Helping operators more efficiently leverage the spectrum they already have or extending spectrum to 1 GHz and beyond were among the hot topics at the 2006 SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Denver, Colo.
While operators are publicly saying all the right things–that bandwidth is getting tighter but they have plenty of tools and techniques at hand to ensure they'll have enough for several years–more privately, some are wondering how they will be able to rapidly handle the bandwidth stresses that will emerge as more and more high-definition programming becomes available and desired by consumers. And that pressure is only being amplified by the DBS industry, which is trying to use large HDTV lineups as a competitive advantage as consumers continue to snap up more and more hi-def-ready sets.
In addition to myriad switched video broadcast solutions, which do help operators use their existing bandwidth much more efficiently, the show floor has also become home to multitudes of bandwidth- expanding platforms that can push existing systems to 1 GHz, or even as high as 3 GHz.
While most operators are not yet expanding bandwidth, a move that could draw the ire of Wall Street for the publicly-traded MSOs, it does appear that bandwidth-expanding equipment is making its way onto the plant at a more passive level. And that's due primarily to the fact that some vendors are not even selling 750 MHz or 860 MHz equipment anymore as price deltas between that gear and those that support 1 GHz or more has pretty much evened out. When 750 MHz or 860 MHz electronics grow old and die, they are starting to be replaced by those that support higher spectrum.
One of the biggest news items to emerge from the show concerned DOCSIS 2.0b, an interoperability project that has never been considered as a full-fledged specification and originally was viewed as an interim step to DOCSIS 3.0. Comments made at the show made it clear that the project, which was to bond a minimum of two downstream DOCSIS 2.0 channels, was anything but a slam dunk. At press time, CableLabs and its members were still debating whether the effort should be disbanded as a formal project because, among other reasons, it could sidetrack vendors and possibly slow down the DOCSIS 3.0 effort.
Speaking at the technical session, CTOs from Comcast Corp. and Adelphia Communications made it crystal clear that they remain committed to DOCSIS 3.0, and are not much interested in an interim step, particularly if there are any questions about whether it is forward-compatible with DOCSIS 3.0 gear or backward-compatible with DOCSIS 2.0.
DOCSIS 2.0b, as it was described originally, looks to bond a minimum of two DOCSIS 2.0 downstream channels, but does not bond any upstream channels.
The focus remains on 3.0 and getting those specs finalized, said Adelphia CTO Marwan Fawaz. He said today's DOCSIS 2.0 technology should, in the coming couple of years, be able to handle data speeds Verizon or any other competitor throws into the marketplace.
David Fellows of Comcast said his company may look into testing some pre-DOCSIS 3.0 bonding technologies, but explained that he would not be a fan of anything that stands in the way of 3.0's progress as a specification.
Cable has the best network in place to face surging competition from telcos that are seeing their bread-and-butter voice subscriber base erode and now find themselves in the mode of playing technology catch-up and plying new video services, many of them driven by IP technology.
That was one of the primary messages delivered when 2006 Cable-Tec Expo Chairman and Cox Communications EVP of Engineering and Chief Technology Officer Chris Bowick took the stage.
But to keep the cable industry ahead of the game and to get ready for the coming "quadruple-play," engineers must continue to learn and master new technologies and skills, and, therefore, take advantage of training, workshops and other resources that are made available through the SCTE. That's because the challenges that cable is confronting today represent "just a fraction of what lies ahead," he said.
It's the engineers of the industry, not its marketers, that ensure the "rubber hits the road" when it comes to new products and services.
Plus, those same engineers will need to figure out how to stuff all of those services into the bandwidth that is available now. "Consider it a challenge," Bowick said. "We have the winning network."
CEOs spanning cable programming and technology opened up the show, touching on everything from competition to the technology the industry has at hand to fend it off.
On the subject of competition, not many operators face such a myriad group of telcos and other threats as does Liberty Global Inc., which operates systems in several countries around the world. IPTV services from the telcos are a "reasonable threat," but a "me-too" product at best that will face big challenges in offering high-definition television, said Liberty Global President & CEO Michael Fries. So far, telco-delivered IPTV has resulted in "little to no impact on our business," though the competition is something that Liberty takes seriously, he said.
Closer to home, the cable industry, in the wake of plenty of IPTV hype from the telcos, must do a better job branding itself as a technology leader, and establish itself as a one-stop shop for telecom services, said Jerald Kent, CEO of Suddenlink Communications.
