Broadband’s brain trust met in Miami to debate issues ranging from CE, enterprise opportunities, multimedia over IP and evolving architectures.
Budget-bloodsucking technologies that can’t document a solid return on investment up front just aren’t going to happen. And anyone who says that broadband engineers aren’t thinking cashflow and investment optimization couldn’t have been anywhere near this year’s SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies in January.
OSS and CableLabs update
Optimization reared up quickly at the preconference tutorials. How would you like to stay in front of your subs’ need for bandwidth, ensure enterprise-level service agreements, indemnify yourself against legal action, empower your field techs and improve relationships with both your marketing department and technology vendors? Gene White, vice president of engineering for Advance Newhouse in Tampa, said an operator who lays the right operational support system (OSS) foundation, and takes pains to maintain it, can see those sorts of benefits. But to pull it off, cable’s RF incumbents must yield ground: "If you deal with this, you’ve got to deal with computer people."
In the second tutorial, Glen Russell, director of PacketCable, covered CableLabs’ work in data, home networking, Internet protocol (IP) telephony, middleware, bandwidth management, video-on-demand (VOD) and service location. Against that ambitious agenda, Russell recalled that the original hope for the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) was to increase the number of modem suppliers to four or five. "To have 79 vendors out there (applying for certification) is truly exceeding industry expectations," Russell said.
In his kickoff keynote, analyst Paul Kagan of Kagan World Media described the previous week’s Consumer Electronics (CE) Show in Las Vegas. He said both the DBS and cable guys were "firing their guns," and appealing to the same authority. "Everywhere on the battlefield, people were praying to the connected home."
Continuing on that theme, Charter Executive Vice President/CTO Steve Silva urged the industry to reduce network dependencies, embrace qualified CE partners and promote open standards, plugging Sony’s Passage conditional access (CA) technology along the way.
As for home networking, Comcast Vice President of Digital TV Mark Hess cautioned: "Early adopter does not mean geek … We can add value in making it deadly simple for the consumer." He also counseled against underestimating the consumer’s ability "to devour bandwidth" or "to blame us for something that he bought."
Brian Holmes, senior associate of the IBI Group discussed installation and support issues relating to new services in the home. He pointed out that whereas a master headend and backup master headend will have 8,000 cables (of all types), this amount pales in comparison to the aggregate number of cables in the consumer residences that those facilities serve, namely about 3 million. Poor quality or improperly installed passive components can compromise the network, so don’t neglect the little stuff, he stressed.
Richard Barrett, director of product marketing for Microtune, assessed wireless connectivity options: Bluetooth ("a must, with OEM costs below $5"), WiFi ("overkill"), WiMedia ("attractive for multimedia"), UltraWideband (constrained by "short range" and "regulatory issues") and Zigbee (potential for "home control").
The bottom line from Stephen Palm, principal engineer with Broadcom, was that priority-based quality of service (QoS) works better than parameter-based QoS for in-home IP networks. It’s legacy-compatible, easier to manage and supports simultaneous services—and happens to be CableHome’s choice.
Fishing and cherry-picking
The enterprise market is booming for Charter. "Getting [business] customers is not the problem," Jim Rice, the MSO’s corporate vice president, said at the enterprise opportunity session. "Doing a lot of market studies and thinking about this is probably not a good exercise. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel," he added.
But don’t go too fast and burn your reputation with enterprises, Rice warned. "They are starved for high bandwidth service and options to the telcos," he said. "We’ve got people chasing us down the street, but you don’t want to provide bad service fast."
Regulatory issues have slowed Time Warner Cable’s push into the enterprise market, but now is the time to refocus Vice President of Plant Engineering Paul Gemme said. "Our offering will probably include VoIP," he added.
Premium enterprise services will require sophisticated QoS, Stephen Thomas, chief architect at Wave7 Optics, stressed. Highly asymmetric applications can cause problems, and priority traffic must be identified. "QoS really means that some applications get better quality than others," Thomas concluded.
The QoS and high-bandwidth capabilities of DOCSIS 1.1 and 2.0 will set the stage for robust services offerings. "Cable can now view the commercial services market not as a niche player but as a full-service competitor," Sean Walker, manager of field support at Terayon, said.
Despite QoS challenges, medium-sized businesses generate more addressable cashflow and have the most attractive last-mile topologies, Michael Pritz, president/CEO of Jedai Broadband, noted. "It’s ripe for cherry picking. New optical Ethernet-based technologies are the most efficient and cost-effective method to offer voice and data services to small- and medium-enterprises."
The IP future
At the IP session, Tim O’Keefe, Comcast vice president for IP technologies set the stage when he said, "There’s a little bit of a threat, and an opportunity in the ability to put video on IP." Narrowing the scope, he posed the question: "What exactly is the service that customers are willing to pay for?"
Among the boosters of IP video was Microsoft TV General Manager Alan Yates, who argued that bandwidth-efficient codecs and low-cost modems will make this technology economically irresistible.
MPEG-4 is another enabling technology recommended by Ganesh Rajan, director of advanced technologies for iVAST. He also considered the latest competitive technology, full service video DSL (FS-VDSL). While the platform is for voice, video and data, it’s video-centric, and audio/video compression algorithms should enable video transport. This is where MPEG-4 can be exploited, Rajan said.
What does DOCSIS 1.1 say on the matter? Toshiba Principal Engineer Carlos Oliveira covered the opportunities presented by 1.1 including enhanced QoS, packet fragmentation (allows prioritization), standards-based multicast delivery, enhanced security and pre-equalization in the upstream. Applications could include IPTV, PacketCable-based VoIP and tiered data. Additionally, DOCSIS 1.1 supports payload encryption, encrypted multicast and device authentication.
While favoring the type of service (ToS) scheme, Ben Legault, director of ADC’s technology consulting group, noted that this approach to QoS isn’t without tradeoffs. "Without good network engineering…lowest priority services might get completely starved," he said. "Few MSOs have implemented QoS, but all have plans to so within the next 12 to 18 months."
Legault said that ToS is the simplest scheme to implement. Multiprotocol label switching-traffic engineering (MPLS-TE) can prevent congestion via bandwidth reservation, but there are many guesses involved, and it’s expensive.
Ryan Leatherbury, director of systems architecture for Advent Networks injected a note of realism in portraying video over IP as a "tale of two network operations." Whereas greenfield builds can go directly to the IP headend, HFC networks will undergo more of a "phased migration."
The latter may entail "one step back to go two steps forward," commented Tom Staniec, vice president of network engineering for Time Warner Cable, technology and data operations. But this no-pain-no-gain philosophy has its adherents. "Advent is not the only organization thinking that way," Staniec said.
A video over IP reality check came from Doug Jones, chief architect at YAS Broadband Ventures, noting that it’s really already happening. "Today someone is using your high-speed data network to download video in some form," he said. Regarding embedded (e)DOCSIS, Jones explained that it is about the cable modem to host interface. Because silicon integration is driving cable modem costs down, that in turn will drive deployment of modems into host devices. Operationally, other issues arise when PacketCable and DOCSIS converge, and the goal should be transparency, Jones concluded.
Joel McKelvey, manager, video technology marketing at Cisco Systems took on the issue of "uncapping" modems. The ongoing challenge will be to keep abreast of security concerns as they continue to evolve. McKelvey went on to criticize the permissive environment that allows thieves to steal bandwidth. "We need to hunt them down, and shut them down quickly," he said.
HD: It’s here, it’s hungry
"Like VOD, high-definition TV (HDTV) has been a sleeper technology," Greg Thomson, CTO at nCube said in the advanced video session. "It was over-hyped early on, had to wait for technology to mature and costs to fall, and suffered reports of a premature death."
HD is not only wide-awake, it’s getting ready to spring to an even higher level—HDVOD, he explained: "HDVOD technology utilizes HD set-tops and VOD systems already being deployed today. Once we move toward a dynamically allocated and switched all-digital service, there will be plenty of bandwidth for HDVOD."
Typically, HD services eat up between 15 and 19.39 Mbps, while standard definition can get by on a "paltry" 2 to 5 Mbps. And of the options available to engineers today, "the combination of rate shaping and higher orders of modulation is the best method for delivering HD services as bandwidth-efficiently as possible, while maintaining the picture quality expected," recommended Mark Jeffrey, senior product line manager for Terayon.
As HD content availability continues to explode, cable needs to stay at the forefront of the technology to avoid an end-around from the likes of DBS. "We’re in the position to deliver, and beat the competition," Steve Calzone, ITV systems engineer at Cox, said. "But we need to do that in a smart way."
Calzone, and his fellow ITV systems engineer at Cox, Nishith Sinha, explained that the MSO is planning on deploying an implementation of the intelligent asset management system (IAMS) hybrid architecture. The op is still deciding whether it will be fully predictive vs. on-demand, or on-demand vs. on-demand partial predictive.
BigBand Chief Architect S.V. Vasudeven reported that field trials in progress will reveal statistics supporting the cost-effective deployment of switched broadcast. "The bandwidth is there, and the switching technology is here," Vasudeven noted. "A shift from a content-centered delivery will fuel the next wave of programming expansion."
If you’d like to purchase a copy of the ET proceedings manual, visit www.scte.org/acb/stores/2/product1.asp?SID=2&Product_ID=251, or call (800) 542-5040.