. 40Gb/s network speeds is the generation of networking standards for copper-based Ethernet networks, which will then be followed by 100Gb/s; at the time of writing,  there is no formal standard for 40Gb/s networking, where network hardware manufacturers still face the challenge of achieving 40Gb/s speeds.

 

10 Gb/s

Currently 10 GB/s (10G) is the fastest speed available for copper-based Ethernet networks.  CAT6A cabling systems are accepted to be the minimum standard required to run 10 Gb/s networks.

A number of 10Gb/s hardware products that claim they can run on CAT6 cabling systems, however they do so unreliably, and certainly do not always operate in an optimum fashion. It may be possible to run 10Gb/s reliably on CAT6 if the cable length is fairly short.

CAT6A is a shielded cable with performance to 500MHz, in comparison, CAT6 is typically unshielded and provides performance to 250MHz.

 

40Gb/s standardisation update

 

The noteworthy points from the update are:

  • Category 8 cabling standards will be defined in 2013/2014 by TIA, which is fast tracking this definition.
  • Category6A (CAT6A) network cabling will (likely) not be used for the 40Gb/s standard. It will require very complex network hardware to signal at these speeds. Further more than one CAT6A will be required to run at these speeds.
  • Cat6A or Class EA cabling has insufficient bandwidth even over short distances such as 30m to support 40G
  • Cat7A with its “double frequency range” of 1000MHz could be used for a 40G application.
  • The Cat7A system’s extended frequency range would allow a simplified encoding which might be easier to implement for chip designers.
  • The biggest news for copper cabling is that the 100m distance support has found its end. No cabling system is intended to run 40GBase-T with a link length above the new 30m limit. This new length limitation should be respected in any new data centre layout from now on.
  • ISO describe two new sets of channel performance specifications, both specified up to 2 GHz.
    • The first (Channel I) is similar to the TIA Cat.8 approach.
    • The second (Channel II) is based on an improved version of ISO Class FA and shows a significantly better Signal-to-Noise Ratio.
  • Currently several new specifications to support 40GBase-T are being studied and three of them are based on Cat7A components. Cat.8 or Channel I systems are not on the market yet and therefore cannot be purchased. Cat7A systems even with extended frequency support are available from certain vendors.

 

Nexans and ISO/IEC

 

Nexans publish bulletins on the progress of the standardisation of 40Gb/s. Nexans, as cabling manufacturers, are contributors to the formal development and definition of new networking standards to support faster network speeds in IT networks.

Nexans represent cabling manufacturers, who need to develop cables and connectors that will conform to the specifications required by the next generation of network hardware manufacturers, including switches, routers and network adaptors.

Nexans work with ISO/IEC to formally define cabling standards (categories) for the next generation of networks and their high expected speeds.

 

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