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Cable TV without the Cable!. George Casper Information Services and Resources, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania 17837. Conclusions & The Future

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Cable TV without the Cable!

George CasperInformation Services and Resources, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania 17837

Conclusions & The Future

The campus community has been generally satisfied with BUTV, and we plan on continuing to offer the service for the foreseeable future. While the uptake was not as big as we had originally hoped, there has been steady growth in the uptake by students.

We have learned that it is rather painful to implement a brand-new service on short notice; the summer and early Fall of 2004 was a difficult time, between unexpected network issues, uneven student expectations, and our own lack of experience with the technology produced troubleshooting headaches. Having technological infrastructure in place isn’t enough - efficient billing and administration of the system also proved to be vital to client satisfaction. We also have learned that students will indeed try to use the service in ways you - and your service provider - did not intend, and only vigilance and careful network monitoring can keep that at bay.

As new technologies come on-line, we will continue to integrate them into our service. Currently, there is provider support from D&E Communications for Hi-Definition service. We have the network infrastructure to take advantage of this, but billing and logistical issues have yet to be resolved - we do not have a streamlined way of associating different users with different subscriptions to high-definition channels, and billing them appropriately.

Similarly, access to premium channels is something that is on the horizon, but there the aforementioned billing issues with high-definition TV are compounded by the fact that D&E has not yet negotiated an understanding with content providers that will allow the content providers to provide encrypted streams of premium content to our students.

Television straight to PCs is very much desired by our student body, as shown by our student’s unauthorized experiments in that area, but D&E has been very forward in letting us know it is absolutely not allowed. This is a larger issue in the IPTV market, as consumers seek to avoid buying expensive set-top boxes of (perceived) limited utility, while the content providers seek to protect their revenue streams from unlicensed duplication of their content.

  • Challenges
  • Technical
    • Older Cisco 3500 switches did not support Quality-of-Service and multicasting to the degree needed
    • A bug was discovered in Cisco’s switches leading to poor service
    • Eventual shortage of the initial set-top box
    • Provider switched middleware during the summer of 2007
    • Students could use a widely-available media player to watch content free of charge, in violation of our agreement with the content provider
  • Social/Administrative
    • High cost of the initial set-top boxes, particularly from the point of view of upperclass students,
    • Student difficulty in setting up the box and provisioning content
    • Registering students was an arduous manual process
  • Mid-course corrections
    • New, cheaper, less failure-prone set top boxes became available in the summer of 2007
    • Closer monitoring of the content streams by our network administrator
    • The new middleware greatly improved the registration process
  • Technical Challenges
  • One of the first problems we noticed existed with our Cisco 3500 switches. They only offered a two-state QoS model, and did not multicast efficiently, offering reduced performance for our users. The solution to that problem was to replace about 60 of the 3500 switches with 3550, which had much better QoS and multicast support.
  • We also encountered a bug in the switch software which would sometimes result in packets being re-broadcast to the set-top boxes, which would then get them out of synch. The problem was difficult to track down, and eventually required Cisco to make an on-site visit to verify the problem. Cisco shortly afterwards supplied us with a firmware update that resolved the issue.
  • By the spring of 2007, the original supply of RCA IP900 set-top boxes was running critically low, and no more were to be found - they were no longer in production, and supplies had run out with every vendor we contacted. In consultation with our content provider, who was planning on a middleware change, we ended up chosing the Amino set-top box as a replacement. In addition to being widely available, it had a smaller form factor, faster performance, and a lower price.
  • During the summer of 2007, D&E switched their IPTV middleware to Athena 3.0. They worked closely with us to test both our exisiting IP900 boxes as well as the new Amino boxes, and because we were prepared, the transition went smoothly.

One particularly unexpected technical challenge arose from our students. Using the VLC media player, they were able to view to BUTV multicast streams without purchasing a subscription. This first arose, understandably enough, as a result student curiosity about how BUTV worked. However, mice will always find the shortest path to the cheese, and once it became common knowledge on how to view BUTV though VLC, the draw of “Free TV that you don’t need an expensive set-top box to watch, and you can save to your hard drive,” was impossible for many students to resist - exactly the situation that we are contractually obligated to D&E to prevent.

To address this, our network engineer developed some tools to monitor activity at the switch level, to collect reports on what IPs and MACs were watching different multicast streams, and disabling student network ports as appropriate. Once he began doing this, we saw a sharp reduction of this form of unauthorized access.

