Following a new digital "plug-and-play" agreement, the cable and consumer electronics (CE) industries are no longer at each other's throats, but are embracing each other and discovering ways to make beautiful music (and money) together.
That message was abundantly clear last month in Miami at the 2003 SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies. A more lively role in CE developments, coupled with a rollout of services aimed at producing incremental revenue, can push the cable industry toward a more innovative path to profitability, said panelists and industry observers.
Cable's future involvement in the consumer electronics sector is so important, said ET keynoter and cable analyst Paul Kagan, that operators must view it as the next battleground in its war with DBS.
Kagan, reflecting on the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas held the week prior, noted that the DBS players, per usual, were "firing their guns," loaded for bear with new high-definition television and digital video recording services and applications. But this year, he observed, cable returned fire, brandishing VOD, HDTV and, in "machine gun style," its groundbreaking digital "plug-and-play" relationship with the CE industry.
"We certainly are in new territory," Kagan said, noting that before its recent CE overtures, the cable industry had been in a groove of picking and choosing services and then taking its time developing them.
Kagan suggested that instead of rationing capital and focusing on one new service at a time, cable operators, if they want to stay competitive with DBS, must undertake multiple offerings all at once. That strategy, he forecasted, will allow cable to boost its dollars-per-subscriber figures and break the $100 mark by 2007. The industry, buoyed by a widening menu of broadband services, will reach $138 per sub by 2012, he predicted.
In the follow-up panel, Charter Communications Executive Vice President and CTO Steve Silva echoed those sentiments, noting that active involvement in the CE arena will help cable dethrone DBS as the perceived leading provider of digital and high-definition consumer services. More participation will also allow the cable industry to benefit and leverage the billions of dollars that consumer electronics spends on research and development.
A more CE-friendly approach "can position us as the premier provider…and bring innovation back into our industry," he said. But, Silva added, "We have to open up and bring innovation to our own industry."
On that point, Silva urged other operators to give careful thought to conditional access (CA) technologies that live outside the traditional Motorola Broadband/Scientific-Atlanta digital duopoly, and consider alternative platforms such as Sony Corp.'s "Passage." Silva made those remarks on the heels of a deal that made Charter the first MSO to license Passage, a DVB-based CA platform designed to cohabitate with legacy digital cable networks.
He also lauded the possibility of OpenCable and its middleware component, the OpenCable Application Platform. OCAP "is critical to us," he insisted.
With the CA lock picked, set-top makers and other consumer premise equipment (CPE) vendors would be allowed to innovate and add new features and applications, allowing cable operators to move on concepts faster or quicker than their DBS counterparts.
"We've had the right ideas…but we've been slow to execute," he said.
One of those ideas is the distribution of video signals to multiple TVs via wired and wireless home networking technologies.
Short-range wireless platforms, when combined with residential gateways, advanced set-tops and media centers, is one promising option, explained Richard Barrett, director of product marketing for Microtune Inc.
Enhancing their wired counterparts, wireless protocols will help cable customers connect other devices and peripherals such as PCs, PDAs, Web pads, game controllers and keyboards. Down the road, a stout wireless network can also allow cable customers to distribute IP-based video and data.
Although future versions of Bluetooth and WiFi will eventually provide the throughput and QoS required for video distribution, two developing technologies–WiMedia and Ultra Wideband–will play key roles as well, Barrett said.
The QoS-sensitive WiMedia (802.11.15.3), which operates at up to 55 Mbps in the 2.4 GHz spectrum, could help operators send standard and HD programming to various devices. Ultra Wideband, at greater than 500 Mbps, offers enormous throughput for indoor, short-range applications, but it could interfere with other technologies, Barrett noted.
Regarding QoS, its "priority" flavor is best suited for home networks, where different devices and manufacturers might be present, offered Broadcom Corp. Principal Engineer Dr. Stephen Palm. Its "parameter" counterpart, he added, works best on the access network, where operators have the most control.
If VOD, SVOD, FOD and BOD aren't enough acronyms to be tied to the on-demand category, here's another one to try on for size: HDVOD.
HDVOD–for high-definition video-on-demand–is the network-based counterpunch to a new line of HD-capable PVRs already under development and tagged for distribution by DBS providers.
Although several cable operators already have installed the necessary components to make HDVOD a reality, plenty of technical issues still need ironing out before it works well, explained nCUBE Corp. CTO Greg Thompson.
