HOUSTON, Texas–About 1,000 professionals turned up here in January to bear witness to some of the big cable-related technologies and trends that are expected to emerge during the next three-to-five years.
Hot topics at the 2007 SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies ranged from place- and time-shifted content, to bandwidth management, Web 2.0, cable's expansion into the wild world of wireless, and advanced advertising. What follows is a synopsis of several of the sessions and panels that dove into these areas of interest.
VOD and personal video recorders (PVRs) are only the beginning. Customers are wondering why they can't view their media files at any time, no matter where they are, on whatever playback device they desire.
For service providers, that's making things a little uncomfortable. Their collective problem goes far beyond having to handle a range of playback products–PCs, TVs, mobile devices, cell phones, etc. The industry still has to upgrade and configure the various networks that all have to interact; it has to develop means of discovering, provisioning and managing all those devices; and it has to sort out digital rights management technologies (and after that the rights will have to be secured).
The situation for operators is being complicated by companies like Sling Media, which is capitalizing on consumer impatience by figuring out novel ways to let consumers access content.
Dave Mathews, who has the title of "forward thinker" at place-shifting pioneer Sling Media, said the key problem in the TV industry is that almost every device out there, from set-tops to handheld mobiles, is a media in-box. "They're all islands," Mathews said. Protocols and formats can be dealt with. Transcoding is cumbersome, but it is an option.
Perhaps the least tractable problem, according to the panel, is digital rights management, which legally prohibits (or authorizes) moving content around. An engineer has a good idea how long it might take to build an interface, but lawyers have no deadlines.
One possible future though, would be for service companies to set up a system that tracks each consumer and negotiates DRM agreements and licenses perhaps on an automated basis–a media management agent, which the panelists said the cable industry is in a unique position to provide.
"Call it convergence interoperability," said Cisco Systems Senior Marketing Manager Greg Whelan. "MSOs need to deliver the experience. Does the consumer have three different user interfaces? The operator needs to provide a consistent user interface."
"This will happen," said Time Warner Cable Senior Director Keith V. Nichols. "Customers want it, and if we don't provide it, they'll find a way around us."
Will it be easy? No. "But the lawyers will get in the way long enough for us to catch up," said Nichols.
–Brian R. Santo, Senior Editor
Maybe industry engineers have so much confidence in the robustness of the HFC architecture, there's no question MSOs will be able to provide and allocate adequate bandwidth for users far into the future. Maybe the engineering is just implementation details. Whatever the reason, the engineers at SCTE kept getting sidetracked by marketing issues.
The panelists of the first session to carry the title, "Service Velocity & Next Generation Architectures: How Do We Get There?" first established that the key for MSOs is indeed arranging for more bandwidth per user.
"Demand is infinite," said Michael Patrick, data networking architect for Motorola's Connected Home Solutions operation. "The key, is what will we supply?"
If cable operators were to use all 125 channels they have, and use DWDM technology, Patrick said, "we could, without lifting a spade of dirt, supply 40 megabits-per-second per sub."
The problem might not be engineering, however. Consumers are being convinced that fiber-to-the-home is better because it's new, pointed out Cisco Senior Technical Leader Alon Bernstein. "By the time an MSO finds out it will take $1,000 of advertising per sub to prove that cable is just as good as fiber," Bernstein said, "you might as well dig fiber."
Jay Rolls, Cox Communications Inc.'s VP of Technology and session moderator, sympathized. "I had a talk with a builder recently," Rolls explained. "I was explaining all the technical reasons why HFC was as good as fiber-to-the-home. He just said, 'Stop. That's not the issue. The issue is marketing a house.' I had no answer for that," Rolls admitted.
HFC technology is moving forward, however. The panelists were authors of a set of papers that provided an inkling of just how many different options cable operators have in upgrading their networks and migrating to newer, higher efficiency networks.
Nortel described how IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) technology could be converged with switched digital broadcasting; Alcatel-Lucent presented on deploying GPON; Cisco talked about running DOCSIS on a PON-based network; and Motorola proposed a potentially more efficient way of delivering IP video on a DOCSIS 3.0 network by circumventing the cable modem termination system on some occasions. –BRS
GPON and DWDM and switched video are very sexy technologies, promising an era of what-I-want-when-I want-it-where-I-want-it (which should be WIWWIWIWIWI, but for convenience was shortened by Motorola's Patrick to "wee-wee" [certainly spelled that way to avoid trademark infringement with Nintendo]).
But first, the members of the second installment of the Service Velocity panel said, operators will have to take into account a major point made during the Shiftier & Shiftier panel: You haven't integrated multiple services unless you have a common interface.
And thus panel members revealed why they are now aggressively testing and rolling out the DOCSIS Set-top Gateway (DSG) and then plan to deploy the OpenCable Applications Platform (OCAP).