Kent added that cable, which includes operators that don't always have the deepest pockets to tap, also has to be more careful than some of the larger telcos are with their money and how they spend it to support yet-to-be proven business models. While AT&T can make a $4 billion bet on Project Lightspeed, that same amount represents "the asset base of my entire company," Kent said. Cable, he said, needs to take "measured risks."
In addition to passing the word among consumers, panelists added that cable's leadership story must also be shared with and better understood by advertisers.
The gap between technology and advertising is considerable, but better targeting via video-on-demand is on the horizon, said C-COR Chairman & CEO David Woodle.
But if history is our guide, it could take some time for that message to get through.
Geraldine Laybourne, the chairman & CEO of Oxygen Media, recalled that it took 25 years for advertisers to finally grasp and understand the value of cable programming.
But where else can the cable industry make a difference? According to CableLabs President & CEO Dr. Richard Green, the industry should place a deeper emphasis on HD–likely to become a telco IPTV weakness, and, in particular, HD-VOD. The latter is a "killer product," Green said.
Four of the cable industry's most authoritative sources on switched digital broadcast addressed the crucial engineering and business issues facing the deployment and scaling of switched digital, and its upside options and challenges, at the show's pre-opening General Session.
The C-COR-sponsored event explored switched digital's bandwidth capacity and management opportunities and limitations, the future of the architecture for targeted advertising and single versus multi-vendor strategies, and a caution from panelist Mike LaJoie, CTO of Time Warner Cable.
"We have two systems (Raleigh, N.C., and Austin, Texas) in full production with a varied number of channels and it's going quite well. But our findings have told us to pay attention to the plan and be careful about the spectrum. The results have produced 60 percent gains in efficiency, and as time passes, we'll gain even more efficiency," LaJoie said.
Added capacity is a top-of-mind issue as well. "We're working on multiple ways of gaining capacity. We believe switched digital can be cost-effective, especially as bandwidth constraints grow. There's an argument to take switched digital technology to the next step," said Joe Matarese, SVP of Global Advanced Technology for C-COR. He noted that the cost of SDV is in the range of $5 to $10 per home passed for typical, existing service group sizes.
An important next step is to work out the multiple versus single vendor issue and head toward a truly open market. "When you get to switched digital, you depend on one vendor and pay a premium for that. So an open solution is important," said Jim Chiddix, Chairman and CEO of OpenTV.
LaJoie agreed. "We want lots of options and competition, and interfaces with several vendors. But there is an integration challenge. It takes time to implement with several vendors. So there are problems with an open approach, but it's better than with a single vendor approach," he maintained.
The coming of HD is a significant event for switched digital technology as well, but with some caveats, maintained Matarese. "As HD rolls out, switched digital will continue being cable-specific, and there's a real opportunity there. But how do you reach the subscribers and implement the advertising, and how will targeted advertising help pay the way?"
Targeted advertising, whether via multi-cast or unicast, is one golden opportunity switched digital technology could present. "You don't have to move to unicast for targeted advertising, and we are able to harvest some useful information from switched digital deployment. Currently, we aren't doing one-to-one advertising, so multicasting is the way to go," LaJoie noted.
It also represents a path for advertising on the set-top-box, noted Chiddix. "Ultimately, it means advertising to the set-top box, and only cable can do it. Growing it and taking advantage of targeted advertising is a great opportunity."
And just how effective versus the competition is switched digital likely to be? "It helps systems with HD and QAM, which allow more than the DBS providers," concluded Nimrod Ben-Natan, the VP of solutions for Harmonic Inc.'s convergent systems division.
For now, however, switched digital appears to be what LaJoie insists will be an efficiency play.
"As we start getting advertising involved, and the models, it (switched digital) will have something to say about it. But now, it's an efficiency play," he said.
Two of the cable industry's out-front proponents of the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), the CableLabs-specified middleware, outlined their companies' goals for the platform during a special workshop.
Charter Communications' Director of Advanced Engineering/Digital Video, Don Watson; and Time Warner Cable's Senior Director of Set-Top Box Development, Sherisse Hawkins, detailed their respective companies' plans to advance the OCAP specification and prepare their networks to merge it onto legacy infrastructures.
The standing-room-only crowd heard both Watson and Hawkins extol the benefits of both OCAP and interactive TV, and their company's timetable for OCAP's introduction.