Although the disk drives in VOD servers continue to expand to between 144 GB to 180 GB per drive, disk bandwidth isn't growing as rapidly, Thompson said, citing a Microsoft Corp. study that showed that disk capacity has increased 1,000-fold in the last 15 years, but disk performance improved a mere 40-fold during the same period.
Still, evolving technologies are brightening HDVOD's future. They include elements such as MPEG decoding, HD grooming and more efficient codecs such as MPEG-4. The future sharing of QAM channels and "switched broadcast" technologies will also improve HDVOD's outlook, Thompson said.
Despite improvements already in the pipeline that could usher in HDVOD, why should cable pursue it?
Thompson argued that such a service will better position cable in the home theater market and help the industry compete more directly with local movie theaters. It would provide more content, therefore giving consumers more reason to buy HD services from MSOs, Thompson argued.
On the competitive front, HDVOD represents something that DBS and DVD players can't support. DBS doesn't have the requisite "targetable" addressable bandwidth; and DVDs can't handle HD . . . at least not until high-capacity "blue-laser" versions begin to spread and proliferate.
With video subscription growth leveling off (and in some cases contracting), cable operators are looking to roll out new services as a method to grow revenue. One nascent area that is capturing a lot of attention is the lucrative commercial market. Cable operators are exploring ways to extend their networks into shopping centers, industrial parks and commercial campuses to provide a suite of voice and data services in competition with local telcos.
Depending on whose numbers are to be believed, the voice/data market for small- and medium-sized businesses amounts to somewhere between $35 billion and $50 billion. While the top-tier of businesses are served by the local telephone company, they typically aren't serviced well, said Michael Pritz, president and CEO of Jedai Broadband Networks, who spoke during the "Searching for the Enterprise" session at ET. That opens a window of opportunity to motivated broadband service providers.
One such provider is Charter Business Networks (CBN), a business unit of Charter Communications. In Wisconsin, where Charter's most fully developed enterprise network has been built, the system began with a small municipal network that was constructed to interconnect several buildings, said Jim Rice, corporate VP of CBN. Headend consolidation and additional commercial contracts allowed that network to grow and offer more services.
CBN as a whole has since grown to the point where it contributes $35 million to Charter's revenue stream, Rice said.
And other MSOs shouldn't be timid to jump into the market, Rice added. "HFC networks are the answer to the 1996 Telecom Act," Rice said. "It is the only near-ubiquitous, wireline high-speed access network that can compete with the phone companies."
Session reactor Paul Gemme, VP of network engineering for Time Warner Cable, said his company is actively exploring entry into this market as well. "There are revenue numbers in our budget for 2003, so you can expect us to be getting into this," he noted.
Before ET even got underway, ADC Chairman and CEO Rick Roscitt, in a briefing with reporters and analysts, said the telecom sector is leveling out and "poised for a turnaround."
While a leveling market could be considered a promise point in these harsh economic times, it hasn't necessarily evened out at a level at which a company like ADC wants it to remain. "The industry needs more volume," Roscitt said.
Though a conference like ET isn't designed to draw monster crowds, its attendance did give credence to Roscitt's insight. Instead of seeing attendance drop precipitously like it did at December's Western Show, ET attracted 690 attendees. Buoyed by on-site registrants, this year's conference almost hit last year's figure of 711 attendees.
The 2004 ET is slated to kick off Jan. 13 in Dallas at the Adam's Mark Hotel. SCTE has tapped Dave Pangrac as the program chair and to lead the conference subcommittee in determining topics and selecting industry papers to be presented during the event.
"What I see happening in our industry is that there's a new drive to look at ways to reinvent ourselves," Pangrac said.
ET may reinvent itself by 2005. By then, the conference could be co-located in Las Vegas with the Consumer Electronics Show, which has drawn more and more interest from cable operators in recent years. SCTE is presently exploring the idea, according to CED sister publication Multichannel News.
If it wasn't for a call from Charter Communications, Pragash Pillai might be making digital history in his home country of Malaysia instead of the United States.
Fortunately for Charter and the domestic cable industry, he's still here as the MSO's senior engineer of digital video technology, and as the recipient of this year's Young Engineer of the Year Award.
The award–sponsored by Pace Micro Technology, the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) and CED sister publication Multichannel News–recognizes the achievements and contributions made to the cable telecommunications industry by engineers under the age of 30.
Pillai, 29, was honored based on his contributions to the design of Charter's ambitious digital cable distribution network, which the MSO has tapped to offer advanced services such as high-definition television and video-on-demand.
