lead the way at 2005 confab
San Antonio, Texas
—Although the show floor and sessions ran the gamut on cable technology, two trends seemed to rise to the surface at the 2005 SCTE Cable-Tec Expo: digital simulcast and the industry's crossover into the wireless world of voice.
And while the theme might have been "Technology as Big as Texas," the show once again was more dominated by herds of incremental updates and upgrades indicative of a maturing technology. There might not have been any huge "gotcha" revelations at the show; it nevertheless was a good sampling of what cable operators are eyeing for their next-generation of voice, video and data services.
Bandwidth management again crept to the forefront, as operators mull how they will gain efficiency out of what they have, to serve up growing (and bandwidth-eating) services such as VOD and high-definition television. Bandwidth expansion is yet another option, but it has yet to become an option that operators are ready to roll with—or at least that is the MSO-wide consensus on the subject when discussed in public forums.
Cellular backhaul and dual WiFi/cellular platforms also played a big role this year as MSOs shift from the "triple play" of voice, video and data, to a "Fantastic Four" that puts wireless voice into the mix.
The cable industry may be fighting with foes on the ground and in the sky, but that doesn't mean cable's existing networks aren't up to the challenge.
"The [HFC] platform is enormously capable," said Time Warner Cable Chairman and CEO Glenn Britt, who spoke at Expo's annual CEO panel.
Cisco Systems Chairman and CEO John Chambers, meanwhile, continued (via satellite) his stance that all-IP, all of the time, is the wave of the future, because it is flexible enough to work with myriad consumer devices—everything from digital video recorders, to PCs and mobile phones.
"You will have a convergence of a lot of devices," Chambers said.
Britt, meanwhile, addressed the current telco/cable battle, and downplayed popular thoughts that the two are now locked in a battle to the death. He said there will be plenty of business to go around for both industries, but added that cable must continue to innovate at a rapid clip.
"We do have formidable competition," added ARRIS Chairman and CEO Bob Stanzione, noting that telcos have been accelerating speeds by moving DSLAMs closer to subscribers.
Chambers said the telcos have little choice but to expand their strategies at this point in the game. If they aren't successful with their new video and broadband strategies, "they will be left behind," he said.
But one area that cable is already behind on is wireless voice services. Several operators are already seeking to fill that gap. Time Warner Cable, as one example, has taken some early steps in the form of a reseller partnership with Sprint in some markets. But further activity could involve additional partnerships with providers or spectrum ownership in partnership with other cable MSOs.
"We are having active conversations on all of those," Britt said.
With competition heavier than it has ever been, the cable industry has more than enough challenges on its hands. But that didn't stop a handful of the industry's top technologists from winnowing down those that are highest on the list.
For Mike Hayashi, Time Warner Cable's SVP of advanced engineering and subscriber technology, the top challenge is to create a "national footprint" for the industry's array of services. For digital video, he would love to see a day when digital cable set-tops work on every cable system across the nation, but are flexible enough to accept the local operator's look, feel and interactive program guides. Although the cable industry was relatively uniform before digital video and DBS entered the picture, building cable industry consensus "is a tall order," Hayashi acknowledged.
Dr. Richard Prodan, the VP and CTO of Broadcom Corp.'s broadband communications unit, expressed that one of the industry's toughest tasks is to migrate to digital while also accounting for millions of deployed set-tops.
Taking a more international tack on the subject was Liberty Media SVP and CTO Tony Werner, who noted that a big challenge is to remain a growth industry on a cash flow basis. The trick, he said, is to rollout new services and generate new revenue while also retaining the existing subscriber base.
Paul Woidke, the vice president of technology for Comcast Spotlight, meanwhile, centered his concerns on one of this year's biggest technology issues: the deployment of digital simulcast networks and its impact on the advertising model.
According to Woidke, the bigger advertising piece of the puzzle will have to redefine itself over the next three to five years, or people will be forced to pay substantial sums for the type of programming they are getting today under the traditional ad model.
Werner noted that simulcast scenarios look a bit different outside North America. Systems in Europe, for example, do not have to simulcast as many channels as their U.S. counterparts. Rather than 80 channels, a European deployment might only have to replicate 30 or as few as 20 analog channels in the digital domain in order to satisfy existing analog customers.
Cable competition was also a key discussion point. Although fiber-fed services won't hold a technology advantage over traditional cable architectures for some time, it does have some marketing cache that HFC does not. "That is something I think Verizon will have some luck with," Werner said.
Operators on the panel also once again dispelled the notion that they will have to expand bandwidth in order to accommodate deeper HDTV lineups and new, capacity-heavy services.
Hayashi, for example, pointed out that cable has several bandwidth saving tools—including switched digital broadcast and advanced video codecs—at its disposal.
Werner echoed that he sees more upside in the use of these tools versus adding bandwidth—a technique that "is not in our forecast."
• Although a host of cable modem and headend gear suppliers eventually will throw their hats in the DOCSIS 3.0 ring, ARRIS is already touting how it will approach the market with products that will fuse channels together and help cable operators stay in stride (or even ahead) of its high-speed competitors.
Tom Cloonan, the chief technology officer for ARRIS' broadband division, said the initial version of ARRIS' pre-DOCSIS 3.0 gear will bond up to four channels—enough for a 160 Mbps downstream pipe—and become commercially available by the fourth quarter of 2005. ARRIS, like other vendors in the sector, will eventually support the bonding of more than four channels. In ARRIS' case, he added, "nothing precludes us" from bonding up to 32 channels, which would support about 1.28 Gbps, a future-proofing move in case there's a need for such capacity sometime well down the road.
• Pace Micro Technology launched the DC551 PFD, an all-digital set-top with on-board high-definition television capabilities. It complements the Pace "Chicago" DC501, a standard-definition-only all-digital box introduced at the National Show in April. The DC551 comes equipped with HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) and supports an optional 1394 5C-protected interface. Pace also jumped into the embedded multimedia terminal adapter (eMTA) game with the DV315. At the show, Pace demonstrated a prototype of the unit featuring wideband technology.
• SCTE and The Walter Kaitz Foundation added two elements to their Supplier Diversity Connection initiative: an MSO workshop and a supplier exhibit hall. The organizations again offered a panel discussion and a networking reception for the program, which debuted at the 2004 show. The Society also used this year's show as a platform to launch a revamped Web site that features an updated look, navigation and events calendar. It also features enlarged buttons and photos of SCTE members.
Expo in San Antonio drew about 10,000 attendees, down two percent from last year's show in Orlando, Fla., which drew 10,200. Despite the small dip in attendance, the show did see exhibitors shoot up five percent to 394, including 69 first-timers, and see a 10 percent increase in attendance compared to 2002, the last time Expo was held in San Antonio.
The show will shift to the Mile High City of Denver, Colo. next year, slated to run June 20–23. Chris Bowick, the SVP of engineering and CTO of Cox Communications, has agreed to serve as chair of the 2006 Cable-Tec Expo Program Subcommittee. Bowick, a former CED Man of the Year, has been an SCTE member since 1981 and presently serves on the CableLabs Technical Advisory Committee.