Social/Administrative Challenges


Responding to a request from the Bucknell Student Government, Bucknell University rolled out the BUTV system to the campus in the fall of 2004. During the planning stages, a range of possibilities were reviewed. Most buildings lacked co-axial cable, but every building on campus had cat-5 cabling to rooms, and fiber-optic connections between buildings. Therefore, a decision was made to chose IPTV technology instead of adding co-axial cable infrastructure.

Through the initial phases of testing, to the campus-wide rollout, and from there, later changes in set-top box technology and the middleware supplied by our vendor, there have been many issues that have been addressed.  In addition to technological and logistical challenges, issues arising from billing consumers of the service and maintaining the security of the system from bright and perhaps unscrupulous students have also taught us valuable lessons. 

The Bertrand Library, the heart and soul of the University, and home of the Technology Support Desk, which co-ordinates providing students access to BUTV

One of the earliest challenges we faced was the student reaction to our pricing. Initial fees were $248 for the set-top box, and $97 a semester for content. This cost prevented many upperclass students from using the program, since they felt that paying for a box they would only use for a year or two to be a bad deal. The semester content fee has since risen to $103, but the newer Amino boxes are cheaper at $200, and incoming students are far more willing to buy the box, since they’re guaranteed to get four years of use out of it.

Siginificant documentation of the system was written, and each BUTV box “kit” comes with the appropriate accessory cabling and a one-page document illustrating how the system should be set up, both in terms of registering for content as well as the physical wiring:

Motivation & Pilot Program

TV in dorms has long been desired by the student body. The initial request from the Bucknell Student Government came to ISR in 2001. Many of our peer schools have offered cable for years, and the lack of cable television was a particular source of unhappiness for many of our students who found themselves in rural PA, “close to America’s agricultural traditions,” and far away from vibrant night-life or diverse cultural experiences.

Initial experiments in providing streaming movies were not particularly well received, and plans to run co-axial cable went nowhere after the large infrastructure expenditure needed (approx. $2.5 million) became apparent. In 2003, following up on continued interest from the Bucknell Student Government, a decision was made to leverage our existing data network to provide television programming.

An important initial discussion centered around funding for the program. There was a significant body of students who felt that the service should be “free,” in the sense that the fees were made by increasing the cost of tuition or room charges. Since this would have required the approval of the University Board of Trustees for the increase, as well as being unfair to students who did not wish to take advantage of the service, it was eventually decided that the cost should be borne by the students who chose to use the service.

A pilot program was run in a few of the dorms in the spring of 2004, and proved very popular. At the same time, some students found the service confusing, and the test revealed some network issues that needed to be addressed before we went live in the fall of 2004.

One unfortunate effect of deciding to go live in the fall of 2004 was that our student employees did not have a chance to become familiar with troubleshooting set-top boxes before the fall semester started; while normally our student employees are deployed to the dorms during move-in weekend, their own inexperience with the boxes made it a trying time for everyone involved.


Many thanks to Eric Smith, our network engineer, for providing much of the technical background to this presentation, Jason Snyder and Isabella O’Neill for providing background on the student point-of-view of the project, as well as long-term history about the genesis of the project, Bud Hiller for suppling more recent history, as well as his notes on an earlier presentation, and Janine Follmer for processing hundreds of BUTV registrations each semester by hand. Thanks also go out to the Bucknell Bookstore, who have partnered with us to sell the set-top boxes, the Bucknell Finance Office and Lori Wilson for doing much of the work involved in billing, the Bucknell Student Government, for bringing the issue to our attention and making sure we satisfied the campus demand. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to ISR’s student employees, who have done so much of the legwork in making this project a success for the campus.

Despite our best attempts at documentation, significant numbers of students need phone or in-room support every year to use BUTV.

Another challenge was the clunky registration process we had to work with initially. When the program started, students would have to register in our campus portal, and then those registrations needed to be hand-entered into a ponderous Java middleware application; to process the 500 or so registrations took one of our administrative assistants about three workdays to complete. The new middleware automates much of this; all students are pre-loaded into the provider’s database, and only the ones who activate a set-top box and use the service are billed.

For further information

Please contact to reach me directly, or to reach Bucknell’s Technology Support Team To view our campus BUTV website, please visit: