DENVER–Bandwidth was again a common refrain at Tuesday’s “Confronting Cable’s Technological Frontier” series of panels at The Cable Center here: Is there enough, who has more, and how much of it should be allocated to IP-based services?
“Cable is ahead in terms of plant deployed,” said Tom Lookabaugh, listed in the Cable Center program as “CEO of NGNA” (Next Generation Network Architecture), and also known for his work leading up the PolyCipher effort. PolyCipher is quietly cooking up DCAS (downloadable conditional access system) techniques for cable.
“The telcos have big cash flows, with a pretty good rate of return on a cash basis, and they’ll plug that into building fiber,” Lookabaugh continued. “But the cable industry is in pretty good shape, actually, and is able to evolve with demand. I’d say bring it on.”
That was good news to the venture capital community, represented in part by Ryan McIntyre, former founder of Excite and currently a venture capitalist with Mobius. “How much bandwidth is enough is, to me, a trick question, because applications always expand to consume the bandwidth allotted.”
Nonetheless, McIntyre called the state of U.S. bandwidth availability “an embarrassment” compared to other geographies, such as southeast Asia. “I’m happily waiting for DOCSIS 3.0 to get my 60 Megabits to my house.”
His pet peeve with bandwidth is its asymmetrical nature. As an investor in Sling Media, which relies heavily on upstream bandwidth to enable its “location shifting” TV delivery service, the move toward symmetry is important. “The amount of bandwidth coming into homes far outstrips the amount of upstream bandwidth,” McIntyre said, adding that “the biggest and most fertile ground lies in having enough bandwidth to do interesting things.”
When asked how much of cable’s bandwidth should ultimately be allocated to IP-based services, as opposed to MPEG-based broadcasts, the panelists were mixed. While McIntyre voted for 100 percent IP, Dick Green, CEO of CableLabs, pointed out that IP and MPEG have different characteristics – and different limitations.
MPEG-based digital broadcast is good for popular, commonly watched, “one to many” content, and isn’t so good at “long tail” or highly individualized material, he said. IP isn’t so good at hitting the masses with broadcast material, but is good at lesser-watched shows with smaller audiences. “From a customer point of view, if you’re watching a live event – the Academy Awards – that’s probably never going to work very well on IP,” he said.
Ultimately, cable providers can handle both types of transmissions, and evolve with them as they grow. “Cable will do what’s smart – things best delivered on IP will be on IP; things better delivered on broadcast, like high definition or live events, will be on broadcast,” said Green.
Another big topic at yesterday’s Cable Center event: DVRs, and their impact on advertising. Right now, said Evan Shapiro, EVP and GM of the Independent Film Channel, about 6 million people in the U.S. use either TiVo or other digital video recorders, and about 25 million homes have access to video-on-demand.
“To completely neglect that experience is to kiss your future goodbye,” said Shapiro. “By 2011, when every box has a DVR inside, and is VOD-enabled, the idea that a programmer can determine what people watch at a point in time is quaint, I think.”
In terms of alternate delivery mechanisms, content providers said they’re equipped to go directly to consumers, via the Internet, but they’re concerned about how to make people aware of their shows. “We have the technology to deliver everything on-demand right now, if we wanted to,” said IFC’s Shapiro. “But how do you promote it? How do you market it?”
Bob Greene, EVP of advanced services for Starz Entertainment, said that its Vongo service, which offers subscription-based movie downloads over broadband, attracts a very different audience than its traditional, premium video offerings. Evidence: About 80 percent of Vongo customers don’t subscribe to the linear Starz service, and 50 percent don’t have premium TV of any kind, he said.
“Vongo is controversial because it’s available directly to consumers, which is unique for a content company,” Greene said. “We’re in discussions with all our cable friends to allow them to integrate (Vongo) into their broadband offerings.”