October 25, 2013
By Michael Grebb
The SCTE Cable-Tec Expo just wrapped in Atlanta. And while most of the show involves language that most of us couldn’t even begin to comprehend, we were able to decipher a few key takeaways that may help you understand why nearly 10,000 techies, operators and vendors chose to make the trip, a 6% increase over last year. Why the surge? Because technology has never been more important—both financially and competitively—to the future of the business.
1. DOCSIS Dimensions – Lots of talk about DOCSIS 3.1 this year, which makes sense considering the implications of suddenly being able to blast 10 gigs per second down those wires (not to mention 1 gig on the upstream). It also enables massive new bandwidth efficiencies that could really change the competitive position of those who adopt it. Yes, DOCSIS 3.0 isn’t even fully implemented despite being around for about 6 years—but for those on the cutting edge, DOCSIS 3.1 is an exciting addition to the cable tool kit. One big challenge: Keeping the spec backward compatible, as CableLabs R&D evp Tom Lookabaugh told me this week. But then again, it’s important to remember that DOCSIS 3.0 could live on for years in the marketplace as most consumers wouldn’t even know what to do with 1 gig, much less 10. “They’re not in a panic,” said Lookabaugh, referring to the industry’s plans to upgrade to 3.1. “It’s not like there’s a fire sale going on. They want to take their time.” Good to hear, especially since it will give cable more time to rename the spec to something cooler than “DOCSIS 3.1”—an idea floated by NCTA pres/CEO Michael Powell during the opening general session.
2. Powell Kind of Gets It – Speaking of NCTA’s Powell, the guy just kind of rocks when he’s up on stage. That’s common knowledge. But he’s also pretty bold when it comes to his advice for the industry regarding technology. It’s not that he’s a technologist. He’s not. And he would admit as much. But his admiration for how Silicon Valley and other tech companies take risks, move fast and fear no failure was on obvious display during the opening session. It’s not the first time he’s prodded the cable industry to be bolder and faster on the tech front—and it certainly won’t be the last. But it was inspirational to hear him break it down for the engineers and techies who actually understand how the clock works. His other advice: Do a better job explaining cable tech. For engineers who speak their own language and seldom translate that to the masses, it was good advice as he asked for “ambassadors” who can explain cable’s power to policymakers and the public. Techies who are so inclined should take him up on it. After all, those who can translate complicated topics often end up reaching the top faster. So it’s good career advice.
3. Navigation Nation – Lots of interesting wares on the exhibit floor affecting everything from amplifiers and splitters to video encoding software—but it was striking how much better set-top navigation is getting now that OTT providers and consumer box makers are raising the bar on responsiveness. SCTE reported 60 new exhibitors this year, and a good portion of them were software vendors figuring new ways to improve cable’s set-top navigation. For example, aioTV was there demoing its Android-based box that connects directly to an existing set-top to overlay slick navigation including everything from Netflix-like discovery to social media integration to intense personalization. It’s pretty cool, and it’s one of many new interfaces geared toward operators looking to either outsource components of navigation or simply replace what they already have. And unlike systems of the past, ops can customize these wares to their individual branding and features needs.
4. Not (Necessarily) for the Small Guy – Caught up with a small op exec running a small group of systems in the midwest with fewer than 3,000 subs. He told me the exhibit hall was interesting and educational—but he also said SCTE “really isn’t geared for the small guy” because few vendors are focused beyond the major MSOs. That’s understandable. What was that Willie Sutton line? But it’s also a good reason why the NCTC is such an important component when it comes to efforts to make some of the newest wares as affordable as possible to indie ops. The small op exec, who runs the company his grandfather started in the 1930s, said his customers still want all the fancy new stuff so he recently bought a bunch of boxes from TiVo and integrated them into the mix. Customers are satisfied, he said, but it will take 26 months to pay off the cost of the boxes. Nothing’s easy for the small guys. Never has been. Never will be.
5. Women Need Apply – Once again, SCTE was a sea of dudes in company shirts. The preponderance of facial hair among the engineering sect also accentuated the lack of female attendees. But one encouraging sign: WICT’s Tech It Out event handily beat last year’s registration number. So while the number of women attending SCTE might be relatively flat, more of the ones who come are connecting with their female peers and sharing ideas about how to attract more women to the techie mix. As Leslie Ellis pointed out during her WICT panel, fewer cable techies are women than 30 years ago. That simply won’t do. And several panels noted that the country must re-double its efforts to encourage young women through STEM programs and mentoring. SCTE’s leadership and board, not to mention individual companies, seem quite interested in helping women succeed in the biz—so it’s probably one of the best times for female engineers to enter cable. We just need to convince more of them to do it.