The cable industry is better positioned to deliver a wide array of on-demand and interactive services than competing industries, but it will take a robust set of standards and broad interoperability across numerous systems to usher in the future quickly and cost-effectively. That was the consensus among a panel of experts presented by the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers at the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association confab in Newport, R.I., this summer. David Fellows, CTO of Comcast, pointed out that only the cable industry is capable of rolling out both broadcast-style and targeted switched services. "We offer the best of both worlds," he said. "We have the ability to evolve to meet changing customer demands." All new services coming to fruition will rely on a switched Internet protocol (IP) infrastructure and common storage systems, Fellows said, so it is vital that the industry standardize a platform to support these devices, with Time Warner’s Interactive Services Architecture (ISA) and Comcast’s Next Generation On Demand (NGOD) the two leading candidates. Network intelligence But how should these standards be applied to today’s legacy networks? Steve Davi, senior vice president of engineering at SeaChange, said the key is the development of more intelligent networks to handle more applications and more content. Future applications will need to support different codecs, multiple distribution mechanisms and various end devices, such as PCs and cell phones, while burgeoning content requirements, in the form of video on demand (VOD) and subscriber-generated programming, will need both low-cost and easily streamed storage media. And overseeing all of this will be a sophisticated policy management system aimed at dynamically switching bandwidth to suit network requirements. "Standards are critical for interoperability," Davi said. "We need software to integrate easily and lower operational costs." Joe Matarese, systems integrator of NextGen Streaming Video at C-Cor, said that equipment costs, at least, were coming down even while integration and interoperability issues were becoming more complex. With video over Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) as the next step, he urged the development of a new architecture that could provide "diversification of content" so that it could be used across a range of applications and services. Such a system would require advanced policy and management controls, as well as more robust "video service assurance." "We need better mechanisms for capacity planning and to improve the quality of the subscriber experience," he said. Silos and set-tops But if IP video is the wave of the future, operators will need to tear down today’s service silos within their plants, said Susan Kim Riley, chief technology officer of Camiant, a developer of PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM) solutions. By decoupling return and edge devices from session management systems, it becomes possible to "develop applications for any server to any subscriber." "By leveraging a common set of applications to multiple media resources, you’ll see much quicker development of these cutting-edge applications," she said. But the most crucial piece of the puzzle is the set-top, argued Nishith Sinha, systems engineer at Cox Communications. "Embedded set-tops with different operating systems makes deployment of services difficult," he said. He advocated a more open architecture based on NGOD or even the OpenStream system currently being pushed by the music download industry. Ultimately, he added, a migration from the streaming model of content delivery to a downloadable system may be inevitable. Top-five transition issues As for ongoing transitions of on-demand infrastructure, Broadbus Senior VP Engineering Conrad Clemson had a list of "top-five things you have to work through," namely: the on-demand client, the sharing of quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) modulators, the intelligent pump selection, the intelligent asset management, and the process and architecture to do the migration and switch. Clemson described the work of Broadbus in this arena in terms of both "the big switch" and "a rolling oil change." In the first case, entire system is turned over in a few hours; in the latter, where continuity is more important, the transition takes place service group by service group, thereby maintaining the integrity of system-level service. –Art Cole and Jonathan Tombes How to Personalize the User, Application and Device As cable content becomes increasingly fluid, criss-crossing boundaries between wireless and wireline and devices and services, the service provider needs identify both the user and the content that’s being used. NeuStar’s Identity Services Exchange (ISX) platform was built to provide a "cross-silo view as well as a view of cross-service providers" of users and content, said Steve Granek, VP of advanced services. Using session initiation protocol (SIP), NeuStar’s ISX associates unique characteristics with individual users, tags them within the network infrastructure, and lets the service provider create and manage policies across a group of services that may or may not be interrelated. "You may be delivering a service that uses VoIP (voice over Internet protocol), which is one set of services, but also be using presence, which ties into instant messaging," said Granek. "Suddenly, you have silos of services that you need to be able to understand and how policies apply against them. Unlike services that are typically aimed at a physical address, like a cable modem, these are highly personalized services with people having different policy and preferences." Cable, Granek said, is no longer stationary; it’s a movable feast of content that can be picked up and carried along or be accessed as part of a cellular or fixed broadband wireless service. NeuStar’s ISX lays an identity on the content user and the application. "Identity is not just about people; things have identity, too," Granek said. Cable operators have been talking about individualizing services to end users. When they do, identifying and tracking those users will be key. User personalization will pick up as cable feels heat from both friends and foes. "They’re seeing competition from the LECs (local exchange carriers) coming in with bundled services, and they need to figure out how they can use convergence to their advantage to protect and increase their subscriber base," said John Ticer, NeuStar’s marketing VP. "The second huge thing is mobility. As you go outside the fixed cable plant into fixed wireless and potentially out even further into traditional wireless CDMA (code division multiple access) and GSM (global system for mobile communication), there are (cable and wireless) partnerships being contemplated that are going to require a whole new kind of accounting software or services." Cable operators must be able to identify and place the subscriber and determine what rights and privileges he has to receive content-and be sure that the sub can pay. "We’re already seeing a whole new level of demand for this account control on the mobile wireless side," Ticer added. –Jim Barthold (adapted from CT’s Voice Report)

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