CableLabs is a fixture in cable. But no institution in an industry this dynamic stands still. And over the past year, the pace-setting R&D consortium has overseen and implemented many changes. Not least of these were its physical relocation to a single site, the streamlining of its testing procedures and a 20 percent reduction in testing fees. But there were also technical developments, personnel changes and organizational shifts. Perhaps most noteworthy was the transition within the broadband access department, which oversees the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) and CableHome projects. In part the natural end of a consulting arrangement, this shift also signaled the close of the initial execution phase of DOCSIS and the opening of another chapter in its ongoing development. DOCSIS shifts The reorganization of broadband access began in March 2003, when CableLabs announced its nine-month phase-out of YAS Broadband Ventures, the invaluable consultancy that had, for more than six years, managed CableLabs’ DOCSIS project. Quickly assuming leadership of the department was Ralph Brown, who up until then had held the title of vice president and chief software architect. This move was not entirely unexpected; the former [email protected] and Time Warner Cable engineer Brown, YAS founder and CEO Rouzbeh Yassini, and CableLabs COO Chris Lammers had been named to lead a transition team. A more open question: Who else would join the group? In August 2003, CableLabs made several personnel announcements impacting broadband access. It promoted Greg White to the position of lead architect and hired two new executives: Craig Chamberlain, as director of certification, and Michelle Kuska, as director of architecture and specifications. Kuska’s arrival seems especially noteworthy. Responsible for the overall specification development, release and management process for DOCSIS and CableHome specifications, she joined CableLabs as a well-respected industry veteran. Most recently with broadband satellite provider WildBlue Communications, Kuska earlier had helped lead the DOCSIS interoperability project from her position within TCI. Chamberlain has six years of previous work at CableLabs under his belt. White, who assumed responsibility for overall technical design and evolution of network architecture, had served most recently as project director, DOCSIS specifications. The upshot is that Brown, now vice president, broadband access, acquired a seasoned and talented team prepared to push DOCSIS into its next-generation (or 3.0) incarnation. More immediately, the in-house team has advanced the second iteration of CableHome, the home networking specification that stands on the DOCSIS platform. CableHome intensifies Launched in 2000 within CableLabs’ strategic assessment department, the CableHome project issued its initial specification in 2002. Since spring of 2003, coordination between vendors and operators over the development of CableHome 1.1 has intensified, as home networking trials and field deployments of the 1.0 product have gained momentum. "There was an enormous amount of effort over the past year to really make sure that on CableHome 1.1, we have all of the requirements that our members are learning through their trials," Brown says. "I hope that we have some success in this wave or next wave." CableLabs also will release in spring 2004 a "cable office" annex to the CableHome specification, requested by members to better serve the small-to-medium business market. Its emergence reflects the efficiency of the broadband access team and the keen interest that CableLabs’ members have in this market. "That’s one we did in absolutely record time," Brown says. "We went from business requirements to a spec in a matter of just a couple of months." ANS and PacketCable Even more than CableHome, the PacketCable project illustrates the concept of DOCSIS as a platform. CableLabs’ March 2004 reorganization of this department underscored that point. PacketCable itself remains an ongoing project, but the department now goes by a new name: advanced network systems (ANS). At one level, the new name simply puts this department on par with the other departments (broadband access and advanced platforms and services), which already encompass multiple projects. But the renaming further signals the maturity of PacketCable and the need to make room for related developments. The specification itself long has been a done deal, having achieved international status as the IP Cablecom standard four years ago. A year and a half ago, the first PacketCable-certified or PacketCable-qualified devices appeared, and now the market for voice over IP (VoIP), which PacketCable enables, is finally emerging. Voice will be the first but not the only application of PacketCable. In 2002, CableLabs launched the PacketCable Multimedia initiative and in June 2003 issued the ensuing specification and technical report. Praising this "blueprint" in a statement, Comcast Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning Mark Coblitz spelled out its significance: "We are now in a position to support a wide variety of IP-based services beyond voice communication." Personnel shifts that accompanied the March 2004 reorganization reflect these developments. First, in a move that parallels PacketCable’s maturity, Ed Miller, who had returned to CableLabs last September as chief network architect, assumed the role of director of the department. Before leaving in 2001, he had spent three years at CableLabs, his last role actually having been director of PacketCable. Meanwhile, Glenn Russell has been turned loose on what’s up-and-coming. "Glenn has decided to return to the role of individual contributor-one in which he excelled in the past-initially focused on PacketCable Multimedia," CableLabs President and CEO Dr. Richard R. Green said in a statement. The former director of PacketCable now holds the title of director, multimedia applications. DOCSIS in the set-top Another project that is gaining momentum involves the DOCSIS Set-top Gateway (DSG). A market is emerging, and the two-year-old specification is being refined. "We’re starting to see manufacturers come and say: ‘We’ve got product. We want to get it tested,’" says Brown, who chaired the committee in OpenCable that authored DSG. "And (we’ve got) ECRs (engineering change requests) that say, ‘Gee, we learned that this worked or this doesn’t work; we need to change the spec.’" What’s driving DSG is an increased interest from CableLabs members for moving from proprietary out-of-band set-top communication channels to an open one. As a DOCSIS-based technology, DSG entails functionality at the cable modem termination system (CMTS) and requirements at the end device, in this case within the advanced