weapons that cable will aim at its DBS and DSL competitors
With its advanced architecture mostly built-out, cable operators are now in search of the applications and services to layer on top of it.
And the sooner the better, considering the fact that DBS is perpetually creating new products and services of its own, and DSL providers have suddenly grown much more aggressive with their pricing strategies.
DBS caught cable off-guard to some extent, and it has taken cable a long time to catch up. Don't expect to see it happen again, cable's top technical minds told showgoers in Philadelphia at the 2003 SCTE Cable-Tec Expo.
Cable "was asleep at the switch and allowed DBS to make inroads into our business," observed Mike LaJoie, executive vice president, advanced technology for Time Warner Cable.
Consider cable wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. For Time Warner, which has stepped on the gas for the past three years, that has meant a massive deployment of video-on-demand and high-definition services, coupled with a greater availability of set-tops with on-board digital video recorders.
Being able to offer new services, and offer them quickly, will also require a tearing down of service "silos" and a move toward the consolidation of billing, provisioning and other backoffice components, noted Comcast Corp. CTO David Fellows.
In addition to new services, CTOs for the largest MSOs are also mulling ways to reclaim bandwidth or to use it much more efficiently.
On that topic, one of the hottest items was cable's future plans to reclaim spectrum via the transition from analog to digital.
Fellows set the tone on that subject, noting that his company is already evaluating such methods and mulling the operational and regulatory issues tied to the proverbial $35 digital set-top box.
Part of the challenge, Fellows said, is to know exactly how many televisions are out there on the way to figuring out how it might impact capital expenditures.
Getting simplified digital boxes to such a price point will require the whole industry to get behind the idea, suggested Insight Communications Senior Vice President and CTO Charlie Dietz. "Unless [it's] embraced by other companies, it dies on the vine," he said.
Another popular subject is that of switched broadcast, an emerging, bandwidth-saving technology that's already well under development at companies such as BigBand Networks and Harmonic Inc.
Switched broadcast has been discussed in telco circles for years, but now, it's cable's turn.
There's "nothing magical" about the technology, LaJoie said, but cable's decision to explore it is strictly tied to capital as transport costs continue to drop faster than their storage counterparts.
If this year's Expo was any indication, it is becoming crystal clear that cable is affording more and more attention to the commercial services category.
Although this area has been covered primarily by a batch of start-ups, it's starting to solidify and mature as a group of larger, well-entrenched companies begin to enter the picture.
Among them, companies such as Scientific-Atlanta, ADC and Motorola Broadband showed off or announced their intentions to provide platforms designed to pipe broadband services to small- and medium-sized businesses.
ADC, for one, announced its plans to make some business-class hay via a relationship with Appian Communications. Under the deal, ADC will market, sell and support Appian's Optical Services Activation Platform (OSAP) and Services Termination Unit (STU) gear alongside its own Cuda 120000 IP Access Switch, Cuda 1000 cable modem termination system and FastFlow Broadband Provisioning Manager.
S-A, meanwhile, introduced a portfolio of optical and RF-based telecommunications systems for business customers. S-A's new offerings in this category include a line of RF-based BroadLAN products, an expansion of its Prisma IP video, data and voice multi-service optical transport platform and the Prisma cable modem termination system (CMTS), which the company resells through a relationship with Juniper Networks.
GETTING BANDWIDTH UNDER CONTROL
Another emerging trend involved the development of new "bandwidth control" products aimed at helping cable operators to manage the peer-to-peer applications and to track cable modem usage for new high-speed data service tiers.
Ellacoya Networks introduced its 4000 (4K) series switch to its IP Service Control System family. More compact than Ellacoya's primary platform, the 4K platform provides cable operators with the necessary visibility and control techniques for networks that serve fewer than 4,000 subscribers.
Stargus Inc., as another example, added two components to its CableEdge family of broadband software products: Bandwidth Report and X-Ray. The CableEdge Bandwidth Report accounts for how all bandwidth on the system is being consumed across the network in real-time, down to the individual subscriber level, the company said.