Comcast is now using DSG technology in 10 systems and will spend 2007 implementing it across its entire footprint, according to Richard Rioboli, Comcast's VP of product platform engineering. Time Warner Cable will also begin a nationwide roll out of DSG, said Howard Pfeffer, TWC group vice president, broadband engineering and technology. DSG is a means of using a standard DOCSIS channel (rather than proprietary out-of-band signaling) to communicate with and deliver data to set-top boxes.
Rioboli said Comcast will also lab test OCAP this quarter, and engage in a market test in Q2, with expectations of a few deployments before the end of the year. Comcast has been saying for a year it plans on pursuing switched digital video technology, and Rioboli confirmed that Comcast is testing switched video broadcast in two markets.
Comcast and TWC are huge and far from monolithic; each has numerous systems that are variously configured. Just like every other provider, they want to introduce new services and applications, but in order for a company to do that on a national basis, it will first have to standardize its configurations, according to Rioboli.
"It may not be sexy, but it's important," he said.
But Comcast will still need as many different versions of an application as it has set-top boxes. That's where OCAP comes in. OCAP essentially severs the direct connection between an application and the operating system resident on a set-top box. That would allow an operator to write a single version of an application (a program guide, for example) and be assured it will run on all STBs outfitted with the OCAP stack.
Rioboli said Comcast will spend most of this year concentrating on rolling out DSG. Comcast previously said it plans to test OCAP in Philadelphia, Denver, and Union, N.J. Comcast has not revealed which of its systems now have DSG, nor which two cities are hosting the SDV tests.
"We're going to take a similar approach–just get DSG out there," Time Warner Cable's Pfeffer said. It's vitally important for cable companies to be able to differentiate themselves, he added, "so we have to have a uniform presence across all our platforms." –BRS
The wee-wee world will certainly include mobile devices. Camiant CTO (and moderator of the "Look, Ma! No Wires!" session) Susie Kim Riley said fixed/mobile convergence (FMC) could be a huge differentiator for cable companies. Combine video, DOCSIS, cellular, WiMAX, etc., "and you will win," she said.
Device convergence is already happening. Consumers are demanding media in places not expected. This panel was at least the second of the week to observe that, contrary to almost every expectation, consumers are indeed watching full-length movies on iPods and other handhelds.
It is the task of service providers to converge services and applications.
Comcast VP of Wireless Engineering Ken Falkenstein discussed the complexity of doing so. He said Comcast has been working with Sprint in Boston and Portland, and they have had to figure out together how to integrate billing and customer service, and have only begun to integrate provisioning. "The plan is to have free calling between home and wireless phones," he said.
In contrast to Riley's enthusiasm for FMC, Falkenstein was significantly more measured. He said Sprint is pursuing FMC much more aggressively. Comcast, he said, will take an evolutionary, paced approach, with service trials not beginning until late in 2007 or into 2008.
Falkenstein was also circumspect about Comcast's participation in a consortium of cable operators who banded together to buy radio spectrum in a recent FCC auction. "It's something we now have to bring to the table," he said. "It keeps our options open."
Sprint-Nextel VP Ben Vos said the joint venture partners are still negotiating over a lot of things, including who owns the customer.
As for rolling out WiMAX networks, Vos said the company is sticking with its plan to provide WiMAX coverage that will reach 100 million consumers by the end of 2007, but that activity might be pushed to the back half of the calendar year.
"We're still waiting for those cheap chipsets," he said. "But once those chips start making their way into camcorders and automobiles and gaming stations, then demand will explode and we'll expand the market."–BRS
Another panel asked the increasingly important question: How can cable position itself in an emerging world of video sharing and social networking, particularly as Internet plays such as YouTube and MySpace continue to dominate Internet buzz, as well as its traffic?
According to Cuneyt Taskiran, a senior research staffer at Motorola, operators can get into the mix by enabling consumers to seamlessly access and consume content across multiple devices.
But, what does "seamless" mean, exactly? It means "zero effort," by giving consumers all of the content from one source, rather than using multiple devices with multiple sources of mainstream and niche "long tail" content.
"Today's model is no longer feasible," Taskiran said, noting that a unified "buddy list" is another example of how operators can help consumers connect to their communities.
But the "million dollar question" is how to integrate all of this for users, he said.
Personalizing the TV experience is a good place to start, according to Brian Kahn, an engineering manager with SeaChange International, who expressed that Internet-delivered TV is starting to outpace traditional television in entertainment value.
Kahn suggested two solutions that will pave the way toward personalized TV: a home media center, which is relatively expensive and difficult for the average consumer to set up; or a network-based media center, where content is stored centrally, and does not require massive configurations.
In the latter example, "It just exists. It's a new service that's provided," Kahn said, adding that such a service would show and organize content, including videos, photos and even more local fare, such as government meetings and local high school basketball games.