host of the OpenCable application platform (OCAP) specification. (For more on DSG, see related story, page 12.) As for timing, it could be mid-May before the baseline, advanced mode DSG specification is ready for the CMTS, according to John Chapman, Cisco Systems distinguished engineer and a key contributor to the specification. But that still leaves the management information base (MIB), test suite and, moreover, the set-top specification, which he guesses could take another four to six months. On the other hand, Don Dulchinos, CableLabs vice president for advanced platform and services, the department that includes the OCAP project, suspects that DSG in the advanced host can be nailed down more quickly. The bottom line is that DOCSIS-enabled set-tops are on the horizon. "Things are being lined up for bringing products through for qualification and certification," Brown says, "And we should anticipate that happening through the remainder of this year, on into next." OCAP gets "substantial" Apart from DSG (which involves both DOCSIS and OpenCable), several other projects fall more directly within the department that Dulchinos manages. There is OCAP itself, video-on-demand (VOD) metadata and digital program insertion (DPI). As for implementation of OCAP, were those who saw the relevant CableNET exhibits at last December’s Western Show-or previews of CableNET’s National Show debut-correct to discern real progress? "Absolutely," Dulchinos says. "It’s much more substantial." Dulchinos explains that momentum in terms of cable operators getting serious about plug-and-play, companies such as Vidiom that enable migration of OCAP onto legacy boxes, and the set-top and TV set manufacturers themselves. With OpenCable’s testing wave 18 taking place this spring, Dulchinos is looking at the July/August timeframe for a full-fledged, early-phase interoperability test involving a host of technology and participants, including, "OCAP, MSO implementation stuff, programmers, infrastructure people, DSG, (and) carousel vendors who stream interactive apps." Sounds like a good time to test a two-way, plug-and-play specification, as well. "Two-way?" Dulchinos asks. "We’d like to be done with that negotiation." MetaData and DPI As VOD continues to mature, Dulchinos says his department-Dr. Yasser Syed, in particular-has undertaken an expansion of the VOD metadata specification. The idea is to make it more granular, hence better suited to handle a wider range of business and programming models. The department continues to host DPI interoperability events. By way of working out the relevant specifications, these events traditionally focused on insertion at the headend. But CableLabs is preparing to expand this work in two new directions. First, there is the logical, if delicate, next step of making insertions at the consumer premise, Dulchinos says. At the other end is the idea of simplifying life for the advertising buyer. The endgame would be an advertiser making a single buy for all of cable. Getting to that point may first be a social challenge. "You need to get the people together to figure out what the technical problems are," Green says. Go2 gets going Last but not least is Go2Broadband. Green calls this retail initiative, which provides a common industry interface to a service locator database, CableLabs’ "second most successful program." "It’s like DOCSIS," Green says. "It’s a platform on which you can build all kinds of other things." Of course, it’s unlike DOCSIS in not being an access network technology, but its stock is clearly rising, all the same. As result of the March reorganization, Go2 graduated from CableLabs’ strategic assessment department and now stands as an independent project, with Vice President Jennifer Cistola, who came to CableLabs last September from Scientific-Atlanta, now reporting to COO Lammers. Go2 is another attempt to overcome the industry’s centrifugal tendencies, with an unprecedented single phone number and Web site funneling information on service availability to the consumer. Confusion over an operator’s latest prices may persist, as sister publication CableFax Daily has reported. But these variances "would be the exception rather than the rule, more than likely resulting from local promotions," a spokesperson from Charter Communications said. "The industry really sees value for Go2Broadband as a platform for other initiatives," Brown says, echoing Green’s point, "including one that has to do with allowing cable operators the chance for reacquiring cable subs when they move." Security, conferences, standards Three other efforts of CableLabs worth mentioning are security, its semiannual member conferences and standards. Developments in encryption and related topics may fail to generate press releases, but don’t mistake silence for neglect. "Security just becomes more important over time," says Dulchinos, adding that Chief Security Architect Oscar Murcia and his team are "plenty busy." As "members-only" events, CableLabs’ summer and winter conferences also tend to fall off the radar screen. But their rationale is clear. "Look at our charter; we’re supposed to communicate technical information to our members," explains Green. Its latest event in Philadelphia drew close to 700 attendees, evidence of significant member support. A final activity is CableLabs’ relationship with standards-making bodies. Apart from the SCTE, Brown notes that CableLabs is engaged with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). CableLabs recently joined the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) Forum and the digital home networking group, he adds. This standards portfolio belongs to Vice President of Standards Dr. Bill Utlaut. He pays special attention to the international front, says Dulchinos. "We really need one who spends time abroad, who gets to know the people in Europe and Japan." Growing pains Helping to ensure that CableLabs stays engaged with the future is Dr. David Reed, executive vice president, chief strategy officer. His promotion in March from chief technical officer and senior vice president, strategic planning, was aimed at enabling him to spend more time developing CableLabs’ "forward strategy." So what are the prospects? As for DOCSIS, Cisco’s Chapman is bullish on innovation, but worries about the departure of YAS. "Rouzbeh’s real claim to fame was execution," Chapman says. "He made things happen." "That’s the challenge at CableLabs," he adds. "To take the guidance and turn it into something that matters." The cable industry is maturing, a phase that CableLabs well reflects. "The question is how well they deal with growth," Chapman says. "The book is still being written." Jonathan Tombes is executive editor of Communications Technology. Email him at [email protected].