Stargus' X-Ray platform, meanwhile, gives operators historical performance and configuration details of any cable modem on the network via a single, integrated view.
Though Stargus is not yet naming names, the company claimed that it is working with four of the top eight cable MSOs worldwide, and that its CableEdge platform is managing over 900,000 cable modem-based devices.
Although operators are rolling out DOCSIS 2.0-certified modems at a quick clip, their 2.0-based CMTS counterparts are being installed at a much slower rate.
Among the reasons why: MSOs, because of capex concerns, are hesitant to rip out their legacy CMTSs with new boxes that comply with both modulation schemes required by the 2.0 specification: A-TDMA (advanced time-division multiple access) and S-CDMA (synchronous-code division multiple access).
To help MSOs leverage legacy CMTSs for more advanced, QoS-sensitive services such as VoIP, Cisco Systems is proposing an advanced RF upgrade that would enable its earlier generation CMTSs to operate in a more next-generation, A-TDMA mode.
The upgrade, which involves a new line card, would integrate with cable modems based on all versions of DOCSIS, including 2.0. The new product, what Cisco calls a "Broadband Processing Engine" or BPE, would fit into the uBR7246VXR CMTS.
Cisco estimates that the upgrade could be applied to more than 17,000 installed CMTSs. The BPE component is in field trials today, with production slated for the third quarter.
"We're redefining what next-gen is," said Paul Bosco, Cisco's vice president, broadband/cable development.
It would behoove Cisco to do anything it can to keep competing "next-gen" CMTS vendors such as ADC, Motorola Broadband, Arris, Terayon, S-A and Juniper Networks at bay. To wit, Cisco's market-leading share of the CMTS sector, according to Gartner Dataquest, has dipped from 55.8 percent in 2001 to 53.8 percent by the end of 2002.
When it comes to new services, video-on-demand is certainly a prime candidate. But doing more than movies-on-demand is on everyone's plate these days.
VOD server and system provider Concurrent Computer Corp. and MVmax demonstrated a new application that enables viewers to create their own stories. The application, which pairs Concurrent's MediaHawk VOD system with MVmax's patented MetaScript software and specially-produced content, allows for users to use their remotes to make key decisions that push the story forward.
On the asset management side of the house, both Concurrent and SeaChange International launched new systems designed to move and tag assets on the network in an automated fashion.
SeaChange's new digital transcoder platform, for instance, repurposes advertisements, programs, movies and other VOD assets for on-demand and high-definition distribution.
Time Warner Cable's Houston and San Antonio divisions are among the first to launch SeaChange's software on their existing analog ad insertion platforms.
IP telephony didn't play a starring role on the floor, but plenty was going on behind the scenes.
Showing that there's still plenty of activity despite limited rollouts of the technology, Nuera Communications received a $20 million infusion of cash in a new round of funding led by Comcast Interactive Capital, Cox Communications, Sandler Capital Management and Argo Global Capital.
The cash register at Cedar Point Communications also went into action when the company announced that it had received a purchase order from Comcast to test its flagship SAFARI C3 platform for an IP telephony lab trial.
Comcast initially will use the product in the lab, but it's expected that the MSO will also leverage it in the field as it evaluates different PacketCable infrastructures.
Presently, Comcast is testing a more distributed PacketCable approach in the field in Coatesville, Pa., with companies such as Syndeo Corp. and Nuera Communications.
Bucking a trend that has seen attendance drop at industry trade shows, numbers (not to mention optimism) at the 2003 Expo were up. According to SCTE officials, attendance rose six percent compared to the 2002 confab, drawing 10,600 people. This year's show also drew some new blood, as the show floor welcomed 65 first-time exhibitors.
Looking ahead, the 2004 confab will move to sunny Orlando, Fla. SCTE has tapped Steve Silva, executive vice president and CTO for Charter Communications, to chair the program subcommittee for next year's show, which is scheduled for June 15-18.
Karen Brown, senior editor of Multichannel News' Broadband Week, contributed to this report.