Glen Hardin, the senior director of video systems for Time Warner Cable's Advanced Technology Group, said the crux of the problem is content and giving consumers easy access to it.
Consumers, he said, don't care about the technologies and complexities behind services–"all they want to do is interact with content."
While early VOD platforms featured about 100 titles and a simple user interface, the picture has changed as subscription- and "free" on-demand content libraries grew–and along with them, usage.
With user-generated content added, it will bury the client-side interface. "It can't keep up," Hardin explained.
He suggests that cable operators leverage their networks as never before, in a way that allows them to use the entire population of high-end and thin-client set-tops. That includes the ability for consumers to access a playlist application that resides on the set-top. Like the DVR, content appears on a playlist that the customer subscribes to.
"You just pick the video and stream it," he said.
But what about storage? Won't almost an infinite amount be required?
On that point, Hardin expressed the idea of the creation of a national content library for the cable industry, noting that users don't need to know where content resides or originates.
Perhaps some titles and content delivered under such a model could take 20 minutes to get to the user after the initial request for it, but it's better than waiting for three days under the Netflix model, he argued.
When it arrives on the set-top, perhaps users will be greeted with, " 'You've got VOD,' rather than, 'You've got mail'," Hardin said, referring to the catchphrase made popular by AOL.
Hardin said Time Warner Cable has an initiative underway to offer a Netflix-like experience via the TV. By using a Web-based interface, there's no reason why other operators couldn't tap into the same national content library, he explained.
Another area cable can play is gaming, particularly in the category of casual gaming.
Cable, said Darren Schueller, the technical director for NTN Buzztime, does not have to compete with advanced gaming platforms such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. At their core, games just have to be fun.
"The thing that is still king is game play," Schueller said, adding that multiplayer capabilities will continue to drive consumers to play titles on their set-top. Virtual communities can serve as a tremendous retention tool.
A cable customer "won't want to give up their 40th level Elven warrior," just to go to a competing DBS provider, he said.
But to make it useful, a multiplayer service can't be limited to the MSO's footprint, but must be offered across providers, noted Steve Calzone, the principle systems architect for Cox Communications.
Having a common infrastructure, with OCAP as the enabler, will help operators achieve this, he said. Other components required for such standardization include login/authentication, chat presence, the advertising and VOD interface, and scoring system.
–Jeff Baumgartner, CED Editor-in-Chief
Another panel grappled with the technical and operational opportunities ahead for advanced, interactive (and more targeted) advertising, which, today, has been dominated by the Internet.
Offering these capabilities translates into a premium of 50 percent to 75 percent versus traditional ads, according to Steve Reynolds, the SVP of technology for OpenTV Corp.
But making it local also carries a premium. Local spot sales in local markets, said Comcast Spotlight VP of Technology Paul Woidke, carry a CPM (cost per thousand, for ad impressions) that's at least double what can be generated by broadcast television.
The pot of money is already there; cable just needs to find new ways to gain access to it, Woidke said.
That advertising pot represents $70 billion per year in the U.S. alone, according to Seth Haberman, the CEO & founder of Visible World.
But which "horse" should operators ride when it comes to advanced advertising? Switched, targeted ads? VOD ads, ads embedded in the guide? Interactive ads?
Interactive ads, Reynolds noted, are difficult without a ubiquitous platform that will make it easier for advertisers and ad agencies to create content for.
The simplicity of the "buy" is key, agreed Chet Kanojia, CEO of Navic Networks.
While the linear model is already there for the taking, cable must put in the proper backoffice systems–including tying in the billing system and ensuring that the right ad goes to the right set of eyeballs–before it can deliver in the VOD and interactive ad arenas, Woidke noted.
Panelists also agreed that addressable advertising is doable today, but offering it is a question that's up to those who control the bandwidth.
If all of the available bandwidth goes toward HDTV, it will limit the opportunities for addressable advertising and how it's delivered, Woidke explained.
And targeting will become more important as DVRs become more popular and affect traditional TV ad models.
The DVR, with its present penetrations, has at least crippled the goose that lays the golden egg.
"It's limping around right now," Woidke said, adding that advertisers can no longer "slap consumers around" by continuing to put more and more ad clutter in front of them.
Instead, he suggested, the ad industry must start to deliver useful, helpful advertising to the right people at the right time, and in reasonable volume.
Woidke also warned advertisers and cable operators to be careful of the term "relevancy"–a potentially self-defeating component of Internet advertising models that do not pay out if the consumer doesn't click the ad. Ads also provide value in branding, not necessarily impulse views and buys. On that point, he explained that just 3 percent to 4 percent of the U.S. population is making a car buying or leasing decision at any one time, yet car spots are a dominant force in TV advertising. –JB
Show officials said ET '07 attracted more than 1,000 attendees, about the same that attended last year's confab in Tampa, Fla.
Next year's conference is slated for Jan. 14-16, in Los Angeles.