Pillai, a 1999 graduate of the University of Missouri at Columbia with an electrical engineering degree emphasizing power and RF design, said he always knew his career would follow the telecommunications path. But the question was whether it was going to be with a cable operator or with a telco, and in which part of the world he would end up plying his trade.
"I just finished school in August (1999) and thought, 'If I don't get anything, I'll go home and find a job'," Pillai recalls. "I was ready to leave the country when I got a call from Charter."
Pillai took the call and got the job, a post that placed him at the forefront of Charter's bold digital plans.
On the VOD front, Pillai was involved with Charter's initial deployments with Diva Systems in 12 cable systems. Though that experience was invaluable to Charter's overall push into VOD, the MSO's early decision to invest in Diva and deploy the company's gear and underlying systems turned into a mighty challenge in mid-2002 when Diva filed for bankruptcy.
Pillai handled the system design for the migration of those Diva sites (as well as the design for several new ones) to VOD systems based on nCUBE Corp. and Concurrent Computer Corp. technology.
With Charter's VOD systems fully stabilized, Pillai says he and his peers will be charged in 2003 with enhancing and expanding the product with subscription-VOD and basic-on-demand content from suppliers such as MagRack.
In 2003, Pillai also will direct his attention to HDTV, a service that Charter already has launched in a handful of markets. "HD is something that we'll be very aggressive with this year," he says.
Pillai's digital involvement also extends to Charter's SSD (Small System Digital) project, which kicked off last year to help the MSO better compete with DBS. Targeted to smaller systems not yet upgraded to 750 MHz or 860 MHz that serve between 300 and 3,000 subs, SSD allows Charter to reclaim sparse analog space and create a broader lineup of digital programming. Following the first site launch of SSD in March of last year, Charter had expanded its deployment to roughly 150 sites by the end of 2002.
Pillai is the second winner of the Young Engineer Award. The first, Robert Pendarvis, is the manager of network engineering and technology deployment for Comcast Cable Communications in Philadelphia. –JB
As Time Warner Cable Senior Network Architect Paul Brooks puts it, switched broadcast is a "disruptive technology "–not because it will cause big problems, but because it represents a seismic shift in traditional cable paradigms and thinking.
Switched broadcast is a technique whereby programs are delivered only to customers who request them. The implementation presented at ET includes a Switched Broadcast Server (SBS), which receives channel requests from a set-top box. Then, via a pool of dynamic stream resources, the SBS controls an "MPEG-aware" switch designed to deliver the correct program to the right customers at the specified time.
As for implications, the technology could break down traditional thinking when it comes to upgrades, as it can eliminate the need for operators to upgrade beyond 750 MHz and 860 MHz, and even help out systems that have not been upgraded to those levels.
A 550 MHz system that uses the switched broadcast technique can deliver a robust digital package without expensive upgrades, argued BigBand Networks Chief Architect S.V. Vasudevan.
Moreover, the switched broadcast approach will curb the potential over-provisioning of the cable network. That's because cable subscribers typically watch the same shows at the same time, allowing for fewer live stream requirements, Brooks said. –JB
When contrasting broadband networks are laid out, they tend to look like a pile of jigsaw pieces–they're all jagged and grooved, but somehow, someway, they all fit together to create a beautiful picture.
Figuring out how to piece together such a picture was the task of Anthony Bowling, winner of the 2003 Star of Integrity award. Sponsored by C-COR.net, CED and Multichannel News' Broadband Week, the award recognizes individuals who have displayed exceptional innovation in the deployment of emerging technology over hybrid fiber/coax networks.
While serving as vice president of broadband engineering for AT&T Broadband (now part of Comcast), Bowling evaluated new technologies and directed the MSO's HFC architecture as well as the testing and qualifications of the components that made up the company's networks. As such, Bowling–who has since become vice president of engineering for Comcast in Atlanta–and his colleagues were tasked with integrating disparate network designs and building a transport network capable of delivering a trifecta of voice, video and data services.
Bowling, who was employed by MediaOne before its merger with AT&T Broadband, was charged with mapping together the combined company's disparate architectures, a grand unification of broadband proportions.
"Looking back over the past 12 months, I think the biggest challenge was trying to get everything somewhat integrated into the markets," Bowling says. That integration was designed so that each AT&T Broadband market understood where to go to obtain test reports and to ensure that the vendors were well-versed in the MSO's specifications and how those specifications were driving the company's broadband networks.
"We had two architectures in a sense–the TCI architecture and the MediaOne architecture," he recalls. In addition to finding commonalities between them, Bowling had to figure out what to pull out of the network, determine what to obsolete and how to get everyone on the right track and moving forward. –JB