Ready or not, the digital home is just around the corner. And it is bringing a host of new opportunities for service providers to engage their customers and explore new avenues for revenue growth.
If it isn’t already, the digital home will soon be bursting at the seams with a new breed of digital devices and new sources of rich media content. These devices will be accessing the Internet, playing and downloading media content, placing digital telephone calls with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, playing interactive video games and many other media-centric applications. For some consumers, the sources of their content will look much like they do today. They will turn to the service providers they have trusted for years to propose entertainment and information options. However, many people – in particular the young – will seek out and discover content directly from amateur or collaborative Wiki-style producers who use the Internet for distribution. They will also receive content direct from professional content creators and from new sources that have yet to appear on the scene.
Cable operators are well-positioned to take the lead in defining this trend toward the digital home. Cable operators have the technology that’s needed to drive this trend; how it is applied will determine how well they capitalize on the digital home. No place like the digital home Over the last 25 years, digital electronic technology has transformed one segment of society after another. It started with PCs, continued with the advent of wireless communication and the Internet, and recently has taken hold with personal (think "portable") consumer electronic and media playing devices. Along the way and behind the scenes, infrastructure networks, such as the cable and telecommunications networks, were also transforming themselves with digital technology. Now the focus has shifted to what’s happening inside the new digital home.
At the heart of many of the new digital devices that are popping up in the digital home is digital signal processor (DSP) technology. DSPs are a transformative technology that can take the real analog world and re-create it as a manipulated or enhanced digital counterpart. Over the last 10 or more years, the real-time processing capabilities of DSPs, particularly as applied to cable modems, have transformed the analog nature of the cable TV infrastructure into a modern, high-speed digital network ready to service the digital home.
Among the first digital home applications deployed on the new cable network was Internet access, which was quickly followed by voice communications. Although they represented a departure for cable operators from their traditional past steeped in video services, VoIP and Internet access could be readily and rapidly implemented on the newly re-built or upgraded digital cable infrastructure.
Of course, the quality of voice communications on VoIP technology will always be a priority for cable operators, just as it has been for traditional telecommunications service providers. The DSP-based VoIP equipment in the infrastructure and in homes is proving every day that cable networks can deliver voice quality equivalent to the standard definition (SD) narrowband voice long provided by analog telephone networks. In the future digital home, though, high definition (HD) media will hold sway, and the DSP-based equipment in the cable network is up to this task.
As with HD video, HD audio for voice, music and other applications delivers a broader spectrum of sound than the typical SD telephone channel. (See Figure 1.) Made possible by DSP technology and new wideband codecs, HD audio and voice service can bring a new richness to the typical telephone conversation as well as form the basis for a variety of new applications like voice-activated, real-language control of the electronic devices in the digital home. With HD voice and DSP technology, more powerful voice recognition and processing algorithms are possible. Prior to the advent of HD voice, interacting with a digital device meant typing on a keyboard, making selections on a touch screen or training a very limited SD voice recognition engine that could process only one voice and very few words of vocabulary. With HD voice, voice recognition engines will be able to recognize and respond to any of several authorized voices, understand the subtle nuances of natural language and initiate intricate responses. New applications based on today’s HD voice codecs are also on the horizon. For example, real-time language translation services could revolutionize international teleconferencing. Instead of having to arrange for a human translator, callers from every corner of the globe could participate in a teleconference based on a real-time translation engine using HD voice for its inputs. Broadband networks like the cable networks could deliver voice to the translation engines with minimal delay no matter whether they were located in a local gateway device or in the network itself. Devices, devices everywhere … As the digital home evolves, digital devices in all shapes and sizes, and with varying degrees of capabilities, will proliferate throughout living rooms, bedrooms, dens, kitchens, game rooms, basements and everywhere else in the home. Cell phones are already interfacing with home entertainment systems and computers. Portable MP3 players are downloading video content from sites on the Internet. Video games attract players from around the world. Multi-megapixel digital cameras and HD video cameras are allowing users to create visually stunning personal content.
In parallel with the proliferation of new devices is the ongoing proliferation of sources of rich media content. Online music has been readily available for some time now. Leading movie studios as well as independents are experimenting with "Day and Date" releases of first-run movies. These new sources are providing consumers more choices for content than ever before. Video on demand (VOD), time shifting with digital video recorders (DVRs) and place shifting with "Sling" boxes offer consumers many more choices regarding where and when they enjoy their content.
Part of the challenge, and the opportunity, for cable operators in the digital home will be how to deliver all of that content, or as much as possible, to all of those devices. Fortunately, on one level this is just a technical difficulty, and technical solutions are not beyond the scope of current technology. In fact, the basis for these solutions is already in place with technologies like DSPs, DOCSIS 3.0 and others. The more far-reaching issues revolve around aligning consumers’ desire for any content at any time and in any place with the appropriate, nonintrusive rights management techniques that protect the interests and obligations of the cable operator and content rights owners.
Contemporary consumers want access to the practically limitless sources of content that are available today. Denying or discouraging access to these disparate content sources has the potential to introduce a thread of dissatisfaction into the relationship between the cable operator and the subscriber. Allowed to persist, this dissatisfaction will cause the subscriber to look elsewhere for access to the content he wants. Eventually, he may look at other network operators who are more accommodating. Instead of hewing to the old attitudes toward content ownership, cable operators will have to trade some control they now have over content in exchange for a loyal and trusting base of users.