"Our OCAP lab testing is focused on verifying functionality for existing hardware and more. Our OCAP timeline is to start support in 2006 with back office provisioning and work with program management, marketing, billing, engineering and field operations. We are preparing for OCAP," Watson said, noting specific goals related to deployments such as the requisite headend upgrades, OCAP object carousel installations, and support for the DOCSIS Set-top Gateway (DSG).
Charter, Watson added, will also support leased set-tops with CableCARD support by the July 2007 mandate; reach the 50 percent penetration level with OCAP in systems with interactive digital services by July 1, 2008; and a penetration level reaching 100 percent in systems with interactive services by July of 2009.
Deploying OCAP in existing cable systems can be a tricky business, maintained Time Warner's Hawkins, who detailed the company's technical trial in Gastonia, N.C. "There were key differences with OCAP. In the lab it was simple, but in the real world it was important to determine how to upgrade the middleware and test the CableCARD. But the triumph was the first certified OCAP 2.0 compliant host," she said.
There were three keys to Time Warner's OCAP trial, Hawkins noted. "As you plan, ask questions upfront so you can make changes early on. We found that by dividing and conquering in our lab, we solved many problems upfront."
Having the right tools was critical as well, along with adding a local upgrade mechanism. "Acquiring test tools independent of the host or customer-facing applications was important. Some forward thinking is needed," she noted.
Time Warner, she concluded, is determined to deploy a multi-stream CableCARD this year. "We have to deploy multi-stream CableCARDs by October. But moving forward, there's a long time before legacy boxes are replaced."
Watson agreed. "We want to leverage existing boxes, so they won't go away anytime soon. They (M-Cards) support lots of VOD, broadcast and interactive services."
The floor of 2006 Cable-Tec Expo teemed with new products and technological partnerships. Here is but a smattering of what was new at this year's confab.
In an effort that takes corporate synergy to the channel bonding level, Cisco Systems and its Linksys and Scientific Atlanta divisions introduced a new "wideband" platform. The combo teams the Cisco flagship cable modem termination system (CMTS), with traditional QAM gear and a new range of consumer premises equipment from Scientific Atlanta and modems from Linksys.
The Cisco uBR10012 CMTS employs a shared port adapter that provides up to 1 Gbps wideband connectivity to the edge QAM. A new SPA Interface Processor carrier card on the CMTS can support up to two SPA modules.
Another component of the system, SA's Continuum DVP XDQA24 Edge QAM, can handle up to 24 downstream QAMs, and can support third-party QAMs, the companies said.
On the modem front, the platform will initially offer two models. The SA DPC2505 will bond up to three channels, putting it on target for pre-DOCSIS 3.0 developments. The Linksys WCM300, meanwhile, can bond up to eight channels, double the minimum that is being specified by the DOCSIS 3.0 specs. The companies also expect to add additional modem models to the Cisco wideband family.
Harmonic Inc. introduced the Narrowcast Services Gateway (NSG) 9000, its fourth-gen series of Edge QAM devices. The "IP-enabled" NSG 9000 can host up to 72 QAM channels in a two rack-unit chassis, the company said, noting that it is devised to support applications ranging from traditional video-on-demand, to switched digital broadcast, and network-based digital video recording. The new device is also designed to work with the DOCSIS 3.0-based modular CMTS (m-CMTS). The gear also supports "Privacy Mode" real-time encryption, which presently is outfitted to protect content distributed via Motorola-made digital cable headends and set-tops.
SCTE, meanwhile, launched an interactive, Web-based job service. The SCTE Custom JobConnect service allows employers to post jobs online, search for qualified candidates based on specific job criteria, and create an online "resume agent" that sends daily e-mail alerts that list qualified candidates. The free service also allows job seekers to post their resumes and browse and view all available jobs. SCTE is offering the service at its Web site (www.scte.org).
SCTE also announced a new Digital Video Engineering Professional (DVEP) certification program whose scope includes the design, analysis, testing, integration, deployment considerations, and troubleshooting of a variety of digital video systems.
Although Denver is no longer considered the cable capital of the world, it did make for a decent draw. SCTE said the 2006 show welcomed 10,100 attendees, one percent better than the 2005 iteration in San Antonio. Exhibit space, which spanned 135,000 square feet, was sold out, and marked a four percent increase over last year's.
Looking ahead, the 2007 Cable-Tec Expo is set to run June 19-22 in Orlando, Fla. Nomi Bergman, the EVP of strategy/development for Advance/Newhouse Communications and 2004 Women in Technology Award winner, has agreed to chair next year's event and, as part of that role, will orchestrate the show's technical workshops. n