Carrying this new attitude toward its logical conclusion, cable operators will develop even greater subscriber loyalty by packaging content suited to the tastes and preferences of each user. On the Internet, this trend toward personalization is nothing new. For cable operators, this would mean doing what they are already doing – namely gathering, aggregating and bundling content into groups of service offerings – but doing it better and in a more fine-grained and personalized fashion. For some cable operators this may involve a mindset shift because some of the new content offered to subscribers would not be under the strict control of the cable operator.
For example, one approach for meeting subscribers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for content would be a program guide that carried out personalized content discovery for each subscriber. Discovery is not "search." Instead of making the subscriber scroll through chronological programming listings, a content discovery tool could be provided a profile of the interests of everyone in the household. The discovery tool could then notify each user when new content meeting his or her interests is available. In some cases, the content could be automatically downloaded and stored on a server in the residence, such as a residential gateway device or a set-top box. Or it could be stored in a server on the network so it could be readily downloaded and accessed when the subscriber wants it. At a minimum, content discovery for areas of personal interest should be as easy as finding scheduled showings of traditional broadcast programming. Mind-altering technologies To best serve the digital home, cable operators will certainly turn to advanced technologies such as DOCSIS 3.0, more powerful DSPs in switched digital video applications, and new configurations of set-tops and residential gateways. In many instances, maximizing the benefits of these technologies will also require altering longstanding attitudes.
For example, if a cable operator were to envision DOCSIS 3.0 as simply a network upgrade technology with higher data speeds, it would be selling the technology short and missing out on its strategic importance. On the face of it, the channel bonding techniques in DOCSIS 3.0 do enable high-speed data channels, but they also give operators the ability to quickly and incrementally redeploy network capacity based on strategic business decisions, not simply in response to technical requirements.
In a certain area of a city, for instance, demand for Internet access might suddenly outstrip demand for video programming. With DOCSIS 3.0, multiple 6 MHz video channels can be bonded to provision high-speed data channels. The operator can redirect its resources, namely network capacity, to meet the area’s increased demand for IP services such as Internet access. Should the pendulum swing back in the opposite direction, network capacity can be redeployed again as video channels.
To take full advantage of DOCSIS 3.0, cable operators should look beyond the raw performance numbers of the technology and incorporate its flexibility and adaptability features as an integral part of their network planning and business decision-making processes.
The future roles and composition of set-tops and residential gateways are also being altered by advancing technologies. For example, the set-top sitting on the TV set in most homes these days is a relatively expensive and complex device. However, its primary role remains simply to decode/decrypt video signals and send them to the consumer’s display device. The simple addition of powerful DSPs and DOCSIS 3.0 to the set-top makes it possible to support both IP-sourced content and the content transcoding process, ensuring the highest quality video image on any display.
Adding home networking technology to the set-top box expands its role in the digital home from a single display server to a whole-home multi-device server. Video content, once limited to the TV set with the set-top sitting next to it, can now be viewed easily anywhere in the home on any network-connected digital device.
To take this evolution to its logical conclusion, one can envision a home topology where a DOCSIS 3.0 modem functions as the transport gateway for the home. All content – from quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) video to anything originating on the Internet – could be routed to the appropriate digital device in the home.
The historic notion of the set-top will likely evolve into several important logical pieces. Storage, which has been integrated into the set-top, could reside anywhere on the home network. As mentioned previously, video decoding could reside with the display device, ensuring the highest possible image quality and performing security functions such as conditional access (CA) and digital rights management (DRM). It is up to the cable operator to ensure that consumers enjoy a high-quality experience which the operator has helped its customers discover.
For portability and wireless applications inside and outside the digital home, the residential gateway would be configured with the resources to interface to wireless local area networking (WLAN) facilities such as a Wi-Fi network inside the digital home as well as the wireless cellular phone network outside the home. In this type of scenario, for example, music-loving teenagers would never be disconnected from the music content stored in the digital home. The MP3 files stored in the home’s residential gateway could be accessed from anywhere and at any time by the teenager’s wireless handset/MP3 player, and the music could be downloaded to the handset via the wireless cellular network.
The right sort of DSP-based resources in the residential gateway would enable a new class of applications known as fixed/mobile convergence (FMC). For instance, a wireless handset with VoIP capabilities could function as the user’s business phone outside the digital home, placing and receiving calls over the wireless cellular network. Then, at the end of the workday when the user returns to the digital home, the handset’s Wi-Fi capabilities could automatically associate the handset with the digital home’s WLAN, and it could function as an extension to the VoIP phone service provided by the cable operator and continue to receive business calls directed to the user’s business phone number. And the walls came tumbling down Technologically speaking, the digital home is bringing about a massive remodeling effort. The walls are coming down. Many of those familiar delineations that users have been comfortable with for years are vanishing. The lines are blurring between the home’s TV set and the portable video player; between video programming provided by cable operators and video content coming from the Internet. More and more content owners and cable operators are thinking about a multiple screen experience rather than just a TV experience. They know that content will be viewed on everything from a 110-inch home theater to a 3-inch mobile phone or personal video player. The ongoing changes brought about by the digital home are far-reaching indeed, but not insurmountable for savvy cable operators willing to adopt new attitudes and new approaches to serving their users. The good news is that DSP-based technology is already empowering the advanced applications and services that cable operators will be able to capitalize on in the digital home. Peter Percosan is director of broadband strategy, and Tom Flanagan is director of technical strategy, both for Texas Instruments. Reach them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.